Katniss Everdeen may be a bolt from the blue - a heroine who props herself up without help from either of her drippy suitors - but she’s hardly without precedent. The sci-fi tinged adventures of Katniss in Panem come from a long line of movies on the theme of survival, cultural voyeurism and overcoming miserable surroundings. The Hunger Games and its sequels imagine an dystopian landscape controlled by aristocrats who like nothing more than watching impoverished children hunt each other for sport. When we get through this list, that’s going to seem like an awfully familiar idea.
In preparation for Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2, here are 12 Movies That Inspired The Hunger Games.
The 1976 cult film Logan’s Run is absolutely weightless as drama and only fitfully interesting as spectacle. Nevertheless, it has such a culturally relevant premise that it’s hung around in our collective memory in spite of itself (vintage Logan’s Run gear sells for hundreds on eBay).
It’s about a civilization in the future that kills everyone who reaches their thirtieth birthday. The government couches it in mystical nonsense and the film serves up a few special effects (it looks like a Laser Floyd show, if the haircuts didn’t tell you the movie was made in 1976) so that only a small contingent of young people realize what’s happening. Those people try to escape on a dangerous run outside the city walls (to a place that might as well be called District 13).
Squint and it’s not hard to see a lot of Hunger Games’ killing off of the youthful to maintain order Logan’s Run.
Arnold Schwarzenegger and Stephen King aren’t exactly anyone’s idea of kindred spirits, but they made an uneasy, crazy fun alliance in 1987’s The Running Man. Loosely (as the timing belt on a Cutlass classic) based on King’s short story about an innocent man accused of murder put on a game show to fight for his freedom, The Running Man unsurprisingly took a left turn on the way to the big screen.
It’s a neon headache with a spandex-clad Schwarzenegger fighting increasingly flamboyant villains while trying to prove his innocence. Family Feud host Richard Dawson gives a delicious performance as the host of the show, a forerunner of Stanley Tucci’s insane turn in The Hunger Games, all big eyes and shark teeth.
Katniss and friends’ rebellion against the forces of the capital is a a tale as old as old as time. Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus, produced by star Kirk Douglas in the role that made him a household name, was the biggest American movie about the dispossessed rising up against their oppressors.
Douglas plays the title character, a Thracian slave who fights back against his Roman masters, using the brutal combat he was taught to survive. It’s not hard to see The Hunger Games and their cut-throat gladiatorial combat as an extension of Spartacus’ revolt, although the films differ on what a leader of revolt should act like. Douglas is all gritted teeth and expressive torment, Jennifer Lawrence is a quieter hero, trying to put a little realism into the strongly fictitious world of the Hunger Games.
This is a bit of a gimme, as most mainstream sci-fi that came after 1977 owes a little debt of gratitude towards George Lucas’ space adventure. But it’s really in the spreading out of the adventure, to add nuance and find the extent of Katniss’ puzzled, conflicted human nature beneath her noble, heroic exterior, that Hunger Games starts to look indebted to Star Wars.
Luke Skywalker (Mark Hammill) looks like a naif at first, too. Impetuous, powered by the boldness of youth, relying on heart instead of logic, both Luke and Katniss learn the lessons of society’s unfeeling irrationality the hard way. And, more importantly, both are pretty handy in combat. Katniss is a little more of a 21st century hero in that she’s trapped more firmly between a rock and a hard place and doesn’t always make the right choice for the right reasons.
She and Luke both have to make a choice between murdering people and protecting their sisters and friends, but the odds are stacked a little more unfairly against Katniss.
John Boorman’s Zardoz may be remembered as a catastrophe (films with too many ideas often are) but it’s proved prescient, especially with regard to the zanier side of The Hunger Games. Zardoz is about Zed (Sean Connery), a member of a vicious warrior tribe called Brutals. Brutals are kept violent and ignorant because they’re ruled by a society of aristocratic lunatics who never make themselves known to their subjects… until Zed breaks through their borders and sees them for himself.
Zardoz’s ideas about imprisoned warriors are all over The Hunger Games, but there’s also the ruling class themselves - perfumed, effete and dressed to shame a peacock. The Dr. Seussian villains of Panem are only a stone’s throw from the demigods running the world of Zardoz.
Haymitch, Woody Harrelson’s character in The Hunger Games movies, is a survivor who’s become burnt out on the consequences of having lived through the games. If his character was the one who finally decided to stick it to the capital instead of Katniss, you’d probably have Norman Jewison’s Rollerball. A political allegory unfortunately wrapped in a timely fad, Rollerball was The Hunger Games 1975.
