For a science fiction film francise to become truly successful, it helps not to be too original. The most successful of these franchises are based on ideas that have been floating around pop culture long enough for audiences to feel comfortable with them (see, e.g., Star Wars or Avatar), as opposed to films based on comparatively original concepts which tend to attract only a niche or cult audience (e.g., Cronenberg’s Videodrome).
The core concept of Hunger Games – contestants hunting and killing each other for the pleasure of a mass viewing audience – has been around for quite some time now. So the outlook for this franchise is good.
The earliest visual media appearance of this concept (not counting Roman gladitorial contests) was in a 1964 Outer Limits episode entitled “Fun and Games” (above), scripted by Robert Specht and producer Joseph Stefano, and directed in high noir style by Gerd Oswald. In that episode, two random earthlings (Nick Adams and Nancy Malone) are teleported to a harsh jungle world where they are forced to combat for their lives against a barbaric extraterrestrial couple — all for the benefit of a galactic viewing audience. The idea for “Fun and Games” was said to have been appropriated from “Arena,” a short story by sci-fi master Fredric Brown. (In all fairness to the The Outer Limits, the idea was considerably improved upon in its execution — it’s a classic episode.) “Arena” was later the credited source for a 1967 Star Trek episode featuring Captain Kirk (William Shatner) as one of the intergalactic contestants.
In 1965, there was yet another variation on the theme, Elio Petri’s The 10th Victim (La decima vittima), based on a short story by Robert Sheckley, a futuristic satire in which Marcello Mastroianni and Ursula Andress play professional assassins who stalk each other in an internationally televised game show known as “The Big Hunt.” Each killer has their own sponson — like NASCAR racers. This one is worth seeing for its colorful ’60s sci-fi/pop production design and costume design by, respectively, Piero Poletto and Guilo Coltellacci, and for Piero Piccioni’s wonderful score. It may also be the first cinematic appearance of the “reality show” concept. Though hardly the last. In 1968, the BBC televised The Year of the Sex Olympics, written by “Quatermass” creator, Nigel Kneale. Kneale’s teleplay depicted a future “Brave New World” in which the masses are lulled into passivity by broadcasts of competitive pornography. However, since everything gets boring after a while, even live sex begins to lose its appeal. At this point, Kneale’s story becomes remarkably prescient — the sponsors of the sex olympics come up with a fresh concept, a live survival show in which the contestants are stranded on an island (shades of Survivor!) and, to make sure the jaded audience keeps watching, a murderous psychopath is added to the mix.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention The Running Man (1987) starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, another iteration of the deadly game show theme. However, if we are talking about movies that you might actually want to see, the next landmark is Battle Royale (2000), directed by Kinji Fukasaku, known to U.S. audiences for Tora! Tora! Tora! and The Green Slime. (There is also a Battle Royale II, completed by his son.)
Quentin Tarantino has named Battle Royale as one of his all-time favorite films. The concept? 42 teenage students, male and female, are dumped on an island, forced — while the world watches — to hunt and kill each other until only one is left. It’s like a reality show version of Lord of the Flies, executed with considerable panache. If Hunger Games can match Battle Royale in creativity and excitement, its success is assured.
In the meantime, for your pleasure and edification, The Outer Limits classic “Fun and Games” is embedded below.