DISCLAIMER: The worst way to ruin a perfectly good argument is to mix up its subject, so before we get into it, let’s get a few things straight:
While I’ve read Battle Royale and watched the movie, I haven’t read The Hunger Games (I may go see the film). You can complain that this makes me uninformed and biased, but being familiar with both books isn’t necessary to this argument and if I am biased, my case is obviously still vulnerable to facts and logic, so come at me, bro.
I don’t need to read The Hunger Games to have this argument because this isn’t about whether or not it’s similar to Battle Royale. The two have enough in common to get otaku nerds angry and tweens defensive, so there must be something to it. Also, enough effort has already been put into cataloging the similarities between the two books, while similarity doesn’t even necessarily imply plagiarism; tons of things have been independently created or discovered by more than one person. No one is arguing that Battle Royale is the seminal text of the genre. William Golding threw down childhood bloodlust with Lord of the Flies in junior high school, and themes of adolescent sacrifice are at least as old as the Minotaur. Everything is derivative, nothing is original and yeah, “Simpsons did it” — no one is saying otherwise.
What we are arguing about is the claim by Suzanne Collins, author of The Hunger Games, that before handing in her manuscript, she had never heard of Battle Royale.
Suzanne Collins’s Background
Collins spent the better part of the last two decades working in television, specifically on children’s shows. Her incomplete IMDB filmography, spanning 1993 to 2009 (2012 if you include The Hunger Games movie), includes writing credits for five different television series. Prior to working in television, she attended New York University, beginning in 1988 to pursue a Master of Fine Arts in Dramatic Writing. Collins started writing children’s books with The Underland Chronicles, an admitted re-imagining of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. In September of 2008, Scholastic published The Hunger Games, which Collins acknowledges was inspired by the ancient Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur.
So the entertainment industry and the literature world are the spheres Suzanne Collins is familiar with, having worked or studied in one or the other from 1988 to 2012. She is also accustomed to re-imagining others’ work — though there’s no harm in that when it’s admitted.
Battle Royale as a “Cult Hit”
People like to describe Battle Royale as a “cult hit,” ostensibly meaning that it has a small, though fanatic following and little mainstream exposure. The problem with classifying things as cult hits is that it’s often meaningless or even false. Think of Fight Club, the perennial cult film: If its fan base is so small, how have all your friends seen it? If it’s so esoteric, why is there a Fight Club poster hanging in every college freshman’s dorm? Calling something a cult hit is typically a reflexive action, saying more about the speaker than the subject, the equivalent of describing your favorite band with the words, “You probably haven’t heard of them.” It’s a means for people to claim they have a premium on knowledge, a way for kids to win Cool Points.
Battle Royale’s supposed cult hit status is also the favored argument of Hunger Games fans in denying the mere possibility that Collins could have been inspired by the Japanese book or film. “Ugh, no one outside of Japan-obsessed nerds has even heard of Battle Royale,” the reasoning usually goes, with the speaker casually unaware that they themselves seem familiar with it despite apparently not being Japan-obsessed nerds.
Essentially, the problem is: If no one’s heard of Battle Royale, who keeps bringing it up in the first place? The answer is that people have heard of Battle Royale. Both the book and the film have received coverage in the American press, and both have a number of Americans fans that seems larger than the U.S. population of anime nerds.
Let’s start with the book: The English translation of Battle Royale was released in 2003, and besides the obligatory write-up by Publishers Weekly, it was also reviewed in Entertainment Weekly by famed novelist Stephen King, who included it on his summer reading list after being introduced to it by Kelly Braffet, another American author. To date, Battle Royale the book has 171 customer reviews on Amazon, where it’s the 23rd best seller in science fiction short stories (odd considering it’s a 624-page novel), and 98 customer reviews on Barnes & Nobel, most of which predate the publication of The Hunger Games. Nothing compared to the success of Collins’ books, but certainly not unknown.
Onto the movie: The Japanese film-adaptation of Battle Royale was released in 2000, and despite not having an official U.S. release nor distribution until 2011, it received a relatively considerable amount of coverage in America. In fact, its international premiere took place in Los Angeles, as reported by Variety in the entertainment industry magazine’s first piece about the film in 2001. Variety also reviewed Battle Royale II in 2003 and covered the purchase of the original film’s American rights in 2006 — which was subsequently reported by The New York Times in 2006, five years after the “newspaper of record” published its own review of Battle Royale. TIME magazine also reported on Battle Royale and its sequel in 2003. According to Rotten Tomatoes, 36 critics have reviewed the film, along with the 73,883 users who rated it (again, most prior to the publication of The Hunger Games). To date, the DVD has 199 customer reviews on Amazon, and the film has 513 user reviews and 68,036 ratings on IMDB, which also lists references to Battle Royale in a number of popular American movies, including Kill Bill: Vol. 1, Juno and Thank You for Smoking. Almost all of these numbers are bound to be surpassed by The Hunger Games, but the figures go a long way in dispelling the notion that Battle Royale is some incredibly obscure movie that only hardcore Japanophiles have ever heard of.
Your judgment of whether or not Collins borrowed or outright stole material from Battle Royale for The Hunger Games obviously rests with you. Despite denying any knowledge of Battle Royale’s existence, she did work in the entertainment and literary worlds while Battle Royale was being covered by major publications relevant to those industries and she has a history of reaching out for inspiration, so the possibility is there. It comes down to whether or not you take her word for it — which is fine either way because, ultimately, it has no bearing on anything but a meaningless microscopic sliver of your own particular take on the world.
The only thing I ask is that we stop pretending that there’s literally no way Collins could have even heard of Battle Royale because it’s sooo underground. Apparently you and I have both heard of it, and neither of us is all that cool.