As part of a ruthless program by the totalitarian government, ninth-grade students are taken to a small isolated island with a map, food, and various weapons. Forced to wear special collars that explode when they break a rule, they must fight each other for three days until only one "winner" remains. (Source: Amazon)
About a year and a half ago I watched the live action Battle Royale movie and loved it. So when I heard that the original book version was being translated and released in the US, I had to see how the two compared. And after finishing the book, I'll say that it's definitely an interesting read, but not nearly as entertaining as the movie.
The story of Battle Royale plays out like a combination of Lord of the Flies meets 1984 meets The Running Man. It takes place in an alternate history Japan where, as part of a military research program, a class of forty-two unwitting students are taken to an island, given random weapons, and told to kill each other within three days. The last student standing is labelled the victor and granted a dubious award, but if more than one student is left after the allotted time, everyone dies.
The initial draw of the book is the question of "what would you do in that situation?" And to its credit the book does a good job of showing forty-two kids, each with distinct personalities, history, emotional baggage, and philosophies on how to approach the game. In fact, part of what kept me reading was to see (1) how each character would deal with the situation, and (2) how each character would bite it in the end.
The real value of the book is in it's role as an allegory for youth. It's meant to show that this is in fact how real kids view the world: that they live in an oppressive world in which they have little control, and that adults simply use them and push them into a cutthroat, kill-or-be-killed educational system. I can see where this would be all the more true in Japan where so much more stress is put on succeeding in school no matter what. I found it particularly enlightening how the students in the book, in order to find some level of freedom and rebellion in under the restrictive government, turn to contraband music and literature smuggled from America.
So purely from those ideas and insights, the book is definitely an interesting read. But the entertainment value in terms of the suspense and thrill that you would expect from such a violent story is limited by the author's awkward, amateurish writing style.
The first chapter opens with the line "42 students remaining", which is actually a great way to begin because right away I was hooked with an adrenaline rush since I knew that by the end that number would dwindle down. But as the story built up to the point where I expected the action to really get going, it was suddenly interrupted by an ill-timed flashback; and it continued in that vein throughout. Now, I'm not faulting the flashbacks themselves, it's just that I've seen other authors who are able to use that kind of character development to enhance suspense; but here it tends to disrupt the pace of the action and destroy much of the suspense.
Plus, the characters themselves seem more like one-dimensional stereotypes for kinds of students instead of fully fleshed-out, believable characters. It's like an extended version of the cast of Breakfast Club where you have the jock, the nerd, the rebel, and the princess, along with the arrogant rich boy, the coward, the idiot, and of course everyone's favorites: the stone-cold stoic killer, and the psychopathic bitch. This can be amusing at times, but limits the level of empathy, and -- as a result -- limits the potential for suspense.
There were other things about the author's writing style that I wasn't crazy about. For instance, he is pretty blunt when describing things. So he's more likely to say something like "the red blood flowed from his head" as opposed to "the crimson fluid oozed out of his gaping wound like lava through the caverns of hell." Not that I need poetry, but I think adding more color to the language makes a book easier to read. The other thing I don't like is that the point-of-view will spontaneously shift from one character to another in the middle of a chapter, which can be confusing and, again, break the pace. Though instances like that tend to happen less as the book goes on, which give me the impression that the author was developing his writing skill as he went.
For those who have seen the movie, I do think this book is a worthwhile read just because, though inferior for entertainment value, it does add a lot of description to the characters and setting that helps make a lot more sense out of what is going on. First of all, as mentioned before, just about every single character gets some level of description of their background and personalities, but more importantly there is a lot more explanation of the world in which the story takes place and the real purpose and origin behind the program-o-death. In the movie there was some explanation, but it didn't seem to make much sense; but here, thankfully, it's more fleshed-out.
On the flip side, the movie does a better job at keeping the pace of the action and suspense by cutting back on the flashback sequences, including just enough to give the story some depth. And although many of characters are just as much stereotyped in the movie as in the book, the movie does a better job of playing up the camp-factor, making the stereotypes seem more like intentional exaggerations instead of limitations in the writing.
So overall this book has a fascinating premise, but the execution is so flawed as to limit its full potential. I mentioned in a previous post that my enjoyment of the movie version may have been due to low expectations, so it stands to reason that my high expectations for the book might be the reason behind my lack luster review. But I don't think so.