*Possible Spoilers for “Hunger Games” and “Battle Royale”
With the recent popularity of “The Hunger Games” (and indirectly “Battle Royale”), I thought it would be interesting to take a look at one of the central ethical conflicts in both stories. I think the most interesting element about both of these books is not the political dystopia, romance, or violence, but, rather, the moral uncertainty that the characters are confronted with. I think “Battle Royale” asks the question very well, “Could you kill your best friend?” It seems a bit melodramatic at first, but upon further reflection, this simple question makes us confront the most basic tenants of our own moral code. To analyze this idea further, I am going to look at two types of characters that appear in these two stories, those who are unwilling/reluctant to participate and those who play to win. The way that we individually, and as a society, view these two types of characters says a lot about our perspective on fundamental philosophical questions.
Both “Hunger Games” and “Battle Royale” feature characters that accept their situation and play the game to win. The audience is led to, and often does, view these characters as secondary antagonists (the primary being the institution running the games themselves). However, we should ask ourselves, why do we view these characters as villains and is that fair? In “Hunger Games”, it’s Cato and the careers, and in “Battle Royale” it’s Kiriyama and Mitsuko. In part the reason why we dislike these characters is obvious, they represent an immediate threat to the protagonists we are supposed to care for. However, when we look at their actions, are they really in the wrong? I would say no. These characters act out of self-preservation, and I don’t think we have a right to criticize them for that. It’s very easy to sit back and smugly think of how morally superior to these characters we are. We like to associate ourselves with the hero, even if that distances us from the reality of the situation. One question I think someone should ask themself when watching/reading either of these two series is, Why is any one person more deserving of survival than any of the others? Why does Peeta have any more right to survival than Cato? Why is Shuya more deserving than Kiriyama? These characters represent how I hope I would behave in such a situation. They acknowledge the reality of their situation, evaluate what really matters, and act to preserve their lives. They didn’t write the rules; it isn’t their fault that they are playing a zero-sum game. These characters reject self-delusion, reject self-righteousness, and do what is necessary.
I have spent a lot of time looking at those who play the game to win, but I don’t want to neglect those characters who are presented to us as protagonists (the unwilling/reluctant to participate). These characters are portrayed as the paragons of morality. They vary slightly, but the core idea is the same, these characters have serious misgiving about playing the game. As an extreme example, Shuya in “Battle Royale” represents the Deontological point of view that says killing for any reason is wrong because killing is an inherently immoral action. Peeta and Katniss (especially Katniss) in the “Hunger Games” have a more moderate perspective. They don’t want to participate, but they acknowledge that playing may be necessary. Even after accepting that fact, neither one is a very active player in the game, and in the end they simply refuse to play. Katniss, for example, only really kills two people, and one of those is an accident. For the most part, people view these characters as the morally righteous ones. I simply view them as the less intelligent ones. Some of you may be thinking, “Well, they were right in the end.” No, they really weren’t. They were saved by luck, idealistic storytelling, or the actions of others (such as Kawada in “Battle Royale”). In real life, I don’t think any of these characters would survive. Now, the reason these characters are wrong is that morality isn’t determined by the actions themselves but by the consequences they bring about. What are the consequences of playing to win? No matter what action the characters take, realistically, there is only one possible outcome, all but one person dies. Choosing to refuse to play, while a noble sentiment, doesn’t change the fact that at the end of the day only one person will be left living.
It goes against our nature to view those characters that play to win as morally correct because we view them as threatening, cold, and ruthless. However, we cannot constantly allow ourselves to distance ourselves from the situation. When we break it down to the most basic level and look past the “happy ending” mentality, we are forced to realize that those characters we viewed as villains have really not committed any wrong, and those characters we hold up as moral examples would be rotting in the ground. It’s cynical, I know, but the real world doesn’t allow for the moral bright lines adhered to by the protagonists of these two excellent stories. Know this, if we ever end up in an arena together, I will play to win.