James Caan is the reining champion of a sport called Rollerball, a deadly spin on Roller Derby. Caan realizes that his spectacle is keeping people complacent, while giving his moneyed overlords exactly what they want. He’s become a pawn without realizing it, it makes him mad as hell. The idea of breaking down a fixed competition from within should ring a bell to anyone who remembers the finish of the games in Catching Fire. And while aspects of Rollerball have dated as well as a sandwich left out in the sun, it has an intelligence and odd beauty that make it worth returning to.
The playful cousin to Rollerball, Paul Bartel’s bloody Death Race 2000 is a comedy dressed as a self-important satire. David Carradine and Sylvester Stallone are just two of the competitors in the nation-wide Death Race, in which drivers take souped up death machines across the country in as short a time as possible, killing as many innocent bystanders as they can.
Bartel treats the ludicrous premise with the cartoonish comic tone it deserves, creating an unforgettably warped, very 70s approach to bloodsport. There may only be flashes of Death Race 2000’s overblown world in The Hunger Games, but the cocky drivers look an awful lot like some of the more anxious tributes from the wealthier districts.
When producer/directors Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack ran out of money finishing King Kong, they returned to the sets with a plan to make a movie and raise some scratch in a hurry. The film they made was the first adaptation of The Most Dangerous Game by Richard Connell, the ultimate anti-colonialist narrative.
A shipwrecked trophy hunter (Joel McCrea) finds himself on a private island owned by eccentric Count Zaroff (Leslie Banks). He quickly discovers that Zaroff only lives in the middle of the ocean because he has a fetish no one in the real world would understand - he likes hunting human beings and has turned his home into a hunting ground. Cooper and Schoedsack tell the tale with elegant simplicity, befitting a film about two cunning professionals who have to kill each other given only the barest essentials, a lesson that the makers of The Hunger Games paid close attention to.
Before Suzanne Collins every thought about putting a bow in her heroine’s hands, Matt Cimber put one in the hands of Laurene Landon. Hundra, Cimber’s 1983 fantasy film, is not only the best of the Conan The Barbarian also-rans, but it’s also the first and most potent feminist sword-and-sorcery movie.
Landon plays Hundra, the only member of a utopian all-female tribe in a feudal past who isn’t slaughtered by a marauding gang of thieves and rapists. She vows that if she’s going to restart her tribe from scratch, she’s going to find a man who’s every bit her equal with which to do so. This, as you might imagine, is quite difficult (Katniss could relate in a big way to that dilemma). And while all that is fascinating and empowering, it’s no match for the sight of watching Landon pound one man after another into hyperborian dust.
Director Kinji Fukusaku’s Battle Royale caused an uproar in Japan so massive that no American distributors would touch it. It was only available as a bootleg for years while its myth grew larger by the day. Fans of the gutsy action film were probably a little miffed when The Hunger Games, a film also about kids killing each other to keep populations small and quiet, was released to enormous box office and general critical approval. Ten years had made the ideas of Battle Royale palatable to American audiences.
That said, you probably couldn’t release a shot-for-shot American remake of Battle Royale today - it’s too bracing, too harsh, too unhinged in its violence. A teacher (the extraordinary Takeshi Kitano) takes 42 of his students to an island, gives them each a weapon and makes it clear that only one of them will be leaving alive. It’s a marvelously constructed film, which makes its repugnant content that much more thrilling.
The Hunger Games rode the crest of a wave that has since swallowed most of the Hollywood landscape. Divergent, Beautiful Creatures, The Mortal Instruments, The Maze Runner and more young adult novels have become as dominant as Marvel comics adaptations. The start of the youth-centred sci-fi romance cycle was, of course, Catherine Hardwicke’s adaptation of Twilight in 2008.
By now most people know the story of Bella Swann (Kristen Stewart) and her vampire boyfriend Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson), even if only through osmosis. Twilight, which despite its campy excesses remains an incredibly slight wisp of a movie, kick-started the careers of stars Stewart and Pattinson, turned Anne Rice-style romantic vampires into an ubiquitous, polarizing phenomena, and made YA movies into a hugely commercial success. Every studio wanted their own Twilight, and The Hunger Games has been the most successful property in its wake.
It’s not hard to imagine what drew the makers of The Hunger Games to Jennifer Lawrence. Katniss Everdeen and Ree Dolly, the character she plays in Winter’s Bone, have many things in common. Both are played by Lawrence as steely, solitary figures driven by the need to protect their families. Both have shell-shocked and absent parental figures. Both look half-starved, wild, unconcerned with how others perceive them. Both live in wooded communities under the thumb of governments who don’t care about her privacy or happiness. Both go on a dangerous quest to provide safety for those they love.
District 12 is even a dead ringer for the gorgeous Ozark hellscapes of Winter’s Bone. Not only did The Hunger Games snap up Winter’s Bone's mesmerizing star, it brought her milieu along too.
What other films have you spied that seem to have influenced The Hunger Games? What’s your favorite film about people hunting each other? What’s the best of the Hunger Games movies?