A brief History of Killing Children through Competition (in Fiction)

Infanticide has existed ever since the birth of the human race and although it has become pretty taboo over the years, some fiction deals with this quite head-on.

A black and white illustration of people offering a baby as a sacrifice to a bulheaded burning idol.
Offering to Molech — Charles Foster

Killing children is bad, ask any gamer and they will tell you so. Killing children is so bad, most of the times you can’t even do it through gaming. Did you ever saw a child in an open world like Grand Theft Auto ? Legend has it, Fallout 1 and 2 authorized gamers to kill children, at least in the United-Sates. In Europe, the controversie was so big, the developper simply rendered every children in the game invisible, meaning those digital misfits could still steal from you, but you wouldn’t be able to do anything to them. So you see, killing children is so bad, you couldn’t even do it through games…

The truth is infanticide has always been a part of humanity’s history. In ancient Greece it was advocated that if a child suffered from deformities or if he wasn’t up to his father’s standards, one could kill his own flesh, mostly by abandoning him. Legends of Spartans throwing their handicapped babies down a pit have traversed eons to reach us and at its core, this is what the Brothers Grimm’s Hansel and Gretel story is all about. Ever since the dawn of time, there existed a common belief which made a child’s life the responsibility of its parent; meaning they could just end it.

What’s more special about the infanticide practice down in Sparta, and what hurt Plutarch, the one to report on it in The life of Lykourgos, was that the act of killing the child wasn’t carried out by the father but rather by the State in the form of a group of elders. This change in practice seemed distasteful to the historian. While infanticide had always been a reasonable measure, the idea of the faceless government having the right to kill your child was scary. And to this very day, it still is.

One of the earliest examples you could find of a work of fiction developing the idea of killing children through a game comes from Johnathan Swift’s Modest Proposal in which the Gulliver’s creator proposes to eat children born from poor family in an attempt to stop the spread of poverty. While most of the piece doesn’t directly concern games, there is a part where Swift proposes to use the children as venison, so as to hunt them to replace the low deer population of England. Two centuries before the short story which would spawn The Most Dangerous Game movie (The Hounds of Zaroff by Richard Connell) was ever written, Jonathan Swift already thought of hunting children for the sake of the state.

In 1977, two years before Stephen King published The Long Walk under his Richard Bachman alias, a Public service Announcement short film, aimed at school children in the UK, exploited the idea. In the Finishing Line written and shot by John Krish for the British Transport Films, children are taking part in a competition which often involve surviving against a moving train. Of course, the movie was shot as a way to prevent children to play such a game but it’s grim imagery and naturalistic settings leaves you wondering in which dystopia would people organize such a sporting event. Screenings took place in English schools in the late seventies, with reports of children fainting, but it’s his first television screening which became the downfall of the project. Parents were horrified at the sight of young children entering a dark tunnel before the referee calls on a train to go after them. This Kafkian nightmare took place in a child’s mind, this was the whole explanation for the plot and while writers joked around for two centuries, things were about to get serious.

The Long Walk, published in 1979, was Stephen King’s second book under his Richard Bachman alias, in a time where his true identity wasn’t yet disclosed. The Maine native writer said he got the idea in as far as 1967, while hitchhiking to get home, King was in his freshman year at the time. It appears, he even sent a version of The Long Walk to a Random House contest, who declined the offer. In 1979, the book finally got published by Signet Books.

In King’s novel, one hundred male teenagers are participating in a game called the Long Walk which ultimately begins near the Canadian frontier of the Maine and only ends when all the participants, but one, are dead. Much like in The Finishing Line, The Long Walk is full of rules which if infringed upon, result in a warning given to a walker. Three warnings and the teenager get shot down by the military personnel which follows the marathon and gives out water and food supplies to the participant every morning at 9 a.m sharp. While it is implied that the Long walk is a great show of strength and will, every participant still applied because ultimately, they would win whatever they ever wanted. But at what price?

