By Cristina Hartmann Lawyer by day, writer by night
As a chaser to Monika's excellent answer, I'll add that:
The Hunger Games capitalized on popular trends, Battle Royale didn't.
YA books with a female lead (or at least strong characters) are hot right now. Think Twilight and Harry Potter. Not only does Katniss outshoot and outthink Bella any day, The Hunger Games provides an exciting, fast-paced fantastical world in the absence of Harry Potter.
Battle Royale's English translation came out in 2003 (again in 2009 with an expanded edition). In 2003, the entire Western world twittered and chittered about Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. A little Japanese novel about kids killing kids? Can't beat Tolkien and Rowling.
Another point to make is that the United States' economy looked strong and solid in 2003, generally bad news for dystopias. Just from my observation, I've noticed a correlation between dystopian fiction popularity and the economy. It's like hemlines, as the economy drops, so do moods. Perhaps during high times, depressing dystopias seem too unrelatable, too unpalatable. During economic depressions, such stories make us glad that it's not that bad.
Plus, the Battle Royale film showed that a death match with a huge cast is unwieldy to watch in a 2.5-hour timeframe.
Culturally unrelatable characters.
Monika rang the bell with this one.
Battle Royale uses a lot of Japanese stereotypes about certain teenagers. You have Kauzo, the maniac gangster. Mitsuko is an oversexed girl pimping out her friends and herself (and of course, she's a victim of sexual abuse). Toshimori Oda is the super-nerd, aiming for the top spot in the symphony.
Luckily, I've consumed enough Japanese fiction to pick up some cultural norms. If one truly thinks about it, these characters aren't too different from the class bully, class whore and the nerd. The context, however, of the Yauza and actual prostitution may put these characters out of context for some readers.
In The Hunger Games we just need to relate to Katniss. Since Collins tells the story from a first person perspective, it's all too easy.
Battle Royale takes place in an alternate universe where Japan becomes a member of the Republic of Greater East Asia. This totalitarian regime presumably encompasses other Asian countries such as Korea (North and South) and perhaps China.
RGEA uses the "Program" as a way to instill fear and subservience into their citizenry. That's all we know. Since 99% of the book takes place on the island, we never really find out more about the context.
The Hunger Games does a better job of developing the dystopian world around Katniss that enables the constant televising of the Games. As Monika mentioned, this cultural reference points directly at Hollywood and America. Battle Royale only televises the winner, not the "deathmatch" itself.
One thing that grated on my nerves, and I doubt I'm the only one, was the "cuteness" and crushes that the students constantly referenced. Basically, much of the dialogue boils down to "OMG, XXXX is SO cute. I hope s/he doesn't die. I'll save him/her!"
Just no. If I'm pitted against my classmates in a deathmatch, I could care less about my crush. (Or am I heartless??)
This could be cultural as well.
Inconsistent, unrelatable narration.
Unlike The Hunger Games, Battle Royale has a distant third-person narrative. We bounce from one mind to another, usually right before they die. This oftentimes proves frustrating. We get a lot of back-stories that end all too soon. An entertaining book, but without a real "core" or "soul."
Sure, Shuya and Noriko are the main protagonists, but they aren't vivid characters like Mistuko or even Shogo. Shuya, an orphan, proved quite popular with the girls because of his musicial talents, and because he's Shuya. Noriko, well, she's a sweet girl, but she doesn't do much thorughout the novel. Perhaps this is just me, but I didn't feel absorbed into their fates as I did with Katniss.
Katniss, on the other hand, gives us the heart and soul of the book. We feel for her. We want her to win. Collins firmly places us into Katniss' head so we see, hear, and feel what she sees, hears, and feels. The first person narrative can limit information (hence, the mysteries of the District 5 boy's and Thresh's fates), but I think in such a violent surrounding, it requires a protagonist that we empathize with.
Battle Royale didn't succeed as much as The Hunger Games because of timing, relatability, cultural and narrative issues.
N.B. I'm only talking about financial success in the United States. Battle Royale made a huge profit in Japan.
More questions on The Hunger Games:
- Does The Hunger Games set a bad example for using violence as conflict resolution?
- In the Hunger Games movie, what was Cato's speech at the end and what was the point of it?
- What can we learn about violence and culpability from The Hunger Games?