A comparison of The Hunger Games and Battle Royale, and advice on how screenwriters can deal with plagiarism and protect their work.
Since writing “The Hunger Games and Plagiarism,” we decided to change the concept of this blog and create more in-depth, longer entries. Rather than just adding a “Part Two,” I decided to go a little deeper into this topic in just one entry, so if you read the last post, some of the following will be a refresher on what that post covered.
The Hunger Games premiered a few weeks ago as a box office smash with a mostly positive critical response. But some people have been up in arms about its similarities to Battle Royale, a Japanese movie released in 2000 and is also based on a book. The similarities are striking. Both have the exact same premise: A totalitarian government puts a group of teenagers on an island and forces them to kill each other as a means of societal control. But there are tons of differences as well. The kids in BR were in the same grade at the same school, so they all know each other, which make their reactions to being in this “game” far more varied and interesting than HG. Couples commit suicide, friends vow to keep each other safe, and one girl turns into a killing machine, each in its own way a reflection of their interpersonal relationships. In HG however, everyone is in it to be the last one standing, despite any alliances that might arise (okay, Peeta’s the exception, but he’s always the exception). There are a lot more feelings of guilt in BR as well, especially with the friend-on-friend violence. In HG, Katniss mostly absolves herself of any killing, as it is for her own protection or the protection of one of her friends. At the same time, BR is considerably more violent than HG and doesn’t shy away from either gratuity or horror, which makes it really hard to stomach at times. HG has a more even hand and also better conveys the grimness of the “game,” mostly because we get to see what’s happening outside the arena. Another huge difference, and the biggest problem I have regarding story with BR, is that HG is far clearer about world-building and the set-up. With HG, we get a better sense of why the Games were started and the history of Panem. BR makes much less sense; for example, the film starts with an interview of the winner of one “Battle Royale,” which seems to establish that the whole country is aware of the "program." But after the credits roll and we’re introduced to the group of students we’ll actually watch in the “battle,” none of the students know what’s going on, even after it’s explained to them. If none of these students know about it, how exactly is that supposed to keep the “youth of Japan” in line?
After you consider the similarities and differences between the films, it’s clear that Battle Royale and The Hunger Games are different interpretations of the same basic idea. This doesn’t merit plagiarism – even if the starting point is the same, it doesn’t really matter if the execution is strong. This becomes even clearer when you examine the archetypal nature of storytelling. The concept of teenagers on an island killing each other didn’t start with Battle Royale (The Lord of the Flies took on this topic back in the 50s), and there are certainly no shortage of dystopian-future stories. Execution matters far more. Screenwriters shouldn’t be overly concerned about plagiarism, because they should trust their ability to execute their ideas.
Still, there are some steps writers should take to protect themselves. The biggest and most important precaution is to register your work in some way. It’s not just proof that you wrote the script, but it puts a date on the piece that will show when you wrote it. One easy way to do this is to mail a copy to yourself and keep it sealed. This puts a date on the screenplay, and though it’s not extremely solid evidence if you have to one day take it to court, it’s better than nothing. Another way to protect a script is to register it with the Writer’s Guild. You can register your script with either Writer’s Guild East or West, depending on where you live, and you don’t have to be a member to use this service. It’s $25 at the most, and students get a discount. Everything from screenplays and pilots to synopsis and concepts can be registered. Lastly, you can send your script to the US Copyright Office. Though it takes longer to get proof of registration (there’s no electronic submission) and it’s about $10 more than registering with a Guild, it protects your work for your entire lifetime plus 70 years. The Guild’s protection is only 5-10 years, but you can renew it at an additional cost.
More ways to protect your work include being mindful of where your loglines are listed. For example, there are “script banks” where writers can submit loglines to act as pitches to interested industry professionals. While these can be useful in getting your writing in front of the right people, you should also be aware of who else might be able to look at it, and that their motives might not be altruistic. And make sure you’re not handing your script out to everyone who claims to be connected in the business. It’s always better to go the extra mile to get a script into the hands of someone established rather than blitzing a huge group of questionably professional people. Remember though that you have to get your work out there to get it sold – don’t do yourself a disservice by keeping it to yourself!