Hollywood's next likely blockbuster, The Hunger Games, is set to open this Friday, March 23. This work is unique from past remakes or adaptations of Asian stories in that its creator denies any knowledge of the classic Japanese book (1999) and movie Battle Royale (2000), with which it shares extraordinary parallels.
Both movies feature a corrupt totalitarian government that places children on an isolated island to fight brutally to the death using weapons packs, until one last winner emerges. They implant tracking devices into the children and fill the island with cameras, which are observed by a control room that airs the competition to the general population. A female protagonist ultimately triumphs with the help of a boy with whom she develops a relationship. Author Suzanne Collins claims she never heard of the Battle Royale book or movie prior to writing The Hunger Games in 2008, and claims that she came up with the ideas independently after watching late night television and clips of the Iraq War. Maybe, maybe not. Collins has already profited handsomely from her Hunger Games trilogy of books, which have been US bestsellers for the past few years.
This isn't the first time Hollywood has made minor modifications on an Asian story and marketed it as a novel piece of art. Akira is currently being remade and re-set in neo-New York. The screenwriter for The Departed won an Oscar for basically translating the film Infernal Affairs into English, and changing the setting from Hong Kong to Boston. Aside from a few plot and character changes, many of the scenes in The Departed were direct scene-for-scene copies of the Asian film, including literal translations of some jokes. At least The Departed gave some credit to Infernal Affairs as a remake and has the excuse of paying homage. Though, a general question remains of the American public’s awareness of how many recent Hollywood films have been remakes of Asian movies, or how even a popular American television show like Wipeout is a remake of the popular decades-long Japanese show. Related to this, I found it interesting that a recent CNN teaser article had this to say about The Hunger Games:
Casting the right actors is imperative when adapting a novel for the big screen ... It's no secret fans want popular characters to look a certain way, specifically how they envisioned them while they were reading the book.
Wow, you couldn't make this stuff up. There's an irony in their emphasis on staying true to the original characters while so many whitewashing casting practices and remakes persist.
Suzanne Collins's claims that Battle Royale had no influence on her books and its film adaptation is a major step back from recent remakes of Asian stories because, in those cases, at least there was a minor acknowledgement to the original characters or stories from which they were adapted. Even in recent whitewashing cases like 21 or The Last Airbender, at least the fans had some knowledge that the original characters in the films were Asian. Collins' claims sound even more hollow when comparisons can be made in exact movie scenes between the two films. The film review community has also done a disservice by downplaying this issue. Most mainstream reviews I have read do not acknowledge any Battle Royale influence in The Hunger Games, and those who do mention the film deliberately bundle it with other movies like Running Man in order to gloss over the striking similarities to Battle Royale. Other reviews strain unconvincingly to explain how dissimilar the two films are. I find the coverage especially hypocritical given the same film community's heavy criticism of Justin Lin's previous Annapolis movie release, which critics blasted for its similarities with past works.
Now, art and innovation do certainly build on top of other works, and influence of past works on future creations occurs all over the world. The reason the downplaying of any credit to past Asian creations matters, is because a stereotype and perception exists that Asian cultures (and Asians and Asian Americans) are not creative, and that Western civilizations have been the main drivers of innovation through history.
And in case you're wondering, that's a myth. Brilliant Asian and Asian Americans in the creative arts include a long list of notable icons like Haruki Marakami, Ang Lee, Mira Nair, Chan Wook Park, Zhang Yimou, artists such as IM Pei and Maya Lin, and hundreds of other creative Asian Americans.
This myth extends beyond the arts to other areas such as historical commercialization and invention, which potentially share the same lack of attribution issues. Myths about innovation are widespread despite the fact that Asian countries like Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan (and others which have implemented intellectual property laws) currently lead the world in inventions and patents per capita. Additionally, the list of US inventions and innovations over the past 50 years is filled with Asian American inventors and co-inventors. The "independently invented" excuse that The Hunger Games claims has been used beyond the arts to include notable discoveries.
For example, to go back in time, calculus was invented in 14th century India and 10th century Persia hundreds of years before Newton and Leibniz claimed independent discoveries. Paper currencies and the printing press were invented in East Asia centuries before Europe claimed their independent invention. The list of discoveries and inventions from Asia prior to European "independent discovery" claims, is very long. Reputable publications like The Economist or the NY Times have asked in the past whether Columbus discovered the Americas first, and others have asked whether Columbus actually used Marco Polo's Chinese maps of the world (which now reside in the British Museum in London) when he bravely sailed thousands of miles off the flat Earth. Most Americans are only aware of the Euro-centric narrative from which they were taught, and this narrative contributes to the disrespectful treatment, and appropriation, of art and innovation from other cultures.
It's frustrating that works like The Hunger Games have already and will continue to make gobs of money without any attribution to the Asian book and film it arguably draws from, not to mention the countless remakes of other Asian stories or Asian characters that consumers simply think of as American originals. The snub by The Hunger Games over Battle Royale shares a history that goes beyond film. Persistent lack of attribution, or appropriation of past ideas, fuel inaccurate myths about creativity and innovation. On the other hand, none of this should be too surprising, given past repeat behaviors, the idealized Western civilizational narrative around historical creativity and innovation, and also since we still live in a society which regularly celebrates the legend of a European for "discovering" a continent that was already inhabited by hundreds of millions of people.
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