Before HUNGER GAMES: 10 Brutal Battles That Came First1 of 12By: Troy Brownfield, Newsarama Columnist
As eager fans gear up to see the first film based on The Hunger Games, freshly energized by the new trailer, it's a fine time to place the Suzanne Collins bestsellers into their proper historical context. Games of death have been a popular subject of genre fiction for decades . . . centuries even. From novels to television, from Sundance entries to installments made in Japan, the idea of people put in a life or death struggle for the amusement of others continues to intrigue us. Here's a look at ten high points along that continuum, including visits from Tina Turner, Abraham Lincoln, and the Master of Horror. So, with all praises due to Smash TV, let's get rolling . . .
MOBILE FIGHTER G-GUNDAM2 of 12Directed by Yasuhiro Imagawa in 1994, Mobile Fighting Legend G-Gundam stood out as the first of the Gundam series to not take place in the original Universal Century timeline (there would be many more). Some fans decried it as a deviation from the humanistic concerns of the previous series, but it has some very loyal fans.
The concept is pretty simple. It's the future (Future Century to be exact), and every four years, the space colonies decide who governs with a big Gundam fight on Earth. Each Gundam is stylized for the country it represents, giving us lunatic designs like Mermaid Gundam (Denmark, y'know, Little Mermaid) and Gundam Maxter (the awesomely stereotypical American Gundam, a mash-up of football, boxing and six-shooter motifs; yee-haw!). Though the leads eventually team up to battle outside forces, it's a kick to see the different insane designs throw down.
THE LONG WALK3 of 12The first of two Richard Bachman entries on our list! In case you missed it, Richard Bachman is the pseudonym used by Stephen King (for various reasons). Though King has dusted off Bachman a couple of times in recent years for off-brand genre work or special events, the original four Bachman books remained little known until the Bachman/King connection was uncovered in the '80s.
At that point, the four original novels were collected in one volume as The Bachman Books; the fifth, Thinner, was repackaged as Stephen King writing as Richard Bachman. Among these books was The Long Walk, a look at a future competition where the competitors . . .. walked. However, if your pace slowed below a certain level, you were gunned down. The winner would receive an Ultimate Prize, but really, would you want to try it? Brutal, grueling, and yet elegant in its depiction of physical and mental collapse, Walk is a profoundly influential entry on this list.
SECRET WARS4 of 12Marvel's big-time toy tie-in event from 1984 covered a lot of bases. An all-powerful enemy from beyond gathered heroes and villains and put them on a Battleworld constructed of pieces of other planets to make them fight for, hey, an Ultimate Prize.
However, the event was loaded with irony, in retrospect: none of the characters were killed off (for good; the Wasp died for a little bit, and all the heroes died at one point, and the Lizard was sorta half-way killed, but everyone survived in the end except that poor alien healer), and in fact, the population of the Marvel Universe increased with the addition of the Black Spidey-Suit and the Julia Carpenter Spider-Woman.
The other irony is that by the second assortment, the toy line was including characters that didn't even make the book (like Daredevil). Hell, by the end, the toys weren't even hitting the U.S. and didn't have ANY characters from the book.
STAR TREK: "THE SAVAGE CURTAIN"5 of 12Known far and wide as the one with Abe Lincoln in it, this episode of original Trek posits a scenario in which the alien Excalibans (big, rocky guys) try to learn the nature of Good and Evil. To whit, they construct a situation wherein Kirk, Spock and simulated versions of Lincoln and the Vulcan Gandhi have to fight Genghis Khan and others.
It's a series of almost hallucinatory images, including Lincoln on the receiving end of a spear and the haunting call of Help me, Spock! (writer's note: do NOT watch this episode under the influence of mind-expanding/altering substances). The ole' you and him fight so I can study you was a staple of Trek, but nothing else compares to the memorable weirdness of this one (not he even the almost setless O.K. Corral episode).
THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME6 of 12Richard Connell's 1924 classic has been filmed repeatedly, stolen from liberally, and anthologized to the hilt. Many of you probably encountered this story in Junior High or High School Lit class, and you've probably recognized echoes of it in everything from Bugs Bunny cartoons to films like The Pest.
Connell breaks out some brilliant names for his two leads: Sanger Rainsford, the hunter who becomes the hunted, and General Zaroff, a man only satisfied by hunting humans. The story gives us some staples of this mini-genre, including the hunted being supplied with a weapon and gear and the notion that the hunted is skilled enough to set traps for the hunter.
