Grantland logo

A Brief History of Murder Islands: How ‘The Hunger Games: Mockingjay’ Built a Dystopia From Scraps

What does Suzanne Collins’s ‘Mockingjay’ have in common with ‘Battle Royale,’ ‘The Lord of the Flies,’ and Joan of Arc? More than you might think.

Teenagers who died in pop narratives aimed at teenagers used to die mostly of heartbreaking diseases, or in car wrecks, or at the hands of masked slashers motivated by sexual hangups or genre convention. But in 2014, if you’re a fictional teenager, your risk of being killed in an arena-based game-of-death situation has never been greater. Hell is for children, and it apparently rivets real-life audiences just as it does fictional ones: September’s The Maze Runner, in which amnesiac bros square off against robo-scorpions in an experimental labyrinth built by Patricia Clarkson and the awesomely named World in Catastrophe: Killzone Experiment Department (WICKED!), made $330 million worldwide against a $34 million budget. Like March’s $150 million–grossing Divergent, The Maze Runner is based on a series of young-adult novels about a futuristic society with a teen-murder-based economy; sequels to both are forthcoming, despite lousy reviews and The Maze Runner: Scorch Trials being a colossally dorky title. The hugely successful Hunger Games franchise, the immediate catalyst for all of this, may be winding down, and the real world may be falling apart, but whatever dystopia awaits us in 2015 and beyond won’t involve a shortage of movies about kids killing other kids on murder islands.

Francis Lawrence’s The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 arrives in theaters this week. It’s the third chapter of what’s become a four-part trilogy. The decision to stretch the story of Suzanne Collins’s last Hunger Games novel across two movies means that this film builds to a final clash between good and evil that we’ll have to wait a full year to actually see. This makes sense from a commercial standpoint, but it’s weird storytelling: While brave bands of grubby extras fight a set-piece war against Donald Sutherland’s hissable President Snow and the vampiric Capitol, Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen spends most of the movie staring in disbelief at things happening on giant TV monitors, struggling with the emotional toll of her two prior trips through the Hunger Games wringer, and taping rabble-rousing viral-video “propos” conceived by game-grid designer turned revolutionary publicist Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman, to whose memory the film is dedicated). The whole film is kind of a propo for the next one, which doesn’t mean it’s not still slyer and smarter than it needs to be about the moral expediencies of hearts-and-minds warfare. Katniss’s shock-treatment radicalization is a means to an end for Plutarch and Julianne Moore’s chilly President Coin; they need her to help them persuade the people of the districts to continue throwing their bodies on the gears.

The movie’s generally unconflicted celebration of proletarian terrorism links it to the third season of Battlestar Galactica, the one that aired just five years after 9/11 and invited us to root for human suicide bombers rising up against an army of skin-job occupiers. But when the Capitol’s missiles started shaking the subbasement walls of the bunkerlike District 13, all I could think of was the Imperial assault on Hoth at the end of the first act of The Empire Strikes Back; Mockingjay is what Empire would have been like if that film had devoted an extra hour to ennui and probe-droid recon before the first AT-AT came stomping over the horizon. If the Hunger Games films aren’t the Star Wars saga of our time, it’s only because our time is too saga-glutted for any one mythology to dominate the conversation the way those movies did. The description still fits. Just like George Lucas’s money-minting space fantasy, the latest Hunger Games boldly ransacks ancient and recent history for tropes and ideas — a biblical flood, a pitch-black air-raid sequence right out of Zero Dark Thirty, even storm troopers in mirrored THX 1138 masks — but weaves them together into something more powerful than patchwork. It feels like we’re hearing this story for the first time. No other in-progress fantasy franchise feels as much like a work destined to endure, in the sense that people will be ripping it off for decades.

