When The Hunger Games came out, we all eagerly tore through it, turning pages late into the night because we just couldn’t put this book down. We told our friends about it, our coworkers, any teen who came into the library. And somewhere along the way, as we were breathlessly raving about this amazing, exciting book, someone interrupted us with a question:
“Isn’t that the same story as Battle Royale?”
Most of us probably cocked our heads to one side and stared dumbly, confused, at the questioner. Battle Royale? Well, it’s hard to say, since we hadn’t seen it or read it. Then the internet picked up the story: “Suzanne Collins totally ripped off Battle Royale!” I was curious, but dubious. I had to take one for the team and find out.
Battle Royale is the story of a class of 40 Japanese high school students whose bus gets detoured on a field trip. The students wake up in an unfamiliar classroom and are informed that their class has been randomly chosen for that year’s program, which means they must now kill each other until only one student remains. Each student is given a backpack containing food, water, and a weapon of varying quality (from machine guns to forks) and released. Alliances are made, then broken; friends are betrayed and killed, sometimes intentionally.
The basic plot is similar to The Hunger Games, but there are some other similarities that grated, as well—there are two instances in Battle Royale in which a character is severely wounded and is nursed through the injury by their crush. There are regular announcements of which students have been killed in the last six hours. Even the black backpacks of supplies seemed a strong match, though I was willing to view this as a coincidence.
By the midway point, though, the two books part company. By the end, it's not the same story at all. It's a similar story, definitely, but Battle Royale's strength is that most of the 40 characters manage to be sympathetic characters. We get back story on just about all of them, find out who they were before they were thrown into this crazy game, what motivates them to do certain things, and we even see their individual battles against each other. There are a couple of factions we return to multiple times, the ones who are clearly our heroes, but with only one or two exceptions we don't have villains. In The Hunger Games, nearly everyone who wasn't from District 12 was a villain, someone to be avoided and distrusted, and that was easy because we didn't know who those other characters were. The emotional punch that each player’s death packed for the reader was tempered by our lack of connection to those characters. In Battle Royale, on the other hand, we get to know all these characters--they're classmates, some dating back to elementary school. There are histories here, friendships and crushes and romantic entanglements, and that investment in who each student is makes the killing that much more horrible.
Plot and characters aside, there are two other major differences between these books. The first is the writing: while both books are nearly impossible to put down, the writing in The Hunger Games is vastly superior. Battle Royale has the occasional fantastic sentence but is written with a lot of “basically” and “of course” and “in other words;” whether this a failing of the author or translator is anyone’s guess. The other major difference is the level of violence. Sure, we saw some unsavory things in The Hunger Games, but it’s got nothing on Battle Royale. The gunfights were bad enough, but the graphic descriptions of hand-to-hand combat were particularly brutal. It's not the violence that's gratuitous, exactly, but the lengthy descriptions of it, and even that goes a long way toward world-building and accurately conveying the horror of the situation.
In an interview, Collins said she based her story on the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur—the idea of sending seven boys and seven girls to be killed every ninth year led her to the annual Hunger Games competition. I’m willing to believe that’s true, at least in part, but I do still harbor a suspicion that somewhere along the way she saw Battle Royale. She may have forgotten about it, and almost certainly didn’t draw on it consciously (I wouldn’t go so far as to call plagiarism), but the similarities seem a little too similar. Maybe both books are based on Theseus and the Minotaur and the similarities are just coincidence. Either way, I’m looking forward to Catching Fire, the second book of The Hunger Games, to see some fresh material from Collins—and to find out what’s in store for Katniss.