MAD MAX: BEYOND THUNDERDOME7 of 12It's the third Mad Max film, but probably first in terms of memorable lines. And none are more memorable than, Two men enter; one man leaves! Max has to face the Blaster half of Master Blaster in a set right of a Scorpions video, wherein bungees and chainsaws are the order of the day. Of course, even if you win, you can turn the tables on Auntie Entity. Why? Bust a deal, face the wheel.
Though the 1985 film ultimately isn't as good as its immediate predecessor, The Road Warrior, its pop culture echoes continue to bounce around. It been referenced high and low, including one memorable moment when Buffy the Vampire Slayer informed her opponent that, as far as she was concerned, that construction site where they were battling: This is Thunderdome. The classics, Mon; they never die.
SERIES 7: THE CONTENDERS8 of 12Possibly the least known entry on the list, Series 7 arrived in 2001 as the reality TV boom exploded. It was directed by Daniel Minahan, well-known for his work directing episodes of such HBO series as Game of Thrones, Deadwood, True Blood and Six Feet Under, as well as Grey's Anatomy and others. Minahan's style positions the narrative as the seventh series of an ongoing reality show where the players hunt and kill one another.
The film consciously plays to the camera, using some of the trademark tricks of reality TV to move the story along. Of particular actress is Brooke Smith, known for Silence of the Lambs and Grey's Anatomy; here she plays Dawn Largato, the pregnant contestant that hopes to secure (another) win for her baby. Part of the strength of the film is your disquiet at Dawn's condition in juxtaposition with the carnage. Of course, it's still not as disquieting as our next entry . . .
BATTLE ROYALE9 of 12There just isn't enough that we can say about Battle Royale. That most unlikely of transmedia properties, it began as a novel by Koushun Takami before spreading into a manga series, a film (both with sequels) and cultish admiration. Depending on which version you take in, you'll find some differences behind the aim of the Battle Royale program; in the novel, it's done to strike paranoia into the populace, whereas the U.S. translation/adaptation of the manga (by American comics writer Keith Giffen) has made it into reality TV. Whatever the case, the consistent bit is this: every year a junior high class is taken to an island and made to fight to the death. Each kid is given a backpack with a weapon and a map, and each is fitted with an explosive collar that will detonate if they're in the wrong zone of the island at the wrong time. Of course, as the competition goes on, the zones change and work to drive outlying contestants closer together.
Battle Royale is probably most notorious in the U.S. for its film version, which will likely never see a mainstream DVD release; however, the novel and manga remain generally available. In whatever form, Battle Royale is a compulsively readable/watchable narrative, executed with suspense and craft in all its forms.
Honestly, The Hunger Games is the subject of consternation to some BR fans, who feel that the Collins' novels lifted plot points from Takami's work, while at the same time lamenting that the foreign film has been fairly radioactive in terms of a domestic mass market release due to the graphic nature of the kids killing each other on film.
THE RUNNING MAN10 of 12We told you that Bachman/King would be back. Another of the core four Bachman books, The Running Man got the screen treatment with Arnold on board. Radically different in specifics from the novel, the film turns the hunters into super-villainish characters that Arnie dispatches with ready quips.
The book is a much darker vision, ending (spoilers on!) as the hero crashes a plane into the corporate tower that houses the network. That particularly uncomfortable bit of prognostication came from King's mind in 1982, twelve years before Tom Clancy showcased a terrorist crashing a jet into the Capitol building in Debt of Honor (both, honestly, ruining the assertion that no one could have predicted that tactic). Those instances, unsettling as they may be, once again point to the frequently frightening fact that yesterday's speculative fiction can become tomorrow's reality with ease.
Think about that when you're getting your Soylent Green shake.
THE ENTIRE GLADIATOR GENRE11 of 12At the end of the day, where do all of these types of fictional contests have their roots? Gladiator movies! And where do those come from? Real life! Before being immortalized in Gladiator and many films starring Victor Mature, Rome saw its fair share of live combat to the death. Though the origins of the games are cloudy, it's generally agreed that they peaked somewhere between the first and second century BCE before tapering off in the 400s (though they still fought animals).
Rome wasn't alone; ancient Mexican and South American cultures are said to have had games where the losers would be sacrificed. And of course, you could flash forward to the knightly combat of the feudal era.
With The Hunger Games, it's not really a question of where it got its influences or how far back you need to go. The big question is: if history demonstrates evidence of a recurring cycle of combat-to-the-death for the amusement of the masses, at what point do we get close to it happening again? Enjoy the movie!
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