Following mass shootings in the US in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio, as well as criticism from President Donald Trump, violent thriller The Hunt pulled out of its initial September 27, 2019 release date. Now, The Hunt is officially here, and its social satire roots may make you reconsider if it was ever really that controversial to begin with. The movie is in step with countless films that utilise almost the same premise to explain a larger message about the world we live in now.
The Hunt, according to Universal Pictures, is based (albeit “loosely”) on The Most Dangerous Game, a 1924 short story by author Richard Connell. In Connell’s story, a hunter named Rainsford finds himself on a remote island, revealed to be the home of a mysterious man with a dark agenda. General Zaroff tells Rainsford he hunts the “most dangerous game” of all on this island — meaning other human beings — and informs Rainsford that, if he wants even a chance at survival, he must be Zaroff’s next mark. A cat-and-mouse game ensues.
The early 20th century story has since inspired dozens of works, ranging from family-friendly content (an episode of The Simpsons borrowed the premise for a segment of their 2005 “Treehouse of Horror” episode) to explicitly violent horror movies. It has become the grandfather of the humans-hunting-humans subgenre. Every few years or so, another one of these films make a splash in the zeitgeist, and today, it’s The Hunt, satirising our sharply divided political lines by making a group of conservative Americans the hunted, and “elite liberals,” the hunters.
Battle Royale, Kinji Fukasaku’s 2000 film based on the 1999 novel by Koushun Takami, is about a dystopian government who kidnaps a group of pre-teens and places them on a remote island. There, they are forced to fight to the death, or die by the bomb collar around their neck detonating. Director Fukasaku’s was inspired to make Battle Royale after coming of age during World War II in Japan, and realising he could not trust the government nor the adults around him to keep him safe. The teenagers in Fukasaku’s world were forced to grow up too fast, and to not be too emotional about the violence around them.
“I was working in a weapons factory that was a regular target for enemy bombing. During the raids, even though we were friends working together, the only thing we would be thinking of was self-preservation,” he told The Guardian in 2001. “We would try to get behind each other or beneath dead bodies to avoid the bombs. When the raid was over, we didn't really blame each other, but it made me understand about the limits of friendship.”
The film (which, as one can imagine, is incredibly violent) has been praised by filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino, but much like The Hunt, faced a great deal of controversy for its subject matter. It was screened for United States audiences shortly after the Columbine massacre and though it played film festivals, it never received theatrical distribution in America.
It’s interesting, then, that a film with such a similar premise to the controversial Japanese film would become a huge hit in the United States. The 2012 film The Hunger Games, based on Suzanne Collins’ dystopian YA series, follows Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) as she struggles to survive in a forced gladiator-style game with other children. Significantly less violent than Battle Royale (which some have suggested Hunger Games too closely copies) it, too, doesn’t necessarily blame the teenagers fighting in the games for exacting violence on one another. Instead, it’s the members of the government, who organised the Hunger Games as a way to suppress the masses from an uprising, who are the true villains here. The film, which celebrated rebellion as virtuous when faced with a corrupt, cruel government, hit a nerve: The first film in the franchise took home a whopping $694 (£555) million worldwide at the box office.
Over the years, horror filmmakers also leaned into the premise set up by The Most Dangerous Game, using the concept as a way to get creative with kills and just generally unsettle its audience. The villains of Eli Roth’s 2005 film Hostel are the members of a so-called “elite hunting club” that secretly kidnaps people to be killed by the highest bidder, with Americans the priciest to purchase. Three films exist in the franchise, which has been slammed as “torture porn” by many (it came out just one year after James Wan’s controversial Saw) but also praised by genre fans.
Roth’s take on the humans-hunting-humans story sounds like something the characters in The Hunt would write about on their conspiracy theory message boards. In Hostel, it’s American tourists partying around eastern Europe who become victims of this diabolical plan. The Americans are happy to drink, smoke, and have a good time in Slovakia — occasionally at the expense of the local people — but when the party's over for them, the Americans just want to leave without consequence. The elite hunting club turns the tables on the tourists’ plans, revealing the Americans are not here to be entertained...they are the entertainment.
Many Slovakians were angered by the film, which they believed hurt the image of their country. Roth, however, stated that Hostel was a criticism of the behaviour of American tourists.
"Americans do not even know that this country exists. My film is not a geographical work but aims to show Americans' ignorance of the world around them," Roth told the BBC.
The Purge franchise, which launched in 2013, envisions a world where all crime, including murder, is legal for a single day, leading to wealthy, powerful people making a sport of killing the underprivileged and defenceless.
Forbes called The Purge franchise “the political satire of our time, for our time.” The first film is told from the point of view of the patriarch (Ethan Hawke) of a white, wealthy family who has the high-tech security system necessary to wait out the annual Purge, but the subsequent films in the franchise are seen mostly from the perspective of women, people of colour, and the impoverished. It’s in these films that the characters slowly uncover the true purpose behind the Purge. It’s not merely about getting out repressed anger so that the rest of the year may be lived in peace, as is the government’s party line: Instead, the annual Purge is just one more way for the elites to take advantage of the underclass, and rid themselves of the people they see as unfit for their country.
Much like The Hunger Games, people really responded to the high-concept franchise: The first film, which had just a $3 (£2.4) million dollar budget, earned back 10 times that its first weekend at the box office, making its sequels inevitable. Further expanding the universe of The Purge is a spin-off TV series, which just aired its second season on Amazon Prime The next film, titled Purge and allegedly the last, is slated to hit cinemas July 10, 2020.
The Hunt feels like a natural successor to these films, utilising the basic premise of humans-hunting-humans as a greater allegory about society. America is more divided than ever, and everyone has a different perspective on who is “really” in charge here — who the metaphorical hunters are, and who is their prey. The difference between The Hunt, perhaps, and the rest of the films in this subgenre, is that in The Hunt, the hunters and hunted behave like people you might really know — or at least, may read the tweets of. It’s not the ridiculously dressed members of the Capitol in The Hunger Games who are the enemy in The Hunt, but people who might look and even sound a little bit like you.