A portrait of Jonathan Swift seated and writing with a feather.
Portrait of Jonathan Swift by Charles Jervas

While Swift barely touched on the idea, we see that the concept of government killing children through games appears to have gotten a firm grip during the twentieth century, and just like in any other type of genre being born, some rules emerge. Strict, obtuse and blurry rules seem to become an obligation for the mass murder of infants and no other piece of art will push the concept as far as Koushun Takami’s Battle Royale.

About the book, Stephen King once said : “an insanely entertaining pulp riff that combines Survivor with World Wrestling Entertainment. Or maybe Royale is just insane.” Battle Royale was released in 1999 in Japan and much like The Long Walk it had lost in a horror book contest beforehand. The premise of Battle Royale in which a whole class is sent to an island so that its students kill off one another seemed too extreme, at the time, to the judges, even though they all later admitted that Takami’s book was almost certainly the better one of the finalists.

After explaining clearly in his introduction what a battle royale is — meaning a type of match in wrestling where a lot of wrestlers are all in-ring fighting with one another to make their opponent fall to the floor while having been sent outside above the third rope — Takami shows us the map of the island and the list of the participants. It is through their eyes that we will discover the game. Each teenager has gotten an explosive collar, this explosive collar will detonate if they try to break the rules (like trying to kill the military personnel on the island), they will all get a backpack with supplies and weapon, a different weapon to each, every hour or so, zones on the map will be declared closed, if a participant stays in a zone that’s closing, his collar will detonate.

The basic concept of Takami’s Battle Royale was enough to garner him celebrity and money. Meaning, having written the book, he would adapt it in manga form, before giving it a spin-off (Battle Royale: Angels’ Border) and a sequel in both manga (Blitz Royale) and film format (Battle Royale II: Requiem). Because one of the reason Battle Royale became so successful was not its initial book release but because of its film adaptation made by Kinji Fukasaku which starred popular actor/director Takeshi Kitano. Sadly, Fukasaku would die before he could complete Battle Royale 2: Requiem, and his son, Kenta Fukasaku, who was the screenwriter on the first movie would attempt to finish his father’s work with not-so-great results. In Blitz Royale, the Japanese government send a group of high-schooler fight a terrorist group and while this story would seem like a good continuation of the Battle Royale canon, its premises made less nightmarish sense in the eye of the audience.

Do you know what definitely clicked with the audience ? The Hunger Games, be it the Suzanne Collins’ book series or its movie adaptation with Jennifer Lawrence. Thing is, the Young Adult dystopian novel was already a success before it was published. Editors said they shared the piece between themselves, that the rumble of an incoming tsunami was real when they were just editing the piece.

According to Suzanne Collins, the author, the premise stemed from two things. First her fascination for Greek and Roman mythology which led her to know the tale of Theseus when Crete asked a tribute in teenager to a subdued Athens. To Collins, this seemed like a very real nightmare, a tribute in youth, something not worth joking around. One day, while she was all-grown up the writer was watching tv, of the two shows she remembers that night onewas a reality tv show where people compete agaisnt one another and a show about the war going on in Irak. This is how she devised the plot of a dystopian American, divided in disctrict where a cruel government ask parents to send them one child to get killed in a televised competition to the death.

Similarities between this plot and Battle Royale have already been pointed out. People tend to forgot Koushin Takami’s book never was intended for young adults but still, I’ll let the Japanese writer end this piece, for he once said talking about Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games:

“I think every novel has something to offer, if readers find value in either book, that’s all an author can ask for.”

Next week we’ll be talking about Gaspar Noé’s Lux Aeterna in French Fright, hope to see you there!

If you liked this piece you may like A Trail of Lightouse Movies or my take on The three Dark Prince of German Horror or an introduction to Folk Horror.



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Basile Lebret

Basile Lebret


I write about the history of artmaking, I don’t do reviews.