Death as Spectacle in Novels
With Squid Game: The Challenge set to see 456 contestants from around the world battle it out through various challenges based on the Korean game show in the Netflix Squid Game series I got to thinking….
There’s a form of speculative fiction that I’ve always had a fascination with, that explores the idea of death as a spectacle for an audience’s entertainment or some sort of warped political or ideological reasons. These stories are often set in a dystopian or near-future setting and deal with themes of economic inequality.
Of course, death as a spectacle is not a new phenomenon. Just think about the Gladiator arenas, public executions or live streaming of manhunts on the News. When you look at how reality TV is pushing the boundaries further and further, with people willing to debase themselves or face real physical harm for their 15 minutes of fame or a cash prize, and a hungry audience lapping it up, I guess it’s not such a far leap to imagine some sort of future where hunting other humans or real death matches for entertainment, might become reality. Maybe that’s where the fascination lies (or maybe I’m just a sicko!).
It’s quite easy to find films in this genre, and of course, it’s hard to ignore the global Netflix smash hit Squid Game and also a few other gems like the also excellent Alice in Borderland. But novels seem less prevalent. Listed below are some of my favourite books similar to or like Squid Game. I hope there are some new discoveries on this list and as ever, any suggestions for me will be gratefully received!
Novels that explore the idea of death as a spectacle & battle to the death games.
This post contains affiliate links, which means I may receive a small commission, at no cost to you, if you make a purchase through a link.
The Most Dangerous Game (also published as The Hounds of Zaroff) is a short story by Richard Connell. The story features an experienced big-game hunter Rainsford who, while travelling by sea to the Amazon to hunt jaguars, falls overboard. He swims to a nearby island where he finds a palatial chateau, home to the aristocratic General Zaroff, and his deaf-mute servant, Ivan.
A lifelong big game hunter himself General Zaroff has grown bored of the usual prey because it no longer challenges him. You can probably guess what happens next. If not… The Most Dangerous Game is now in the public domain, so you can read it online for free.
The Sound of His Horn is a 1952 alternative history novel by the senior British diplomat John William Wall, written under the pseudonym Sarban. This odd little number has been included in several lists of the greatest fantasy novels of all time.
Alan Querdillon an escaped POW is fleeing through a forest when he runs into an invisible barrier that burns him and knocks him unconscious. He wakes in a Nazi-controlled world at least a hundred years after World War II on the estate of the Reich Master Forester, Count Hans von Hackelnberg. I won’t go into any spoilers here, but the whole thing is fantastically weird. The book fits the theme, that’s all I’ll say!
The original Japanese novel sold more than 1 million copies, before being translated into nearly a dozen languages. Like a lot of people, I discovered the book through first viewing the film. But if you have seen the film (or not) I highly recommend reading the book.
Battle Royale takes place in a fictional fascist Japan, after an alternate World War 2 where Japan emerged victorious. The government, now known as the Republic of Greater East Asia has established a military program, the Battle Experiment No. 68 Program where randomly selected classes of high school students are forced to fight each other to the death.
Battle Royale follows a group of students from Shiroiwa Junior High School who believe they are going on a class trip. Instead, they are drugged, kidnapped, dropped on a remote island, issued an array of bonkers weapons, tagged with exploding metal neck rings that will go off if they stray out of line and forced to fight it out until only one is left alive!
The Running Man takes place in a violent, impoverished United States during the year 2025. The Running man of the title, is a game show where the contestant is released with a 12-hour head start before the Hunters, an elite team of ruthless hit men, are sent out to kill him. The longer the contestant stays alive and the more Hunters he kills, the more money he earns.
The protagonist Ben Richards is forced into signing up out of desperation. Richards aim is not to survive – that’s impossible. Simply that he will last long enough to accumulate enough of a prize to secure his family’s future.
Another book in this genre that has been translated into film. In my humble opinion, the Hunger Games books (there are three in total plus a prequel) are much better than the films.
The Hunger Games is set in the future, post-apocalyptic nation of Panem in North America. The Capitol, a highly advanced metropolis, exercises political control over the rest of the nation. The Hunger Games is an annual event in which one boy and one girl aged 12–18 from each of the twelve districts surrounding the Capitol are selected by lottery to compete in a televised battle to the death.
There has also been some controversy over the striking plot similarities the Hunger Games shares with Battle Royale. Author Susanne Collins maintains (feasibly, I think) that she “had never heard of that book until her book was turned in”.
Another entry from Steven King writing as Bachman. I hesitated to add this, as technically this book is about an endurance challenge. But my guess is if you’re looking for books in this Genre, the distinction is academic. And this short, nasty novella is classic King (well Bachman)
Set in a future dystopian America, ruled by a militaristic dictator, each year 100 young men take part in a grueling walking contest where there can only be one winner—the one that survives! The contestants must walk until they drop. If they stop or drop below a certain pace they are shot, until only one is left standing.
Fun Fact… While not the first of King’s novels to be published (that, of course, was the wonderful Carrie), The Long Walk was the first novel he wrote, having begun it in 1966-67 during his freshman year at the University of Maine.
Did you know the famous Academy Award-nominated 1972 film Deliverance starring Burt Reynolds and Jon Voight was first a novel? Again doesn’t 100% fit the theme, but interesting to know if you’ve only seen the film. And if you haven’t seen it… you definitely should!
One of modern library’s 100 best novels of the twentieth century and one of time magazine’s 100 best English language novels Deliverance tells the story of four middle-class suburban men who decide to embark on a three-day canoe trip down a particularly wild section of a river in backwoods Georgia. A weekend in the wilderness that goes horribly, horribly wrong. Backwoods horror survival at its best (or worst!)
The novel follows the story of Jeff Converse, a Columbia University architecture student who wrongly convicted of a brutal crime, and through a series of twists and turns that we don’t need to get into here, finds himself hunted through a subterranean New York by a group of the city’s most powerful men and women. If he makes it to the outside world, he lives, if not he dies.
The Manhattan Hunt Club is pure pulp fiction, and I say that with the utmost affection.
A darkly humorous dystopian novel that delivers a chilling commentary on society’s obsession with reality television and social media. In a not-so-distant future, the government’s answer to justice is “Alcatraz 2.0,” a prison where inmates face a grim fate as they become the stars of a twisted reality show.
The story follows Dee Guerrera, an accused murderer who wakes up in this nightmarish world. As she navigates a labyrinthine prison filled with psychopathic killers, she becomes an unwitting contestant on “Death Row Breakfast,” where gruesome executions are live-streamed to an eager audience.
The Tenth Victim, Staring Ursula Andress was based on a short story by Robert Sheckley called Seventh Victim (although the film has a slightly different ending and is written from a different viewpoint). Sheckley also published a novelization of The Tenth Victim and later followed with two sequels, 1987’s Victim Prime and 1988’s Hunter/Victim.
The story concerns a future society that has eliminated major warfare by allowing members of society who are inclined to violence to join The Big Hunt, a human hunting game.