Stephen Fishbach (left) was a contestant on Survivor: Tocantins and finished in second place. He’s written about Survivor and his experience for People as well as hosted our Viewer chat for the current season of the show. You can join his live chat for this week’s episode on Wednesday night here. Below, he discusses how The Hunger Games and Survivor are close cousins.
Nobody is trying to kill you when you play Survivor. Producers aren’t launching exploding fireballs at your head. Poison-tipped tridents are strictly forbidden by the CBS legal department.
But apart from these minor differences, playing Survivor is so much like being a contestant on the Hunger Games, at times I find it hard to believe that author Suzanne Collins hasn’t been a Survivor contestant herself. You’re stranded in an extreme environment — blistering-hot days, bitterly cold nights. The torrential rainstorms seem to never end. You forage for food. You cobble together shelter from sticks and moxie.
To survive, you must rely on the people around you — a multicultural mix from across the country. Only one thing unites them: they are hell-bent on your destruction.
Collins has said she was influenced by reality television. Indeed, the The Hunger Games embraces many of Survivor’s basic structural elements. Just to name one — there’s clearly a little bit of Survivor host Jeff Probst in Caesar Flickerman, the timeless Hunger Games emcee whose “appearance has been virtually unchanged…same face…same hairstyle…same ceremonial suit, midnight blue.”
But the reason The Hunger Games inspires devotion in so many past Survivor contestants — and you would not believe how many ex-Survivors love this book — is that we identify with the protagonist Katniss’s experience beyond the superficial details. The Hunger Games evokes the complex strategic and emotional dynamics of a game where contestants must starve and scheme for victory.
A Survivor’s first decision is — what’s my strategy? You could come out strong, like the Careers in Hunger Games, and intimidate the field with your brash attitude and physical prowess. You could run for the trees and wait for your opponents to ice each other. Or you could panic, trip over your own two feet, and take a knife in the back on day 1.
If you survive that initial scramble, you need to build alliances. But how do you trust someone in a game where there can be only one winner? And what if your supposed ally is deceiving you?
“It’s such a joke!” Katniss thinks at one point. “Peeta and I going along pretending to be friends! … Because, in fact, at some point we’re going to have to knock it off and accept we’re bitter adversaries.”
Katniss is never sure of where she stands with Peeta. Does he really love her — or is it just a strategy? And what does it mean that he’s BFF with the Careers? Then there’s the more troubling problem: Their alliance of convenience is starting to develop into an actual relationship.
Watching Survivor at home, I always marveled that people could be so stupid as to make real friends. It seems like lunacy, from the comfort of your couch, in your air-conditioned living room, your arm buried shoulder-deep in a bag of Doritos.
But the extreme survival situation forges extreme bonds. These people you just met built your shelter with you; you hunted for food together; maybe you spooned for warmth one frigid night. You can never truly trust the people staring across the campfire at you — yet you find yourself trusting them anyway.
When I was on Survivor, I did exactly that. I made an alliance with an Alabama cattle rancher, which evolved into genuine friendship. I struggled to betray him, and kept hoping somebody else would take him out to save me the guilt of backstabbing him. In the end, he soundly beat me.
The single question Survivors get asked the most is — is it real? People think that, as soon as the cameras stop, the producers turn off the rain, craft services brings out a giant buffet, and we all retire to our trailers to watch Undercover Boss.
Survivor is very, very real. Like the Hunger Games, it doesn’t stop — until suddenly it does, and a few days later you’re back at a desk in midtown Manhattan. The better question is, are the relationships real? How much of a personal bond is distilled from the simple need to survive? As Katniss and Peeta discover, there’s no easy answer.
The genius of The Hunger Games is how perfectly it captures the emotional nuances of a game that pushes you to the limits of your endurance.
One moment that touched me came when Katniss said goodbye to her rock shelter, knowing she would never see it again. It’s just like at the end of a Survivor season, when the contestants set their shelter on fire and watch it burn. For the month you’re out there, starving and scheming, the shelter is just misshapen logs that dig into your spine when you try to sleep and a patchy roof that can’t keep out the rain. But when you look at your shelter for the last time, and pause for a second to reminisce, a few rocks or branches can symbolize an entire journey.
Nobody is trying to kill you on Survivor. But as Jeff Probst says every season, “In this game, fire represents life.” When the tribe votes you out and your torch is snuffed, you suffer a metaphorical death. After a month or more of suffering and struggling, losing can feel like a spear in the gut.