In a 2011 New York Times Magazine feature, Collins told Susan Dominus that the Hunger Games novels were inspired in part by the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, in which Athens sacrifices seven boys and seven girls to the labyrinth at regular intervals to keep the peace with Crete. Katniss’s journey from slave to revolutionary sweetheart, Collins said, was “heavily influenced” by the story of Spartacus; she also talked in depth about her father, an Air Force lieutenant colonel and Vietnam veteran who took her to visit battlefields when the family was stationed in Europe and suffered recurring nightmares about his own combat experiences. In that same story, Collins denies any knowledge of the one work of popular fiction most often referenced as a Hunger Games precursor: Koushun Takami’s 1999 novel Battle Royale, which inspired a 15-volume manga adaptation and a 2000 feature film directed by Kinji Fukasaku. “I had never heard of that book or that author until my book was turned in,” she told the Times. “At that point, it was mentioned to me, and I asked my editor if I should read it. He said: ‘No, I don’t want that world in your head. Just continue with what you’re doing.'”

Battle Royale takes place in a futuristic Japan whose totalitarian government stages gladiatorial combat between schoolchildren on a deserted island in order to terrorize the populace into obedience; The Hunger Games takes place in a futuristic America whose totalitarian government stages and broadcasts gladiatorial combat between teenagers in an outdoor arena in order to distract the population from thoughts of revolt. But maybe it’s best to think about these stories as versions of the same modern myth, filtered through the values and concerns of two different cultures. The big difference is tonal. There’s a pervasive sense of loss and exhaustion in the Hunger Games series, whereas Battle Royale is deranged pulp, meaner and funnier and more gratuitously bloody. Collins uses a child narrator to make us think about the real-world practice of throwing virtual children into the meat grinder of war; the dark joke at the center of Battle Royale is how easily the kids adapt to the island’s rules, because they’re already accustomed to being pitted against each other by society. This is particularly true in Fukasaku’s movie, which turned out to be the director’s last completed work before he died in 2003. It’s almost a spiritual sequel to his late-’60s/early-’70s desperate-youth dramas Blackmail Is My Life and If You Were Young: Rage, and basically calls out all social authority as corrupt and perverted. Education is a scam! The teachers are afraid of the pupils! Society is kind of a deplorably shitty parent! We’re all guilty by association of feeding kids into a system designed to turn them into capitalist robots! Bleak as it is, The Hunger Games at least gives Katniss a few semi-nurturing adults. Battle doesn’t bother with a Haymitch or a Cinna, and it barely has a Katniss — although you do get Chiaki Kuriyama, who’d go on to play the flail-wielding psychopath Gogo Yubari in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill: Vol. 1, as the jackknife-wielding psychopath Takako Chigusa. “Come at me,” she dares one opponent. “Every inch of me will resist you.”

battle-royale-shuya

It’s not a big leap from there to pure pop nihilism. In 2012, Dennis Hopeless and Kev Walker’s Marvel comic Avengers Arena forced 16 teenage superheroes to fight to the death in a sealed “Murderworld” built by Arcade, a longtime X-Men/Spider-Man villain who digs white leisure suits and freely admits to have borrowed the idea for his latest project from “a couple of children’s books” he read in jail. This is what’s known as “hanging a lantern on it.” So is this:

Screenshot 2014-11-20 07.27.19

Although it was DC that let fans decide by 900-number vote whether Jason Todd, Batman’s second Robin, would live or die, sending child superheroes to the slaughter is a long-standing Marvel tradition, especially in the X-Men books, where Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters was constantly accepting new New Mutants and then throwing them into the line of fire with about as much training as Long John Silver’s gives novice fry cooks. Professor Xavier is a jerk.

