25 movies that expose the ruthlessness of television

The Hunger Games, out now on DVD and Blu-ray, takes television’s thirst for human suffering to task, as do these 25 earlier films...

“If no one watches, they don’t have a game”

Watching the red carpet footage of The Hunger Games LA premiere back in March was an uncanny experience. In many ways, the success and popularity of Gary Ross’ film provokes no wonder whatsoever. A cast of beautiful youths in a ready-franchised action tale of good vs. evil? It’s the stuff mainstream Hollywood dreams are made of. 

There’s a part of me though that wonders if this is what it felt like watching the Reagan presidential campaign attempt to co-opt what they saw as the “message of hope” in Springsteen’s anguished anti-Vietnam anthem  Born in the U.S.A. Or when Austen was asked to dedicate Emma to His Royal Highness the Prince Regent, exactly the kind of immoral profligate she regularly tore to shreds on her pages.

Hollywood and TV networks have readily embraced The Hunger Games, running ads for the film, promoting its cinematic, DVD and Blu-Ray release, cooing over its stars’ premiere outfits… all of which begs a fairly sizeable question: did any of them actually watch it?

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The Capitol, the seat of power from which the dystopian county of Panem is ruled in The Hunger Games, is a place of excessive consumption obsessed by style trends, celebrity gossip, and bubble-headed chatter. It’s a culture so busy beautifying itself and swapping tidbits on the latest TV reality show, that it neither scrutinises the source of its wealth nor questions the regime that maintains it. Sound familiar?

Of course it does. The Capitol represents the worst of our own apolitical sleb-worshipping culture, a satirical portrait evolved from a land of E! channel, gossip mags, and Big Brother. The film Hollywood has taken to its silicone bosom is one that satirises its values and makes audiences question their passive support of TV shows in which humans are emotionally – if not literally – gutted for our entertainment. Ironic doesn’t even begin to cover it.

The Hunger Games is by no means the first film to critique society’s thirst for real-life human suffering to be served up on the small screen, but it’s the first to have achieved such box-office success, and the first to offer such satire to a mainstream teen audience. It couldn’t have done so, however, without the help of a few of the trailblazers below. Join us as we count down 25 other films that also took television to task… 

25. Deathrow Gameshow (Pirro; 1987) 

Released in the same year as The Running ManDeathrow Gameshow was essentially a high-camp black comedy version of the Arnie film. Its titular game show was ‘Live or Die’, a series of televised challenges that death sentence convicts could take part in to try to win a reprieve or money for their families, hosted by peppy Chuck Toedan (John McCafferty).

Its writer/director Mark Pirro went on to make similarly tongue-in-cheek pics Nudist Colony of the Dead and Curse of the Queerwolf. Kitsch-haters need not apply.


24. Stay Tuned (Hyams; 1992) 

Starring the late John Ritter and Mork and Mindy’s Pam Dawber, Stay Tuned also took a comic approach to TV satire. The film imagined the fates of a pair sucked into a demonic gogglebox and forced to fight for their survival in show after show. “They can’t go home, they can only switch channels” chortles the trailer, as Ritter and Dawber’s characters must do battle with cartoons, sitcoms, game shows and movies quite literally from hell. Look out for zombie Wayne and Garth in the trailer below. 

23. EDtv (Howard; 1999) 

A gentle rom-com take on the early days of reality TV, Ron Howard’s EDtv suffered from comparisons to far better predecessor The Truman Show. The story of a TV exec (Ellen DeGeneres) who goes for a ratings boost by putting the life of an ordinary schmuck (Matthew McConaughey) on screen 24 hours a day, the film was neither quite funny, nor satirical enough to impress, no matter how many times McConaughey did that chicken dance. The Hunger Games’ Haymitch (a.k.a Woody Harrelson) also stars. 

22. Bamboozled (Spike Lee; 2000) 

In limited release satirical picture Bamboozled, Spike Lee took TV and Hollywood to task for their racist portrayal of black characters with a The Producers-like tale of an idea designed to fail becoming an enormous hit.

