Who Wants to be a Doctor? The "deadly game" subgenre and why The Hunger Games is a welcome addition

I hear it constantly, both in real life and online forums: “The Hunger Games is a rip-off of Battle Royale!” People seem desperate to prove they saw Battle Royale long before they heard about The Hunger Games, as if that keeps their nerd cards current. I saw it first, too (*flashes nerd card along with an old imported copy*), but to say The Hunger Games is a rip-off of Battle Royale is like saying Interview with the Vampire ripped off Dracula.

Before Battle Royale there was The Running Man. Before that there was the novel it was based on, written by Richard Bachman (Stephen King). The Bachman pseudonym paid homage to Richard Matheson, who also dealt in high concept ideas. I don’t remember where the proudly stupid Deathrow Gameshow figures into the mess, but the concept isn’t new. It goes back almost a century to Richard Connell’s The Most Dangerous Game and the subsequent movie. Seriously, that story is likely older than your parents.

That’s not to say Battle Royale is a rip-off. All I’m saying is “the deadly game” is an awesome subgenre (TVtropes counts over twenty examples of the deadly game in film alone), one which has yet to be driven into the ground like vampires and zombies. Yes, these stories share the same idea, but ideas aren’t protected by copyright in the United States. Only the execution of the idea is copyrighted, which means you’re free to write stories about deadly games all you want.

And you should. It’s, as the kids say, a hella fun. (Okay, I obviously have no idea what kids say anymore.) My tiny contribution is included at the bottom of this post.

Cutting Cards, my all-time favorite Tales from the Crypt

I think it’s easy to see the appeal of the death show subgenre as long as you’re honest with yourself:

A) It’s satire of what passes as entertainment on television. Geraldo, Morton Downey Jr., and Jerry Springer have left behind a disgusting legacy American culture isn’t going to cure anytime soon. The other day I was told there was a new show where contestants are dropped in the middle of the wilderness naked. When I asked which channel this was on, the reply was, “I don’t know. I think it was Discovery or TLC.”

B) Humans really had entertainment like this, perhaps most memorably in the days of Spartacus. I know people like to think they’re above being fascinated by death, but have you ever seen traffic proceed smoothly past a car wreck? It’s hardwired into us, this fascination with the macabre, not because we’re sick, but because it’s important for us to know What Can Go Wrong with our flesh vessels. Which is why I scream inside whenever I hear snobs whine about how distasteful the horror genre is—you’ll never convince me the first stories told around campfires weren’t about gruesome deaths.

perhaps my favorite film example of the deadly game

Maybe the reason some people dislike The Hunger Games is nerds’ precious interests are finally going mainstream. Yes, it sucks that all of John Carpenter’s movies are becoming pointless remakes. And yes, a lot of us actually found comfort in existing outside the “cool” groups with our love for speculative fiction and all weird things. But damn it, The Hunger Games is a surprisingly great interpretation of the death show. I’m glad kids are getting sophisticated stuff like this as opposed to Twilight and other superficial speculative fiction stories.

Most of all, I’m glad the death show subgenre will outlive me, that future generations will be much more accepting to the high concept weirdness literary critics used to shun. That’s growth, people.

Several years ago my girlfriend was making fun of how ridiculous television was getting and said, “What’s next? Who Wants to be a Doctor?” At which point I immediately walked into the other room and wrote the following story….

Who Wants to be a Doctor?
a short story by Grant Gougler

The figures slammed the foot end of Mark’s gurney through a couple of doors which led backstage. He could already hear the crowd on the other side of the curtain. They were riled up out there, absolutely frenzied. In regards to the question posed by the show’s title—Who Wants to be a Doctor?—it sounded like everyone in the world did.

The stagehands weren’t paying any attention to him. He attempted to lift his head, kind of succeeded, and tried to plead for mercy. If his lips moved at all, he couldn’t tell. The producers had shot him full of neuromuscular paralytics. The drugs didn’t work on pain, of course. They only worked well enough to keep him quiet and subdued.

