"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
With the Harry Potter series fading in the rear-view mirror and the heroine of “The Twilight Saga” having surrendered both her virginity and her humanity, Hollywood executives and media-showbiz insiders expect the forthcoming film adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ young-adult bestseller “The Hunger Games” to fill an enormous pop-culture void. Lionsgate, the struggling studio that will distribute director and co-writer Gary Ross’ movie version — which stars Jennifer Lawrence as intrepid huntress and heroine Katniss Everdeen — eagerly awaits an infusion of hundreds of millions of dollars from teens, tweens and young adults all over the globe.
At this point, the success of the “Hunger Games” film franchise seems like a sure thing. Questions of how big and how much remain to be answered, and should occupy accountants, semioticians and breathless entertainment-industry reporters for several years to come. But the question of where “The Hunger Games” came from is arguably more interesting than the question of where it’s going. If you think that Collins’ ingenious yarn about a dystopian future North America where enslaved teenagers are forced to fight each other to the death — as both televised entertainment and a form of social control — feels vaguely familiar, you’re not alone.
If you prowl the universe of online science-fiction aficionados, you can discover entire constellations of theory, speculation and accusation around “The Hunger Games,” much of it focused on the idea that Collins was influenced by (or simply ripped off) the similarly themed Japanese cult franchise “Battle Royale.” First an Orwell-goes-pulp 1999 novel by Koushun Takami, then a manga (or graphic novel) and then a splatterific and highly effective 2000 film directed by Kinji Fukasaku, “Battle Royale” concerns a group of junior-high students abducted by the Japanese government, transported to an isolated location, and forced to hunt each other down.
For some fans of “Battle Royale,” Collins stands convicted of plagiarism — and, still worse, of plagiarizing their beloved gore-fest while wimping out on the explicit violence and inserting a girl as the hero. One especially enlightened comment I encountered described “The Hunger Games” as “the pansy version (or the ‘Twilight’ version) of ‘Battle Royale.’” But I’m not here to poke holes in random ignorant teenage straw men, and in fairness most of the Internet discussion of the relationship between “The Hunger Games” and “Battle Royale” (and “The Running Man,” and many other things besides) has been far more nuanced than that. It doesn’t take a Ph.D. in literature or history to grasp that both works have their roots in long-standing traditions of science fiction, social satire and mythology, and that both endeavor to be simultaneously contemporary and ancient.
Suzanne Collins has said that she’d never heard of “Battle Royale” until after she had completed the first “Hunger Games” book, and I can see no reason to doubt her. When you get down to granular details, the two stories start to feel quite different: While Collins’ Hunger Games are both a tool of social control and an elaborate public display dressed up with a veneer of fairness, and are broadcast throughout the nation as near-mandatory viewing, Takami’s Battle Royale is a clandestine military experiment conducted in total secrecy. As I see it, both authors were inspired by Orwell’s “1984″ and by the real-life history of totalitarianism, but in different directions: Collins imagines a society of total spectacle, in which entertainment becomes an aspect of state power, while Takami imagines a police state that operates in darkness, holding each individual’s life in its fist.
In fact, Collins herself has cited almost too many inspirations for “The Hunger Games,” from the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur — in which seven Athenian boys and seven Athenian girls are sent into the Cretan labyrinth as sacrifices to the bull-headed monster — to the gladiatorial games of the Roman Empire to television coverage of the Iraq War to “Survivor” and its many offshoots. All of that is in there, to be sure. But to some degree she’s supplying ex post facto, overly intellectual analysis of something that’s really much simpler.
“The Hunger Games” taps into a vibrant current of pop culture and indeed of Western civilization in general, one that never really runs dry. It’s the idea that our species remains cruel and barbarous at heart, that the strong will always rule the weak by whatever means necessary, and that our collective obsession with sports and games and other forms of manufactured entertainment is a flimsy mask for sadism and voyeurism. Collins’ only real innovations to this formula are a post-Buffy female action hero at its center — clearly a crucial component of her success — and a slick, propulsive packaging with very little scene description or social context. (The first-person, present-tense, limited-omniscient narration of “The Hunger Games” feels more like a movie treatment than a conventional novel.)
If Collins didn’t rip off “Battle Royale,” there are all kinds of books and films from the past few decades that might have helped shape “The Hunger Games,” whether consciously or not, or that at the very least develop similar ideas and themes. One could go still further afield, beyond the action thrillers and science-fiction movies I’ve listed here. (Some people see echoes of William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies” and Orson Scott Card’s “Ender’s Game” in “Hunger Games,” for instance. Sure, maybe, a little.) Here’s my arithmetical formula: Take the universe of “Logan’s Run” and “The Running Man,” the hero of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” the setting of “Survivor” and the action of “The Most Dangerous Game,” and then add the overall story arc of “Gladiator” or even “Spartacus.” Sounds like a winner, right?
Here are a few of the most obvious precursors, ancestors and cousins of “The Hunger Games.” I don’t view this as in any way an exhaustive or definitive list. Want to make a case for Italian director Elio Petri’s 1965 “The 10th Victim,” in which Ursula Andress must go after Marcello Mastroianni with a high-powered shotgun, in order to please her corporate sponsor? I’ve never seen it — but it sounds awesome!
