A Case for the CW’s Battle Royale

So… you may have heard about the CW vying to adapt Battle Royale (2000) into an American television series. Yes, that Battle Royale. And it’s just as well; the CW has been working on its answer to The Hunger Games since Suzanne Collins’s novel became a runaway hit. Just as it greenlit The Vampire Diaries when Twilight captived American popular culture, the CW moved quickly to develop The Selection on the heels of The Hunger Games. When the network didn’t pick up the pilot as expected, its president expressed continued interest in redeveloping it last May. Now that the CW is courting Battle Royale, it sounds like The Selection‘s redevelopment may be taking a different direction. Presumably the Battle Royale adaptation would take the place of The Selection–or perhaps The Selection would simply be rebranded as “Battle Royale.” Two shows about kids killing kids for the entertainment of adults seems like market saturation. However Battle Royale finally configures into the CW’s line-up, it won’t please many fans of the Japanese original. That said, while translating such a controversial text between mediums and cultures will be challenging, I don’t think we should write off the CW’s adaptation just yet.

First and foremost, it’s important to note that nothing is official yet. Russ Fischer’s report for /Film is clear that no deals have been made, no contracts have been signed. Additionally, the adaptation must be approved by Koushun Takami, the author of the original novel on which Battle Royale is based. Nevertheless, the response to the news that the CW may adapt the cult classic for its audience has been both negative and visceral. For his part, Fischer suggests “some guttural expression that serves the function of guffaw and retching.” I’m sure many readers made that exact, horrible noise. After all, there is something deeply troubling about adapting a film as gruesome as Battle Royale to a medium that is heavily self-censored. This was my primary fear in seeing the similarly-themed Hunger Games adapted into a PG-13 movie. Still having not seen the film for myself (waiting for Netflix/the library/my sister to buy it so I can borrow it), I have trouble believing that the film can convey Katniss’s kindness and humanity if it can’t contrast it with the brutality and cruelty she faces. And while this is a concern voiced in several of the comments on Fischer’s post, much of the readers’ contention with the theoretical adaptation stems from the CW’s reputation as a producer of teen soaps like One Tree Hill or the aforementioned Vampire Diaries. In this respect, the complaints read less like a fear of censorship and more like a fear of youth culture (specifically feminine youth culture) somehow corroding Battle Royale‘s prestige. This criticism runs contrary to Battle Royale‘s central theme: adults distrusting and eventually devaluing children. Perhaps more importantly, Battle Royale uses the language of youth culture–of soaps like One Tree Hill or their Japanese equivalents–to introduce and motivate its characters. When they aren’t killing each other, the classmates of Battle Royale are confiding secret crushes in one another and risking life and limb in the name of puppy love. This shouldn’t be dismissed.

Consider the iconic lighthouse scene. Yukie dotes on Shuya, giggling about her crush on him and how bandaging him was the first time she had ever touched a boy, before running downstairs to tell her girl friends. The language she uses is overly-flowery and feminine–the kind of eye-batting speech that you only really see on TV. On one level, the girls’ pre-occupation with Yukie’s crush and (omg!) Shuya’s state of dress is ridiculous in the context of a homicidal competition. However, while the pace at which the innocuous girl talk degenerates into a paranoid bloodbath skirts parody, I don’t think that Battle Royale is making a comment on whether youth media is good or bad. Rather, I think it’s using the lens through which young people are usually viewed in visual culture–and through which teenagers are conditioned to evaluate their own experiences–to underline how horrific the BR Project is. In the case of Yukie and the other girls at the lighthouse, they giggle about boys not just because that’s how they–as characters in the fiction–have been conditioned to act, but also because that is how we, as an audience, have been conditioned to read stories about teenaged girls (for better or worse). In this respect, inserting an American Battle Royale into a line-up that already uses the same language would further contextualize it. If done right, the CW could lull the audience into a false sense of security with its similar programming before breaking the familiar formula with bouts of violence (assuming the network can solve the problem of violence, which, granted, is assuming a lot). This could go a long way to accentuate the horror of the BR Project to its American audience and ultimately strengthen the audience’s understanding of the show.

And remember, while the CW may have given us such cheese as Dawson’s Creek and One Tree Hill, it also gave us a decade-long Superman-based soap and Nikita. Plus, it saved Buffy The Vampire Slayer from pre-mature cancellation. In 2012–The Year of Joss Whedon–that has to count for something.

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