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A Hunger Games reality show could be great, actually

Maybe it’s time for a reboot of its failed one?

The Hunger Games - Katniss Everdeen standing in rubble with a bow slung over her shoulder and fire behind her Image: Lionsgate
Austen Goslin (he/him) is an entertainment editor. He writes about the latest TV shows and movies, and particularly loves all things horror.

The Hunger Games is supposed to be a horrifying condemnation of commodified violence and a statement about the brutality of class-based spectacle remade as must-see viewing for salivating elites. But for one brief moment in the early 2010s, it also seemed like a pretty decent pitch for a reality show of its own, so that’s exactly what The CW did. And maybe it wasn’t the worst idea.

In 2013, a year after the release of the first Hunger Games movie, The CW debuted Capture, a reality show clearly (but not officially) based on The Hunger Games. Just like the Games in the series, Capture was a combination survival competition and elimination game that included 24 contestants, split up into 12 teams of two. Of course, competitors don’t actually kill each other like they do in the series, but every two days a new team is deemed the Hunt team while everyone else gets to be the Prey. While the Prey sleep in the Village, a meager shelter with just small rations of food to get them by, the Hunt team gets to stay in the Lodge, a more substantial shelter with better food. For four hours each day, the Hunt team is tasked with trying to capture the Prey, who will be placed in a cage once captured and given minimal food.

Obviously the threat of actual violence kept the show from getting too close to The Hunger Games in practice, rather than just premise. Instead, Capture was mostly a very brutal game of tag that mixed in elements of survival from shows like Survivorman and Man vs. Wild. But the pitch of the series being so similar to The Hunger Games is undeniably a little uncomfortable to sit with, considering that the original text frames the Games as synonymous with decadence and societal decline.

Then again, popular entertainment has sought to condemn reality TV and fascination with violent spectacle for decades, in everything from Running Man to Videodrome. What those movies feature that their real-life competition-show counterparts largely lack is violence. Contests of elimination don’t have to be inherently violent, and if they were, maybe the comparisons to dystopian fiction would start to make a whole lot more sense. Instead, maybe the lesson of Capture is simply that people are always looking for new kinds of competition to watch and that we shouldn’t overthink it.

In the spirit of not overthinking it, Netflix is giving us yet another reality show based on a dystopian competition series. While Capture didn’t actually have the official branding of The Hunger Games, Netflix’s new series Squid Game: The Challenge is a direct spinoff of the streaming service’s own popular South Korean thriller series. The Challenge tasks players with completing some of the same games contestants in the original show faced — with much less dire consequences for failure.

A group of masked men in pink jumpsuits brandishing assault rifles in Squid Game. Photo: Youngkyu Park/Netflix

On the one hand, it’s easy to hand-wring and worry about what all these shows say about society, about how each time we soften dystopian fiction into cuddly evening TV we slip closer to Roman citizens in the Colosseum, but that probably isn’t true.

Divorced from the horrific violence that fuels them in fiction, the dystopian death spectacles just become competition shows, and while that may hurt the message of the stories they’re based on, they don’t hurt society much as a whole. Competition shows are, at their most basic, inspiring and entertaining. They’re visions of regular(ish) people succeeding at impressive feats, and until they actually move toward violence (or even match the violence of professional sports), they’re doing comparatively little harm.

The real problem with Capture was just that it wasn’t that exciting, which may explain why it only got one season with fairly low ratings. It remains to be seen how Squid Game: The Challenge will do, since that show doesn’t premiere until Nov. 22, but with a new Hunger Games movie back in theaters, maybe it’s time to try a new Hunger Games reality show?

The truth is, competition shows are inherently exciting — the original Hunger Games books recognize that perfectly. Reality competition shows, at their best, create extremely tense situations that let narratives, personalities, and people triumph, whether the stakes are a cash prize or, in the case of The Hunger Games, certain death. Adapting The Hunger Games is really more like coming full circle, from its reality show inspirations to being a reality show itself, than it is our culture descending to the lowest pits of barbarism.

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