Mark heard the announcer’s omnipresent voice: “Jane Slotham, come on down!” Then the theme music played while the randomly chosen audience member made her way down to the stage, squealing in excitement. She jerked the mic away from the host and introduced herself as a thirty-two year old homemaker from Ohio. She was a huge fan of the show. Her family never missed it.

“How ’bout that,” the host said, reclaiming the microphone. “So you know the rules, but some of our viewers at home may not. Remind us, Sal.”

“The goal is simple,” announced an omnipresent voice, “operate on your patient, return his status to a stable condition, and sew him back up. If your patient lives for one hour, you win… an all-expense-paid vacation for you and one guest to beautiful Waikiki Beach in Honolulu!” 

The crowd went wild.

“All right, Jane. Are you ready to meet your patient?”

“I’m ready, Todd.”

“Alright, ladies… bring him out!”

Four women dressed in nurse costumes shoved Mark towards the stage. As the curtain drew he caught glimpses of a laser light show sweeping the clouds of the fog machines. The stage lights were too bright for Mark to see the audience members, but he could feel their excitement, could fear their enthusiasm.

The crowd cheered the four assistants as they mugged for the cameras and parked Mark’s gurney beneath the jumbotron. Then they blew kisses as they exited the stage. From his new angle, Mark could see himself on the big screen. He was shirtless and pale. Not a man anymore, but a cold corpse which hadn’t realized it was dead yet. The corpse was strapped to a vinyl pad, puddled with various types of bodily fluids.

He would have to watch whatever they did to him.

The music faded as the host opened a sealed envelope. “Jane, this is Mark Saddle. Up until a few hours ago he was serving two consecutive life sentences at the World Correctional Facility for—get this folks—cheating on his wife.”

The crowd heckled and the host patted the air to pacify them before they ripped their seats out of the floor.

“Jane,” he said, “what’s your initial assessment?”

“Well, Todd, because of the large amount of blood the patient has lost, I’d say that he’s either the victim of a gunshot wound or a stabbing.”

“That would appear to be the case, wouldn’t it?”

“I’m going to go with… ummm…. knife wound. I don’t see an exit wound and you did ‘gunshot victim’ last week.”

“The advantage of being a longtime viewer, ladies and gentlemen.” The audience laughed. “All right, Jane. We’ll get you prepped for surgery and, in the meantime, you folks at home stay right where you are. We’ll be right back!”

The theme music played them out to a commercial break. A prop comedian kept the audience warm while a stagehand helped Jane into her scrubs. Another stagehand wheeled in a cart full of stainless steel instruments, which gleamed like mirrors. Watching Jane’s face as she mentally prepared herself for the torture she would soon inflict, a deeply suppressed part of Mark was glad he couldn’t talk. He was finally famous.

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One thought on “Who Wants to be a Doctor? The "deadly game" subgenre and why The Hunger Games is a welcome addition

  1. Dear gawd, this has got to be one of the most intelligent, informed posts about the Battle Royale weeaboo flaming of THG. The themes were around a lot longer than The Most Dangerous Game or even the true-life story of Spartacus. Theseus and the Minotaur dates back at least 3,000 years (some scholars put it at 4,000+), and human sacrifice thousands of years before that.

    Your speculation that all the flame-rage on the part of the BR weebs is due to the concept becoming mainstream (itself an ignorant concept as you showed), is novel to me. I think the main carpet-biting and flaming is more a pathological cry for attention. “I know about this incredibly obscure Asian movie/comic-book/book you've never heard of!” seems to be the main subtext.

    The worst are the sad individuals who accuse the author of THG of plagiarism, when the fact is Collins had never even heard of BR when she wrote the 1st book. The people I've seen who scream “Liar” to that fact are just throwing a hissie-fit like a 5-year-old having their dolly taken away. I'm 45 years old, and I had never heard of THG prior to the Summer tv ads in '12. Furthermore, I hadn't heard of BR until the Autumn of '13 when I stumbled on the flaming comments online.

    Oh, and major props for being the first person I've seen to include the classic Deathrow Gameshow in the discussion. I taped that off of MAX back in 1990 and wore it out watching with friends over pizza and beer.


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