Rollerball: the Hunger Games of the mid-1970s

Years before The Hunger Games, Rollerball introduced its own form of televised combat. Ryan compares their dystopian futures...

When first the Hunger Games adaptation arrived in cinemes two years ago, it reignited old comparisons between Suzanne Collins’ source novel and the Japanese film Battle Royale (itself adapted from a book, that one by Koushun Takami).

It’s arguable, however, that the Hunger Games series, which has just reached its penultimate instalment with the recently-released Mockingjay – Part 1, has just as much in common with a dystopian movie released in 1975: director Norman Jewison’s Rollerball, based on screenwriter William Harrison’s own short story, Roller Ball Murder.

Like The Hunger GamesRollerball is set in a dystopian future where the bloodlust and revolutionary tendencies of the populace are held in check by a violent televised sport. A cross between a roller derby and gladiatorial combat, Rollerball sees its rival teams clash on a circular arena. Players clad in American football-style armour and shod in roller skates hurtle around the ring, attempting to wrest a heavy-looking ball from the other side and slam it into the goal. Just to make the play even more bone-crunching, one player rides a motorcycle, which his teammates can hitch onto and use to propel themselves around the arena at frightening speeds. 

Rollerball’s top team hails from Houston, and their star player is square-jawed veteran Jonathan E (James Caan). In another time, Jonathan probably would have been a cowboy or a rodeo rider. But this is the 21st century, and in totalitarian America, he’s one of the longest survivors in a sport where sudden death is a literal reality. As Rollerball’s most ferocious – and, we learn shrewd – gladiators, Jonathan is lavished with concubines, luxury housing and expensive dinners by the country’s dominant Energy Corporation, run by Mr Bartholomew (John Houseman).

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But there’s a problem with Jonathan’s celebrity. He’s a star in a sport that is supposed to celebrate the power of the team over the individual. Nervous of what Jonathan might come to symbolise, the corporation in charge of Rollerball puts pressure on Jonathan to retire. When he flatly refuses, Mr Bartholomew starts to tinker with the rules in order to make the game

 more deadly than ever. If Jonathan’s killed on live television, Bartholomew reasons, his role as individualist hero will die with him.

Like The Hunger GamesRollerball presents future America as akin to ancient Rome, with a corporation as its Caesar. Like Katniss Everdeen, Jonathan E appears to be one of the few who sees the network of control around him for what it is.

Of course, there are many differences between Rollerball and The Hunger Games. The latter gives a greater view of how the future society of Panem is stratified, with Katniss rising from the muck of the lower orders (the pre-industrial District 12) to become, through a mix of luck and skill, a Hunger Games champion – a surviving gladiator akin to Jonathan E. 

In Rollerball, we don’t really see how the corporate rule affects ordinary people: they’re largely reduced to the braying, wide-eyed, shouting faces that pack into arenas for each sporting fixture. Instead, Rollerball throws us straight into the decadence of the ruling classes, whose expansive feasts and drunken parties rival even those of Panem. The state’s methods of control come through quietly, almost casually: when Jonathan goes to a library to read some classic literature, he discovers that the state has classified it all. With hardly anyone noticing, books have been withdrawn from public consumption.

What’s interesting about Katniss and Jonathan E is that, for all their differences, the effect they have on the masses is quite similar. In The Hunger Games, Katniss survives a game that is designed from the ground up as a symbol of state control: “Look what we can do to your children,” the game says to the populace. “Dare to rise up against us, and this could happen to you, too.”

In the case of Rollerball, that warning comes with all the subtlety of a fist to the jaw. The speed and sheer brutality of the game is spectacularly captured, and there’s a palpable sense of danger to every encounter. Jewison once said that he wanted the violence in Rollerball to be repulse rather than exhilarate the viewer, and it’s true that, although the games

 are undeniably exciting, the harshness of the bloodshed is also wince-inducing. 

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Like Jonathan E, Katniss comes to realise how public perception can play a part in her survival. This is something that Battle Royale barely touched on in its brutal fight to the death: what it feels like to be the focus of public attention, to have cameras suddenly focus their unblinking eyes on you. In a modern era where we can all theoretically be celebrities and TV stars, thanks to things like Twitter and YouTube, the sensation of offering up a stage-managed version of yourself for public consumption is a much more widely-understood than it once was.

Both Katniss and Jonathan also manage to fight the system from within the game itself. In Rollerball, the game designed to finally put a stop to Jonathan becomes his grand, concluding statement on the futility of the entire sport: players die violently one by one, until there’s only Jonathan and one horribly wounded opponent left. The crowd, once wild with excitement, grow silent at the bloodbath in front of them. Katniss, of course, survives one brush with the Hunger Games and in the process becomes the very thing President Snow (Donald Sutherland) wants to stamp out: a symbol of hope and defiance. Rollerball ended with Jonathan victorious and the stability of the state left in the balance. In the movies, we’ll have to wait until next year to see how Katniss’s revolution pans out.

Rollerball and the Hunger Games movies serve up a slice of politics with their sci-fi – something that comes to the fore in this year’s Mockingjay – Part 1. Jewison certainly intended for his film to have a bold political aspect to it, as he explained in this interview with Turner Classic Movies:

Rollerball is all about the absurdity of conflict; it’s obscene to have violence for the entertainment

 of the masses. That’s an obscene idea that goes back to Circus Maximus, that goes back to Rome. Surely we’ve become more civilized. And yet when I look at some films out there, and I just see unmotivated violence… Violence for entertainment, it’s a terrible idea. And so I made Rollerball…” 

Unfortunately, not all of this went across to audiences in the mid-70s, and the film was only a modest success theatrically. Rollerball did, however, become more greatly appreciated over time, and even influential – hints of it can be seen in numerous other films, and even one or two hit videogames. Rollerball also got a remake in 2002, directed by John McTiernan, which was quite terrible and, surprisingly, lacked the scale and brutal impact of Jewison’s original.

In many ways, Rollerball was ahead of its time. When the film came out in 1975, one or two critics dismissed its future vision as implausible. In his review, Vincent Canby wrote, “The only way science-fiction of this sort makes sense is as a comment on the society for which it’s intended, and the only way Rollerball would have made sense is a satire […] Yet Rollerball isn’t a satire. It’s not funny at all and, not being funny, it becomes, instead, frivolous.”

It’s a harsh summary, particularly given that, for all its wide collars and other ’70s trappings, Rollerball has aged surprisingly well. There are big wall-mounted televisions and digital recorders that can erase footage at the press of a button. Books no longer come on paper. The intrusion of corporations into politics is something commonly mulled over in newspaper columns today. But those are all frills on a story that, as The Hunger Games proves, is timeless: that of the individual against an oppressive state.

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Although it’s almost 40 years old, Rollerballs dystopia still packs a powerful, satisfying punch.

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