I harbor nothing personally against The Hunger Games (other than the whole Battle Royale issue which I won’t discuss here). Hunger Games got pre-ruined for me when people started treating it like some fresh, visionary take on dystopia.
Maybe, as has often been suggested, I’m just a contrarian. Maybe it’s some variant of Oppositional Defiant Disorder. When something gets overhyped and overpraised, I get suspicious. Sadly, my suspicions almost always hold up.
True Hunger Games features a twisted competition. So did Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” (for me the gold standard). Sadly, nobody has handled “The Lottery” successfully on film since Larry Yust (which I still remember. Thanks high school English).
There is an impressive body of fiction, however, that has tackled this dystopian contest idea in one form or another then made it to the big screen. Here are three that made lasting impressions on me.
(1976 dir. Michael Anderson, based on Logan’s Run by William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson)
One of the problems/dangers/horrors of dystopia is that all too often it starts as a utopia and devolves. Or worse, it’s packaged as utopia to begin with. Welcome to Logan’s Run. Society is locked away under a mass of geodesic domes and administered by a computer. To control population (often a major dystopian problem), people are implanted with timers in the palms of their hands. Near your 30th birthday (21st in the book), it turns red and starts to blink. You now have a choice. Face the ritual called Carrousel for “renewal,” or run. The people who chase down the Runners are, appropriately, Sandmen. They work for an outfit called Deep Sleep, also appropriate as that’s what Carrousel ultimately sends you to. Forever.
(1975 dir. Norman Jewison, based on “Roller Ball Murder” by William Harrison)
“The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground.” Jefferson said that. Ironically, what he probably didn’t say is, “A government big enough to give you everything you need is big enough to take everything away.” The point is, if you take both and substitute the word “corporation” for “government,” you end up with the world of Rollerball. Rollerball is what culture becomes when run by corporations. Uneasy yet?
There is no national anthem, but a Corporate Hymn. The game of Rollerball is in reality a sham, or supposed to be. Here’s how Bartholomew (John Houseman), one of the corporate heads, puts it: “The game was created to demonstrate the futility of individual effort. And the game must do its work. The Energy Corporation has done all it can, and if a champion defeats the meaning for which the game was designed, then he must lose.” Yikes. Unfortunately James Caan excels at Rollerball. He also realizes that we chose comfort over freedom, observing, “Them privileges just buy us off.” 40 years later, Rollerball turned out to be prophetic. As Bartholomew makes clear, “Corporate society takes care of everything. And all it asks of anyone, all it’s ever asked of anyone ever, is not to interfere with management decisions.” Chilling.
Death Race 2000
(1975 dir. Paul Bartel, based on “The Racer” by Ib Melchior)
I saved my very favorite of these three for last. First, cuz David Carradine. Second, Paul Bartel who directed the screamingly (I think) hilarious Eating Raoul. Death Race 2000 is screamingly funny in its own right. It’s demolition derby, Road Warrior, Cannonball Run, road rage chaos. The United States has fallen into totalitarian rule and has essentially reawakened the bread-and-circus idea of the Romans. Only with cars. The object is to drive cross country and rack up points by killing people (with a system of bonus points applied to various types of fatalities and victims). Oh, and it’s a wildly popular, nationally televised event. Cynical? Twisted? Sick? Yes, yes, and yes. And funny as hell. And below it all, there’s even a plot. Frankenstein (David Carradine) plans to eliminate the president using a special “hand” grenade, literally a grenade mounted in his always gloved prosthetic hand. What’s not to love?
Honorable Mention: The Running Man
(1987 dir. Paul Michael Glazer, based on The Running Man by Stephen King)
I’ve read that Stephen King was let’s say less than satisfied with this adaptation, and rightly so, but as a movie on its own, I kinda liked it. Not really as far gone a dystopia as others on this list, but come on, a lethal game show? How isn’t that another precursor to The Hunger Games?