Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Blood and Circuses in the Movies

Posted By on March 20, 2012, 1:12 PM

The arrival of the film adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games this Friday has inspired plenty of comments about the pop-culture sources from which her basic premise borrows—specifically, other movies in which murder is turned into amusement for the masses. Here’s a short guide to other cinematic adventures in placating the people through blood and circuses. ---

The 10th Victim (1965): This Italian-produced thriller may have been the earliest example of what would become a familiar concept: turning assassination into a game show. Here, a near-future television program called The Big Hunt is used to sublimate other violence in the culture by pitting those with the killer instinct against one another. Ursula Andress plays the “hunter” looking for the 10th kill that will allow her to retire with a huge payout; Marcello Mastroianni is the “victim” who falls for her, not knowing if she’s the one meant to kill him. Based on a short story by Robert Sheckley, the film was prescient about the appeal of reality television in plenty of ways, as well as the role of those behind the scenes—particularly sponsors—in manipulating the action.

Death Race 2000 (1975): Like The Hunger Games, it’s the story of a dictatorially controlled society with a violent annual competition as its cultural centerpiece—but this is social commentary, Roger Corman-style. David Carradine and a pre-Rocky Sylvester Stallone are among the competitors in the Transcontinental Road Race that gives drivers points for hitting and killing pedestrians, while an anti-government resistance movement attempts to subvert the race’s outcome. Director Paul Bartel would go on to oversee campier comedies like Eating Raoul and Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, but he’d never beat the foresight that had the central government blaming all of society’s problems on “the French.”

Rollerball (1976): Modified roller derby takes the place of warfare in this futuristic thriller set in a world of corporate “countries” who use their teams in the violent game as competitive proxies in place of armies. The central character, a player named Jonathan (James Caan), is being pressured to retire, and the film eventually explores a concept similar to one that fuels the film version of The Hunger Games: the fear of those in power that any individual can inspire the belief that individual action can actually make a difference.

Logan’s Run (1976): It’s not quite the same concept as the others, since a competition isn’t really at the center of the science-fiction tale of a society where no one is allowed to live past the age of 30. But the spectacle of the society’s “Carousel”—where those hitting the big 3-0 are supposed to have an opportunity for “renewal,” but in fact are all vaporized—provides a pretty potent example of the fact that people often settle for leaders presenting the illusion of an opportunity, even when the reality clearly demonstrates the opportunity doesn’t exist.

The Running Man (1987): A novella by Stephen King published under his “Richard Bachman” pseudonym became the loose basis for this Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle, in which he plays a cop framed for murder who becomes the prey in a game show. Casting pro wrestlers like Professor Toru Tanaka and Jesse “The Body” Ventura as the colorful assassins out to slay Schwarzenegger, the film is probably best remembered for giving real-life game-show host Richard Dawson an opportunity to parody himself, playing The Running Man’s gleeful ringmaster Damon Killian.

Battle Royale (2000): Probably the most name-dropped title of the last couple of weeks, largely because a) like Hunger Games, it involves a government-sanctioned killing competition where the combatants are kids, and b) it’s Japanese, and therefore a way for movie nerds like me to make it clear we’re hipper than the kids infatuated with their Hunger Games. Wildly popular in its native country and at times banned elsewhere, it misses out on the public-spectacle element of many of these other titles, though effectively deals with responding to apparently no-win moral scenarios.

Series 7: The Contenders (2001): Daniel Minahan’s little-seen independent drama was lost between the phenomenon of The Blair Witch Project and the later generation of faux-documentary features, but may be one of the most effective examples. It’s structured as a marathon of the seventh season of an ongoing series in which—just like in Hunger Games—a national lottery pits unwilling victims against one another in a competition to the death. Brooke Smith gave a terrific performance as the reigning champ, an 8-months-pregnant young woman named Dawn, and Minahan brilliantly captured not jut the editing rhythms of reality shows, but the canned “human-interest” segments designed to build personal connection with the characters.

What did we miss? Share your thoughts on these and other examples.

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