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Damon Wayans plays Pierre Delacroix, a TV scriptwriter who pitches an obscenely racist revival of The Black And White Minstrel Show to his network in an attempt to be fired (and thus exit his contract). Not only is the show commissioned, it’s a huge success, and the ensuing picture shows Delacroix compromising his ethics for fame, and sliding down a familiarly slippery slope…

21. Le Prix du Danger (Boisset; 1983) 

Adapted from Robert Sheckley’s 1958 novel The Prize of Peril, Yves Boisset’s Le Prix du Danger tells the story of a television show in which citizens volunteer to be hunted by professional killers for the chance of winning a prize sum should they manage to survive. One such volunteer uncovers the corporate conspiracy at the heart of the show, but can he make a difference?

Here’s a clip from towards the end of the film (sans subtitles unfortunately, so you’ll need to be a French speaker to get the full sense of what’s going on) in which our hero attempts to disrupt broadcast after uncovering the show’s secret. He’s forcibly escorted away while the baying audience is assured that the next episode will provide even more blood, more violence and more carnage…


20. American Dreamz (Weitz; 2006) 

We’ll level with you, American Dreamz is by no means one of the more interesting, provocative, or insightful films on this list, but it is a satire of reality TV (and the Bush administration), so merits inclusion.

Hugh Grant plays a Simon Cowell-type Brit host of the titular reality talent show, and Dennis Quaid a George W. Bush-alike US President who pops up as a guest judge on the karaoke contest. For biting satire, you’d be better off with Charlie Brooker and Konnie Huq’s Fifteen Million Merits, the Britain’s Got Talent-themed episode of Black Mirror.

19. Harrison Bergeron (Pittman; 1995) 

A made-for-TV movie based on Kurt Vonnegut’s short story of the same name in his collection Welcome to the Monkey HouseHarrison Bergeron stars a pre-Hobbit Sean Astin as a gifted young man born into a world where, though everyone is not created equal, they are made forcibly so. Using a handicapping system that brings the most able members of society down to the level of the lowest common denominator, the world of Harrison Bergeron no longer allows for creative genius in a bid to create global stability. More recently the satirical story was adapted into short sci-fi 2081 starring Armie Hammer in the lead role.

Bergeron’s role as a television scheduler in Vonnegut’s dystopian vision, and his eventual fate win the film a place on this list. Watch a clip below, in which the rationale for a world where great intellects are forced to wear brain-deadening headbands and ballerinas are weighed down at the ankle is explained…

18. God Bless America (Goldthwait; 2011) 

As evident from its title, subtlety and nuance weren’t Bobcat Goldthwait’s watchwords in 2011 modern culture satire God Bless America. One of the few films on this list not based around a fictional TV show, Goldthwait’s nastily acerbic picture takes a wide swipe at popular culture in its story of Frank, a man exhausted, disgusted, and furious with the world around him, and who decides to take out the trash, one reality TV star at a time.

17. Death Race 2000 (Bartel; 1975) 

Like the Pulp song, Kubrick’s space ‘n’ monkeys pic, that George Orwell book, and Prince’s party manifesto pop hit, we’ve seen the titular future year of Death Race 2000 come and go. Luckily, the dystopian vision of a televised, population-pacifying, transcontinental road race in which drivers score points by mowing down pedestrians didn’t come to pass. Which is good.

David Carridine plays masked racer Frankenstein (a sort of S&M version of The Stig) in the film from Paul Bartel and seventies schlock-producer extraordinaire Roger Corman. Sly Stallone also stars, in a story of nefarious presidents, bloodthirsty populations, and a televised sports death match 37 years before The Hunger Games ever arrived on screen.


16. Galaxy Quest (Parisot; 1999) 

You could think of Galaxy Quest as The Three Amigos in space, without Steve Martin, Chevy Chase or Martin Short. Actually, scratch that, it makes what is actually a very enjoyable spoof sci-fi comedy sound more than a bit rubbish. Starring Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, and Alan Rickman, Galaxy Quest takes the Amigos A Bug’s Life premise of a bunch of pretenders being faced with living up to their stage personas in real life, setting the action amongst the cast of a long-running Star Trek-style TV show beamed up to fight the cause of some adoring aliens.

