Part of the enjoyment inherent in watching films where people are forced into strict kill-or-be-killed gaming scenarios is pondering what kind of player you would be. Maybe you imagine yourself as the innocent do-gooder who wins thanks to some crazy series of miracles. Or maybe your imagination revels in the guilt-free opportunity to kill anyone who messes with you. It's important to think about because this sort of thing happens to people in real life every day.
Given that movies tend to focus on active characters but find all-out evil sons of bitches unsavory, we mostly see a mixture of the two extremes: The reluctant killer. You have to kill to live. But just a little. And you're not supposed to like it much.
In The Hunger Games, protagonist Katniss Everdeen receives many nods to her highly developed badassery. She's not only an excellent archer, but possesses bravery and altruism enough to volunteer herself for the game to save her sister's life. She also discovers a latent ability to play the media in her favor. Unlike you or me, she has hero written all over her.
But Katniss is nowhere near the aggressive player you'd expect. The moment the games begin she almost loses her life. Rather than survive by her own volition, she lives thanks to the violent intervention of a surprise third party, who immediately tries to kill Katniss next.
She then hides in a tree where a gang of unsavory players eventually corner her. Escape comes only by dumping a nest of genetically engineered wasps on their heads, an action that shields her from direct responsibility because, technically, the wasps do the killing and also because she becomes a minor victim of the wasps as well. On top of that, the wasps were pointed out to her by someone else, the precious little sister stand-in, Rue.
Katniss' next piece of aggression is to blow up her opponent's supply cache, an act which robs them of much needed resources, but also creates beneficial infighting that further thins their ranks without actually bloodying Katniss' hands.
Soon after this, Katniss finally chalks up her first direct kill but only in retaliation for the death of Rue and as an instinctual effort to save her own life. Later Katniss almost dies again, but for the third time finds herself saved by another player. Katniss' second and final bit of direct lethal violence comes as she saves her primary antagonist, Cato, from being eaten alive by future dogs. Even when dispatching the main villain, she's merciful and kind.
So as a player, Katniss displays resourcefulness, but her success depends largely on the actions of others, indicating a survival reliant more on luck and being a nice person than the archery skills we anticipate. This is also true of The Hunger Games' sponsorship wrinkle, which grants likable, popular players life-saving deliveries from the outside world. The film is able to put its main character in a wholly violent situation yet maintain her selflessness at every step of her participation.
That's quite a remarkable feat, but given Katniss' supposed supremacy as an archer, it can also feel anticlimactic. Battle Royale, another film with a plot in which kids must kill other kids in order to survive, basically faces the same pacifism vs. aggression dilemma, but circumvents it completely for a number of reasons.
One of the main points separating these two films is that the class of students featured in Battle Royale have no idea they are about to participate in such a lethal game. Our primary heroes, lovebirds Shuya and Noriko, are not expected to know how to fight because they are just normal, everyday kids. Their pacifism is further insulated by the fact that they are protected by a true badass, Shogo Kawada.
Not only that, but theirs is hardly the only situation and reaction we are privy to in the film. Aside from these two main characters, we see the rise and fall of a number of heroes and villains among the other classmates, which makes Shuya and Noriko's helplessness just one of a variety of ways characters can confront this particular situation. They live thanks to the altruism their love inspires in their protector, but in the end, Shuya must ultimately take lethal action against another human being in order to protect Noriko. With the death of their protector the pair become fugitives running from the law. In other words, throughout Battle Royale, we start with pacifists but witness the birth of badasses.
In both situations, it would appear that reluctant violence is the way to go. But that's only if you're a kid and there are a bunch of other kids trying to kill you. Less democratic versions of the hunted human situation require something a bit more hardcore: Reluctant badassery.
Reluctant badassery is when a potentially violent person holds back their violence until it is absolutely certain they cannot survive without it, at which point, they turn it on all the way. It is an especially important trait in human hunting films where one character alone has to fight off a group of villains.
In the 1932 film, The Most Dangerous Game, our hero, Bob, finds himself hunted by the villainous Zaroff on a remote island. Zaroff has a bunch of henchmen and dogs but Bob only really has to kill the main man and he'll be safe, and that's mostly what he does. A dog dies and a couple henchmen get killed, but Bob's conflict ends with Zaroff's death. Bob's badassery is certain, but he faces a more even-handed adversary than is often the case with these plots.
Compare that with the 1994 film Surviving The Game, in which Ice-T finds himself hunted by a group of rich jerks in the Pacific Northwest wilderness. The situation is so crazy that the one hunter with a kind enough heart to call it quits gets shot in the head by one of his buddies. Not only that, but when Ice-T successfully wins the game, he still tracks down the main villain, Rutger Hauer, in civilization just to make sure he gets taken out.
And then we have the total extreme of the spectrum with Jean Claude Van Damme and John Woo's Hard Target. When hunted by the rich and evil Lance Henriksen and his crew, Van Damme not only fights back but grabs none other than a whisky-distilling, horseback-riding, shotgun-wielding Wilford Brimley to join in, pretty much signaling a narrative sea change in which we now gain our entertainment from watching the bad guys get hunted by the good guys. It's awesome.
A reluctant killer like Katniss Everdeen or Shuya Nanahara could not survive in Van Damme or Ice-T's narrative world. Their pacifism can exist only in a widespread enough playing field that some adversity will wipe itself out without their involvement. Conversely, a reluctant badass would also fare poorly in a Hunger Games/Battle Royale scenario. Winning is impossible because it would require killing good people, so they can only use their violence but retain their altruism by sacrificing themself for a weaker hero.
The point is this: If you are trapped in a kill-or-be-killed situation, please take note of your numbers. If it's a free for all, hang back and let them kill each other for a while. You'll probably have to kill a couple people, but not for some time. Try to figure out how many people in the situation are predators and how many are prey. The less favorable the ratio gets, the more violent you need to become. If it's a bunch of people all gunning just for you, nothing short of some full-on Rambo action will get you out alive. Don't even give them time to shoot first. Just start ripping them up the first moment you get. Follow this advice and you should probably be okay, so long as you pray to an acceptable God and haven't broken any mirrors in the last seven years.
This article originally appeared in the September issue of BIRTH. MOVIES. DEATH.