What constitutes a rip-off? This is something I’ve been wondering lately.
When something gains a certain amount of popularity or notoriety, my interest is always piqued. Back when I was in college, Power Rangers were all the rage with the kids, and I had to see what this was. I ended up becoming a fan of the original iteration (The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers) for a couple of years. I even had a crush on the red Power Ranger (Austin St. John) and wanted to be the pink Power Ranger for Halloween. Sadly, at the time they didn’t make adult-sized costumes.
Then this Harry Potter thing exploded and rather than keep hearing about something I knew nothing about, I picked up the first book in paperback around early 2000. It was quickly devoured. I got the second in paperback and tried to wait until they came out on paperback to read the rest. Ha! That didn’t last long. I got the third book in hardback during a weak moment and had the rest of them delivered the day they were published by Amazon.
Just for the record, delving into popular things does not always result in rabid fandom. I admit with shame that I was curious about Jersey Shore too and watched about six episodes. That was more than enough and I doubt I will ever be able to wash the stench of that transgression off of me.
So now along comes The Hunger Games. I have friends who’ve read the series and loved it. A major motion picture is about to be released and I so couldn’t hold out any longer. I borrowed the book from someone and plowed through it in three days. I could have read it in one but I did have work and the rest of my life to handle. It’s young adult fiction and not a complicated read but it sure is engrossing.
I had heard it was very similar to a Japanese film I love called Battle Royale. Children are forced to fight to the death at the command of the government until only one remains. Some people complained that the book was a rip-off so I had to see for myself.
I have to say they are similar in initial themes and set ups but are not close enough to have anyone consider The Hunger Games a rip-off. The author, Suzanne Collins, has done what J.K. Rowling did so brilliantly with the Harry Potter series in that she has taken elements from many known stories and blended them into a wholly new and original creation, a whole new world. It’s not unlike what Quentin Tarantino does with film.
Ms. Collins noted early on that one of her inspirations for the novels is the ancient Greek myth involving Theseus. He and several other youths are sent as tribute by the defeated Greece to Crete to be fed to the Minotaur in the labyrinth beneath King Minos’ palace. Ms. Collins also said the gladiatorial games of ancient Rome were another influence. I can see both of these in the story. I also thought of a short story entitled “The Lottery” as an influence in the way the children are chosen for the games.
She claims she has never seen Battle Royale and I believe her. She may have heard of the film but I know very few average folks who have seen it. It is something only sought out by a true film buff. I was lucky to find it on video years ago and even had the privilege of seeing it on a movie screen over the holidays. One of the distinct perks of living in Los Angeles.
“There’s nothing new under the sun.” This is only true if you think that you have to create something that has never been seen in any form before, but there are new ways of looking at old things and new ways to approach any story or character. I will never begrudge someone from taking inspiration from old stories. What constitutes a rip-off is when you have nothing new to add or you don’t understand the source material that you are stealing from and get it all wrong. This is usually the reason why I get so angry with all the remakes in Hollywood.
Stories are one of our greatest tools for exploring and understanding the human condition. They are not just another property to be exploited for mere material gain. If you take the former as your purpose, the latter may come automatically. You don’t capture lightning in a bottle; you just stand in the right place and let the lightning come to you.
Bon chance, Hunger Games.