A much gentler TV satire than that found elsewhere on this list, but knowing and fun all the same. 

15. The TV Set (Kasdan; 2006) 

Jake Kasdan’s smart indie comedy The TV Set deserves much more attention than it received upon release in 2006. David Duchovny stars as Mike, a TV producer attempting to navigate the tricky route conception to pilot for a new TV show, and having to contest with a network asking him to compromise at almost every step of the way.

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If you followed BBC2’s recent series Episodes, you’ll be familiar with the kind of demands placed upon Mike by “…original scares me” studio exec Lenny (Sigourney Weaver). Actors who can’t act, major plot changes… you name it, Duchovny’s TV show was subjected to it.


14. To Die For (Van Sant; 1995) 

The cult of TV celebrity and the lengths some will go to achieve it come under fire in Gus Van Sant’s dark comedy featuring a stand-out performance from Nicole Kidman and early appearances from both Joaquin Phoenix and Casey Affleck. Kidman plays ambitious Suzanne Stone, a Lady Macbeth type with dreams of becoming a famous news anchor and willing to let very little to get in her way.

“You’re not anybody in America unless you’re on TV” is Stone’s mantra in this dark satire on fame in the US, “Where criminals get to be celebrities and celebrities get away with murder”.

13. The Muppets (Bobin; 2011) 

The Muppets have been the go-to guys for entertainment industry satire for decades now, and their dealings with TV network execs in their latest outing continues that fine tradition. Yup, this may well be the only time you’ll see The Muppets next to David Cronenberg’s Videodrome, so make the most of it…


12. Videodrome (Cronenberg; 1983) 

Cult sci-fi satire Videodrome from body horror maestro David Cronenberg shows us a world where viewers become consumed by the media they watch. From sleazy TV exec Max Renn, to the titillating torture shows he discovers on Videodrome, Cronenberg’s film paints television and its ability to separate us from reality with a characteristically dark brush. Long live the new flesh…


11. Quiz Show (Redford; 1994) 

That Blue Peter kitten-naming scandal was just the tip of the iceberg…

Quiz Show, based on real events, is our reminder that TV executives’ reputation for ruthlessness in a bid to keep the viewing public tuning in is well deserved.

Redford’s superb film chronicles a 50s TV game show deception in which the winner of Twenty One was rigged, exchanging a long-reigning winner (John Turturro) for a more audience-friendly version (Ralph Fiennes). It may seem like frivolous subject matter, but viewed from the other side of Watergate, the events acquire a newly prescient hue.

10. Real Life (Brooks; 1979) 

Albert Brooks’ comedy Real Life was ahead of its time in so many ways. First of all, in presaging the arrival of reality TV with a plot about a documentary film capturing the day-to-day life of a regular family – the Yeagers. Secondly, by making a prescient statement on how the intrusion of TV exposure can destroy relationships and the lengths Hollywood will go to for ratings.

The trailer below shows Brooks in character not only introducing the film, but also providing a third ‘ahead of its time’ moment with a satirical look at 3D filmmaking that’s as relevant today as in 1979. Genius just doesn’t age, we suppose. 

9. Pleasantville (Ross; 1998) 

It’s no coincidence that The Hunger Games gig went to Gary Ross, as the director had already proved his satirical leanings with 1998’s Pleasantville, featuring early appearances from Reese Witherspoon and Tobey Maguire. It’s the story of two 90s teenagers who are literally sucked into Maguire’s character’s favourite TV show: 1950s sitcom, Pleasantville.

Whilst there, the pair kick start a process of awakening for the Stepfordian town of Pleasantville that turns sour when prejudice and intolerance rears its head. Take a look at the trailer below (which comes with the added extra of French subtitles so you can brush up on how to say “Honey, I’m home” like a true Parisian).