“The Long Walk” (novel, 1979) As Stephen King archly observed in his 2008 EW review of “The Hunger Games,” there were two novels by “some guy named Bachman” (along with Takami’s “Battle Royale,” which he also mentioned) that described and inhabited the same “TV badlands” as Collins’ book. Richard Bachman was of course a pseudonym used by King early in his career; in fact, “The Long Walk,” although not published until 1979, was reportedly the first novel King ever completed. It concerns a deadly competition in a nightmarish America of the future, in which 100 teenage boys walk south from the Canadian border, without stopping, until only one is left alive. The melodrama of constantly shifting teen alliances, the relentless cruelty of the game and the backdrop of an amorphous fascist government are all strikingly similar to that of “Hunger Games.” Indeed, one has to wonder whether King’s mild irritation with Collins’ book, which he compared to “one of those shoot-it-if-it-moves videogames” and accused of “authorial laziness,” has a personal component.
“The Running Man” (novel, 1982, and movie, 1987) This is the second of the Bachman novels mentioned by King in his “Hunger Games” review — and boy, is it a doozy. Set in a 2025 version of the United States on the edge of financial and social collapse, where participation in a kill-or-be-killed game show offers impoverished citizens an instant payday, this book displays King at his most anarchic and subversive. (Even a decade-plus after 9/11, the climactic scene of this book will shock you.) While the basic setup of “The Running Man” is somewhat similar to that of “The Hunger Games,” King is pursuing a much darker and more brutal variety of social satire. Paul Michael Glaser’s delirious, trash-classic 1987 movie version, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as the Running Man who becomes an accidental celebrity, is only loosely based on the King/Bachman novel. (Supposedly it was inspired by a German TV show, itself inspired by a Robert Sheckley novella.) But it prefigures “The Hunger Games” in all sorts of ways, notably the supporting cast of grotesque characters and the sophisticated interplay between the game’s audience, creators and contestants.
“The Most Dangerous Game” (1932) “Hunt first the enemy, then the woman,” says Russian expatriate Count Zaroff (Leslie Banks) to the famous American hunter and author (Joel McCrea) who’s been marooned on a remote island. Mwoo-ha-ha-ha! The influence of this schlocky but juicy pre-Code hit (which is now freely available on the Internet) on “The Hunger Games” and all other humans-huntin’-humans novels and movies is probably overstated. But on a thematic or psychological level, you can certainly argue that it introduced various ancient storytelling elements — physical isolation, barbarism masquerading as civilization, one-on-one physical combat as both a brutal and noble pursuit — in a modern context.
“Rollerball” (1975) Although drenched in machismo, from its eponymous ultraviolent sport to the lead performance of James Caan and the direction of Norman Jewison, this thoroughly engrossing science-fiction masterpiece — arguably the high point of the dystopian ’70s wave — presages “The Hunger Games” in many ways and on many levels. I would argue that it offers a far more plausible vision of the human future, in which the nation-state has essentially withered away, to be replaced by multinational corporations, but everybody has their own favorite apocalypse. As in “The Hunger Games,” the sport of rollerball is meant both to sate collective blood lust and to crush all thoughts of individual initiative and resistance, and as eventually happens in Collins’ trilogy — spoiler alert! — one winner eventually becomes big enough to throw the game back into the overlords’ faces. (I’m not going to insult you by bringing up the 2002 remake, except to suggest that it was an official production of the National Rollerball League and their corporate masters.)
“Logan’s Run” (1976) In terms of plot, this classic of post-’60s youth-oriented sci-fi, with Michael York and Jenny Agutter as young lovers in a world where no one lives past 30, is clearly the grandparent of last year’s modest Justin Timberlake hit “In Time.” But the combination of love story and apocalypse feels a bit “Hunger Games”-ish, as does the sense that the dictatorial old world is a paper tiger ready to be swept away by the wind of youthful rebellion. Let’s take a moment to celebrate the news that the long-contemplated Hollywood remake is apparently back in production, with Ryan Gosling and his “Drive” director, Nicolas Winding Refn.
“Series 7: The Contenders” (2001) It was still early in the reality-TV era when writer-director Daniel Minahan’s dystopian spoof premiered at Sundance and went on to slight, fringe-y acclaim. Let’s consider: “Series 7″ depicts a murderous reality show (“Real People in Real Danger!”) whose contestants are selected at random in a nationwide lottery. It’s evidently impossible to refuse (although the mechanism of control is never explained), although if you win the game you can retire to a celebrity afterlife. Unlike any other entry in this genre that I can find, it has a female hero, although Dawn, the protagonist of “Series 7,” is an adult woman and eight months’ pregnant to boot. Admittedly, “Series 7″ goes to some whacked-out media-satire zones that “The Hunger Games” never even imagines (not to mention completely falling apart in the last act). But I’m calling major unacknowledged influence here; this movie was just big enough that Suzanne Collins almost certainly heard about it, but also obscure enough that everybody had pretty much forgotten it by 2008.
“The Condemned” (2007) A semi-notorious box-office flop (that then cleaned up on home video), “The Condemned” stars WWE wrestler Stone Cold Steve Austin as one of a group of 10 death-row convicts who must battle to the death in the Australian outback, as part of an illegal televised sport. Exactly how you broadcast an illegal sport I don’t know, since I haven’t seen the movie and don’t intend to. This was released only months before the publication of “The Hunger Games,” and I’m not seriously positing a connection, except on the Zeitgeist level. Several critics at the time compared this movie to “Battle Royale” and “The Most Dangerous Game,” and there you go.
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)