With The Hunger Games opening this weekend, a lot of people are pointing to Battle Royale as an obvious precursor, but I’ve been thinking of The Long Walk, a novel that Stephen King published under his pseudonym Richard Bachman in 1979. It is set in your standard-issue totalitarian America of the near future where the national sport is the Long Walk, an endurance contest in which 100 boys (no girls, sorry Katniss) walk until they drop. The one who walks the longest wins, the rest die. That’s it. In place of The Hunger Games’ Head Gamemaker Seneca Crane, The Long Walk has a malevolent Major overseeing the action, but otherwise it’s the same stuff: a deadly contest of wills governed by strict rules of when and how help from the outside can be provided, lots of spectacle, and the same mix of strong kids, crowd favorites, scrawny outsiders, etc. etc., all of whom meet bloody ends.
I actually read and loved The Long Walk when I was in high school, before it was revealed that King wrote the Bachman books. I found it on the paperback rack at the public library in Lakewood, Ohio, instantly drawn to that iconic cover (well, it was iconic for me). Even thirty years later I can remember the main character’s name, Stebbins, and several key incidents, such as when one kid takes a dump on the road and it’s quickly scooped up by onlookers as a souvenir (as if there were ever any doubt that King wrote these books). There’s another scene where two kids decide to opt out of the Walk by marching into machine gun fire, their middle fingers defiantly raised (a last great act of defiance if I’ve ever seen one).
I’m not saying that The Hunger Games is a rip off of The Long Walk. In his favorable review of Suzanne Collins’ book in Entertainment Weekly, Stephen King is polite enough to mention The Long Walk only in passing, along with Battle Royale and another of his books, The Running Man (“those latter two by some guy named Bachman”), and even then just as more examples of the teen dystopian genre.
Being now the parent of teenager myself, I see this from the other side, which is that the appeal of this genre and the reason why it is revisited by every subsequent generation is that it speaks directly to that constant state of aggrievement and persecution that teenagers experience so deeply. The profound unfairness of life. The sense of being put upon at every turn. The certainty that no one else in the history of the entire world has ever felt this way. This is the teenage mind in its most primal state, and any author who can effectively tap into that potent stew will find their place in the teen canon assured (at least until the next author comes along and does the same thing all over again).