8. Natural Born Killers (Stone; 1994) 

“In the media circus of life, they were the main attraction” announces this trailer for Oliver Stone’s divisive Natural Born Killers, a film hailed either as a masterpiece or a waste of a Tarantino script.

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Taking the media’s glorification of violence and a TV-saturated culture in his satirical sights, Natural Born Killers showed monstrous characters Micky and Mallory Knox (Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis) become celebrated as icons by an audience thirsting for violence.


7. The Running Man (Glaser; 1987) 

Adapted from the Stephen King story, 1987’s The Running Man shares a premise with several films on this list, and not least the one that inspired this collection – The Hunger Games. Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a man wrongly accused of a crime forced to survive a series of televised challenges to fight for his freedom.

Set in the far-flung reaches of 2017 (how is that just 5 years away?), the dystopia King created shows the US as a police state whose citizens bay for blood as viewers of the death-match TV show. It’s no wonder The Running Man are three words all-but guaranteed to be found in any review you read of The Hunger Games.


6. The King Of Comedy (Scorsese; 1983) 

Scorsese’s The King of Comedy stars Robert De Niro as Rupert Pupkin, a fantasist and aspiring comedian who takes a novel approach to climbing the ladder. It’s a black comedy that takes celebrity worship and the US media to task in much the same way as many on this list, but its director and lead notch it a cut above the others.

5. A Face In The Crowd (Kazan; 1957) 

A cautionary tale on the dangers of fame and the obscene power afforded to celebrity, Elia Kazan’s A Face In The Crowd, written by Budd Schulberg, was another picture hugely ahead of its time.

The film tells the story of everyman Larry Rhodes (a great turn from Andy Griffiths) plucked from rural obscurity and groomed for TV fame. As Rhodes’ ratings and fame grow, his humanity diminishes, and he winds up unhinged, eventually abandoned by the “…idiots, morons and guinea pigs” that made up his audience, and leaning on the crutch of a self-made applause machine to boost his ego.

4. Man Bites Dog (Belvaux; 1992) 

Darkly comic Belgian mockumentary Man Bites Dog from writer/director Rémy Belvaux (with André Bonzel and Benoît Poelvoorde) takes an unflinching look at audiences’ appetite for on-screen violence. The story of a film crew that follows the exploits of serial killer and raconteur Ben (Poelvoorde), the low-budget film explores viewers’ complicity in violent acts with its outré story of conscience-less murder.

3. Series 7: The Contenders (Minahan; 2001) 

“Chosen at random, given weapons, and forced to play…” Daniel Minahan’s sharp reality show parody Series 7: The Contenders has more than a little in common with The Hunger GamesThe Running Man and others on this list, its major difference being that it’s no sci-fi, but a satire set in the recognisably real world of 2001 America.

Six people picked by national lottery are given guns and forced to hunt each other for the cameras in the film, the iconic image of which will ever be a gun-wielding heavily pregnant Brooke Smith – Fargo eat your heart out.

2. The Truman Show (Weir; 1998) 

The movie that broke Jim Carrey out of The Mask-style mugging and paved the way for future straighter performances, Peter Weir’s The Truman Show was a visionary, provocative comedy with something to say.

Written by Gattaca’s Andrew Niccol (currently helming an adaptation of Stephenie Meyers’ dystopian sci-fi The Host), its depiction of TV execs chasing ratings at the expense of human beings and the constructed nature of reality TV still ring horribly true. 

1. Network (Lumet; 1976) 

This trailer for Sidney Lumet’s Network promises “television will never be the same”, and of all the promises in all the trailers, this is one that really delivered.

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No better television satire has or is likely to be made than the Paddy Chayevsky-scripted Network, starring Peter Finch as mad prophet of the airwaves Howard Beale, and Faye Dunaway as the unscrupulous network exec who fills the schedules with ratings-grabbing, sensationalist, unethical programming.

Let’s say it together: “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore”.

The Hunger Games is available on DVD and Blu-ray now.

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