The strangest thing about Battle Royale as a movie is that once the stakes are established and the killing begins, it plays — for a while — almost like a fun teenage adventure in the spirit of John Milius’s kids-vs.-Russkies action drama Red Dawn. As nasty as they inevitably become, these violent, parentless fictional worlds always retain at least some allure, because they’re also free of adult stricture. The dynamic is there in TV’s The 100, about CW-ishly attractive juvenile delinquents who inherit a ravaged Earth after being offloaded from humanity’s space-ark. It was there in CBS’s morally reprehensible, compulsively watchable reality show Kid Nation, which stranded actual children, many of mommy-missing age, in a New Mexico ghost town that resembled a Spahn Ranch cleared of stray Mansons, and then invited us to watch them attempt to nourish and govern themselves. (Somehow nobody died, hence the continued existence of CBS.) But the idea of the feral-teen-topia entered the pop consciousness much earlier, with a book that made the rounds (and was widely rejected) as a postapocalyptic sci-fi novel, before a Faber & Faber editor persuaded its author to delete an introductory chapter about the atomic bombing of Britain and open instead with Chapter 2, about a group of young survivors stranded on an island off New Guinea with no grown-ups in sight. The year was 1954, the author was William Golding, and the book was Lord of the Flies, destined to teach generations of seventh-graders about symbolism and/or SparkNotes.

Peter Brook’s 1963 movie does the best job of capturing the book’s nightmarish force, although the 1990 American remake has a young Balthazar Getty and some excellently dated pop-culture references: “I bet it’s really about eight o’clock,” says a homesick kid, “and ALF’s causing some trouble right now.” Golding had returned from his World War II service convinced that “man produces evil as a bee produces honey” and proved the point by writing a novel about child castaways regressing to savagery. But even here, a world without adults seems like a pretty good deal at first:

At the return Ralph found himself alone on a limb with Jack and they grinned at each other, sharing this burden. Once more, amid the breeze, the shouting, the slanting sunlight on the high mountain, was shed that glamour, that strange invisible light of friendship, adventure and content.

katniss-hunger-games-mockingjayLionsgate

falconetti-passion-of-joan-of-arcSociété Générale des Films

The Hunger Games series applies the slanting-sunlight aspect of its dystopia only occasionally, usually in scenes involving romantically charged bow hunting. Katniss steps out of a hard life into a harder one, in which she’s broken and broken again. She can’t go on; she goes on. In Mockingjay, Francis Lawrence’s camera returns so frequently to close-ups of Jennifer Lawrence’s quietly agonized face, until the movie starts to play like a YA remake of Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, with Maria Falconetti as history’s first-ever teen-martyr superstar. Not unlike Katniss, Joan was also a nationalist mascot, so maybe Mockingjay is really a Joan of Arc movie, like Otto Preminger’s Saint Joan (Jean Seberg’s first movie, three years pre-Breathless) and Luc Besson’s The Messenger (with Milla Jovovich) and David Fincher’s Alien³.

Could the sight of Jennifer Lawrence looking traumatized really inspire a nation to rise up against its oppressors? The movie won’t work for you if you can’t accept that idea, and even then it’s a tough sell. When we actually see the marketing campaign for the revolution — a movie-trailer-style montage of Katniss speaking defiantly and shooting down enemy aircraft — it looks like the marketing campaign for Mockingjay, right down to the cheesy fire effects around the logo. The moment feels glib, as if the movie’s trying to cop to using revolutionary imagery to sell Sour Patch Kids and soundtrack downloads while burying the confession in a meta-joke. But that door swings both ways. On Tuesday, in the city of Khon Kaen, Thailand, five college students were arrested for making the three-fingered District 12 salute during an appearance by Thai prime minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who seized control of the country in a military coup this past May. Anti-coup activists have adopted the gesture (now illegal in Thailand) as a silent symbol of defiance, proving once again that you don’t really know what a film is about until an audience tells you. On Thursday, three more students were detained for throwing up the District 12 sign outside a shopping-mall multiplex in Bangkok. Speaking to reporters at the theater while being led away by police, activist Ratthapol Supasopon refused to characterize the incident as a protest. “Even though our activities in the past have been politically driven,” he said, “today we are just here to watch a movie.”