Friday, January 6, 2012

Déjà vu: When a book you're reading is a book you've read before

A lot of people are excited for the Hunger Games movie to come out. I confess, I do have an interest; I think they picked a good Katniss, and I think that the action and story flow will translate well to the screen.


A few years back, 1999, a book came out in Japan and was subsequently translated to English. It was called Battle Royale, and was written by Koushun Takami. Battle Royale takes place in a fictional totalitarian state. Every year, a class of high school students is chosen to be taken to a location for "The Program", given weapons, and kill each other. There is one winner. If the students decline to kill one another, there is a time limit for nobody dying, and then they're all killed remotely and there is no winner. Pretty similar, n'est-ce pas?

A few years before that, in 1979, a man named Richard Bachman (who, shhh, is really Stephen King, shhh), wrote a novel called The Long Walk. In that novel, in a totalitarian United States, there is a yearly Long Walk in which teenage boys must go to the starting area and, well, walk. If they go too slow, interfere with one another, stop entirely, etc. they are shot. Not entirely the same thing, but a kernel principle, I do think.

One thing a totalitarian government needs is, of course, some means of control over its population, and some sort of threat on that population's spirit. Killing a population's young people is taking away its future, its vision, and it's hope. Am I saying The Hunger Games is cribbed directly from these other novels? Not necessarily. Not any more than I think City of Ember was meant to be derivative of Logan's Run, or any other of the 40's, 50's, and after sci-fi stories of a society that had to go underground because the surface of the earth was tainted by pollution, or nuclear radiation, or war, and then was never allowed to go back up.

Really, I never knew how much of a theme that was in Golden Age of Sci-Fi era until I got a collection of old radio plays on tape. These plays were things like the War of the Worlds broadcast, and the show Dimension X, things like that. They're absolutely fabulous to listen to. They speak of the Cold War paranoia and nuclear fear that a lot of people felt after World War II. Communism, or Russia, or They were going to come and take over and do bad things. Of course, not all of the stories are like that; some are of the regular pleasant mad scientist sort, or aliens appearing sort, and that's all right too.

Does this mean that all dystopias are alike? Or that all of them represent a Red Fear? Well, perhaps they don't mirror a fear of Communism any longer, but they do tap into other societal apprehensions. 1984 was written a good long time ago, and still resonates today. People still talk about Big Brother, and reference Thought Crimes and Doublespeak, and things like that, with the technology available today, can be an eerie and uncomfortable thing to think about.

So, how to write a fresh dystopia, then? Lois Lowry certainly accomplished it, with The Giver. It seems a necessary theme is that society's memories must exist somewhere, somehow, and somebody must discover them and have the courage and curiosity to pursue a goal. Totalitarian government is a must, and regulation over things things that would normally seem like a clear personal choice, like exercise (re: one scene in 1984) and taking an apple home (re: The Giver).

Oh, and of course, one mustn't forget the thing societal veneer that everything is just fine, thanks!


  1. I know what you mean. I've read a bunch of reviews on Amazon comparing The Hunger Games to Battle Royale (although I haven't really heard of Battle Royale until then o.o). And I feel like all dystopias are similar in some way, but I suppose the central ideas are always different. The Giver is pretty much the top book when it comes to comparing dystopias ^-^

  2. Thanks for commenting!

    My boss had never heard of Battle Royale either, until after I mentioned that Hunger Games seemed rather derivative of it. She then read it, which surprised me, as my boss is definitely not one for violence, especially not the graphic violence of that novel.

    The Giver is a very good book for comparing dystopias. I think people might overlook it because when it comes down to it, it's also a very "gentle" book. There's no shooting, no torture, etc. I mean, there's implied threat (and what happens to the babies...) but that's it.

  3. I think a lot of the criticism of Hunger Games are fair and extremely deserved, but comparing Battle Royale and Hunger Games is a waste of time. For one, I really don't believe that the author is the type of person to even consider reading a book like Battle Royale (or watch the movie) and two, any commonalities the two may share are so slight and vague, you would only confuse them if you squint.

    Sometimes I think people pick things like saying that Hunger Games ripped off Battle Royale just to show off that they know things like Battle Royale exist, as if it's obscure in the first place (the movie stars one of Japan's biggest stars for God's sake....), and for some reason think things like that makes them somehow cool.

  4. While I don't exactly think that the Hunger Games is a direct Battle Royale rip-off, talking about them as being of the same genre and having similar elements is, in my opinion (clearly), pretty valid.

    And, for the record, I totally like to show off that I know obscure books exist and that I've read them. It's part of my literary cred. Most people I know haven't heard of the book or the movie (is Beat Takeshi the "biggest star" that you mean? I admittedly don't watch all that many live action Japanese movies.)

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  6. To clarify, I wasn't referring to you in that post, so sorry if I accidentally insulted you.

    1. It's all right, I didn't feel like you were calling me out or anything. Though in light of that writer who didn't take kindly to your criticism, maybe you were testing me? ;)