The James Clayton Column: bring on the games of death!

Could the success of The Hunger Games usher in a new age of gladiatorial combat? James examines the possibilities…

Socio-culturally, The Hunger Games could be something very significant. It’s possible that the new movie based on the novels by Suzanne Collins could have a huge impact on both the movie industry and wider society.This might be the film that turns Jennifer Lawrence into an international megastar (I doubt many people in Outer Mongolia are familiar with her exceptional performance in Winter’s Bone).

Also, on the film side of things, it could be the flick that definitively kills any half-baked ambitions to produce a Hollywood remake of Japanese teen death tournament thriller Battle Royale. Just as Chronicle put more nails in the coffin of the Americanised Akira, I see The Hunger Games doing similar good service by tackling familiar concepts in a fresh creation more effectively than a cack-handed duplication could.

The movie might also send the original book series stellar and turn a literary craze into a pan-galactic pop culture phenomenon, truly ensuring The Hunger Games as “the new Harry Potter” or “the new Twilight”. (Because any fantasy-tinged book or movie series popularly consumed by children is hailed as “the new Harry Potter” or “the new Twilight” these days just like every fresh bout of contagion was excitedly proclaimed to be “the new Black Death” back in ye olden times.)

What I hope though is that the main effect of The Hunger Games isn’t anything to do with the business of showbusiness. Thoughts about the film franchise viability, box office revenues and all that jazz are trivial concerns, really. The truly important thing lies at the core of the plot, and that thing is fighting to the death, both for your own advancement and for the entertainment of others.

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Thinking it over, what I’d really like The Hunger Games to achieve is the widespread exaltation of organised human-on-human violent contest of the highest stakes. We’ve been missing out on gladiator action and I’m all in favour of a return to prominence for the type of competition that kept ancient Romans happy (to name one group of gladiator enthusiasts).

The Hunger Games offers a different kind of death tournament scenario, but it ultimately comes down to the same competitive core ideal. Let’s watch people kill each other in showpiece spectacles for sadistic kicks and giggles.

My current favourite TV show is undoubtedly Spartacus, because alongside its compelling cauldronboiler plots, deliciously despicable characters and ludicrous amounts of sex, swearing and violence, it offers arena fighting. It’s a shame that the current series, Spartacus: Vengeance has less of that, because Spartacus has fled and taken the rebel gladiators on the road with him, but no matter. It’s still way more entertaining and, actually, more ethical than many its contemporary reality TV talent show counterparts.

These viciously judgemental programmes thrive on humiliation and the exploitation of naïve hopefuls, obnoxious narcissists and genuinely mentally ill people for the benefit of a dead music industry. There is no honour in Britain’s Got Talent, but there is in fighting life-and-death struggles in the arena.

Whereas gladiatorial combat was once the number one pastime, in the modern day, it finds itself hidden beyond the mainstream. This is where The Hunger Games ideally comes in to usher an upsurge of interest and newfound affection for the kind of mortal combat that kept our ancestors entertained.

Even more than the Olympics, movies have the power to promote minority sports, and I hope that Gary Ross’ blockbuster book adaptation is followed by popular bloodthirsty enthusiasm. See, for example, how roller derby’s status rocketed in the wake of Whip It, how DodgeBall operated as an excellent advert for the American gym game and how Nacho Libre turned new audiences on to Mexican lucha libre wrestling.If people come away from the cinema psyched to start up their own battle-to-the-death contests and train like their lives depend on it, then brilliant. The film will have touched people and inspired them, and that’s a beautiful thing.

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I’m picturing a world where Fight Club is everywhere, except it’s not just grown men in existential crisis who are getting high on hurting each other – it’s everyone. What’s more, they aren’t satisfied just beating each other up. They’re in it to the death, want to deliver death and be the last one standing. Battle Royale on the streets of the globe minus the school uniforms, then.

If the authorities want to control and manipulate the growing energy before anarchic homemade Project Mayhem endeavours destroy everything, then that’s not a major problem. Our systems are long overdue a shake-up and organising society and politics along the lines of something slightly Hunger Games-ish could be the radical answer we require.

Let’s look at the modern world from a very pessimistic, fatalistic perspective – we live on an overpopulated planet with diminishing resources. The dominant species is a divisive, self-destructive organism that’s dehumanised and dulled by a shallow, soulless consumerist existence bereft of authentic meaning.

We’ve forgotten the fundamentals of life because we’re too distracted by reality TV and other empty superficial nonsense. I could go on but it’s making me depressed just thinking about it. Clearly, human beings need a refreshing reality check.

It’s absurd – in my humble view at least – that we consider things like money and TV talent shows to have value, and overlook the genuinely important things like human spirit, our indomitable willpower and the primal essentials of our animal existence. Our priorities are perverted and so distressed by all this that I’m moved to consider Project Mayhem-style shenanigans, I’m keen to see mortal combat return to the mainstream. In a world bereft of essential meaning, gladiatorial lifestyles might help us find ourselves again.

I’m imaging an extreme Darwinist dystopia where every position and possession has to be earned through combat victory. If you don’t kill someone before dawn, you don’t get breakfast. If you want a job, you’ve got to make it through a knockout bracket and kill off all the opposition. It’s brutal and callous, but it’s more honestly meritocratic than what we’re working with now.

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Sure, there’ll be lots of death, but there’s also the potential for plenty of fun and adrenaline-pumping exhilaration. We’ll have saved the planet, truly reaffirmed our survivalist instincts and reconnected with our primal essentials.

I’m going to start training by watching Gladiator and Spartacus episodes. I’ll then massacre the staff of a local supermarket and ‘earn’ my weekly groceries. I hope The Hunger Games inspires others to join me. There will be blood, and the future’s looking good.

James’ previous column can be found here.

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