As this weekend’s early box-office receipts start to pour in, it’s quickly becoming clear that The Hunger Games is about to be a huge hit. And I have no reason to doubt that hardcore fans of Suzanne Collins’ bestsellers will get their minds blown by all the teen-on-teen mayhem and melodrama. Still, I can’t help thinking how much more pumped I would be to see the film if it was rated R instead of PG-13. I mean, how do you even make a PG-13 movie that stays true to the novel’s bloody bodycount plot?! I guess I’ll just have to buy a ticket and find out….
In the meantime, allow me to recommend another film with a strikingly similar story that was made with such giddy, gory gusto that there’s no way in hell it would ever earn a PG-13 — the 2000 Japanese cult classic Battle Royale. Just released on DVD and Blu-ray earlier this month, Kinji Fukasaku’s wonderfully demented action adventure has been one of the best kept secrets of horror geeks for the past decade. During that time, bootleg copies have been swapped samizdat-style as the film’s popularity has slowly swelled. Now, with its long-overdue release on disc and the arrival in theaters of The Hunger Games, it feels like the time is right for Battle Royale to graduate from an underground sensation into a mainstream must-see.
So what’s it all about? Well, the premise will sound eerily familiar to Katniss fans: in the near future, as unemployment and teen rebellion are getting out of control, the Japanese government passes a law where groups of teens are chosen by lottery and shipped off to a remote island, handed backpacks with random weapons, and pitted against one another until there’s one survivor.
Where The Hunger Games plays this set-up with a straight face, though, Battle Royale turns it into a gonzo satire. For example, while some of the exiled teens are given pistols, machine guns, and crossbows, others are given the equivalent of a lump of Christmas stocking coal: like the lid from a cooking pot. Also, the teens — all dressed in their school uniforms — react to their homicidal new environment in some pretty odd ways. Some clearly dig the idea of killing their classmates, while others would rather opt out and take their own lives. Some even use it as an insane opportunity to declare their puppy-love crushes on the people their supposed to be plotting to murder. (Spoiler alert: it’s a bad idea.) The result is a weird emotional roller coaster of high tension and high comedy.
If it sounds like I’m tip-toeing around the question of whether or not Collins cribbed the idea for The Hunger Games from Fukasaku’s film — or the 1999 Koushun Takami novel it was based on — I’m not. Sure, there’s overlap. But there are plenty of differences, too. Plus, there have been plenty of movies that touch on similar themes over the years, like 1987’s Arnold Schwarzenegger actioner The Running Man, 1975’s Roger Corman sci-fi satire Death Race 2oo0, and Daniel Minahan’s inventive 2001 indie, Series 7: The Contenders. There’s room for all of these films for anyone who has a sweet tooth for post-apocalyptic bodycount flicks and human-on-human smackdowns. All I’m saying is if you find yourself walking out of the movie theater this weekend thinking that it was a bit too tame and Hollywood — or even if you don’t — do yourself a favor and check out Battle Royale.