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The superficial similarities between the plot of Battle Royale (here's a trailer) and The Hunger Games (here's a trailer) -- and a friend's sarcastic comparison to the titular Thunderdome in Max Max 3 -- led me to wonder: where did the "N Men Enter, One Man Leaves" trope originate? Is it ancient? Recent?

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    "Because nothing says decadent and evil like carnage as a spectator sport." -TV Tropes – Raven13 Nov 16 '11 at 20:24
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    I'm not going to research this one, for the simple fact that it will definitely involve diving into TV Tropes and I just don't have time for that these days. – Iszi Nov 16 '11 at 20:51
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The exact "N Men Enter, One Man Leaves" can probably be traced back to Roman Gladiator fights, where at least one example from 264 BCE has three gladiators fight to the death. It's likely that prior to that, other cultures had events that were similar. Many gladiator fights were one on one though.

As far as what story or book first had the trope, it's hard to say. As far as I can tell, both The Running Man and The Long Walk by Stephen King (writing as Richard Bachman) were the first that had contestants attempting to outlast other people in a fight to the death (as it were) for the entertainment of the people (in The Running Man, the fight was one man against most of the world, and it was an extension of gameshows of the time. The Long Walk has more similarities with Battle Royal and The Hunger Games, but the contestants signed up for the event). Since both books were published in the 80s, it's likely that there are earlier examples.

Death Race 2000, a movie about a ... erm, death race across the USA, again for entertainment, came out in 1975, and is based on the short story The Racer by Ib Melchior. There's some similarities between the world presented in Death Race 2000 and worlds of Battle Royal and The Hunger Games. Finally, the episode "Fun and Games" from the original Outer Limits, aired in 1964, and had contestants from Earth fighting contestants from other planets to the death for the entertainment of an alien race (and the survival of all of Earth).

Doctor Who had a serial called The War Games, where humans from different time periods were dumped into an arena and fight to the death. The "winners" would then go on to be a super army for aliens, this is almost a "multiple people enter, one comes out" situation. On the other half of the trope, The Most Dangerous Game is about a hunter who hunts humans from 1924, and is perhaps the earliest (or at least, most famous) example of humans hunting humans as sport.

It's probably worth pointing out that the "reality show" version of this trope probably wouldn't appear much earlier than the 1950s, when TV shows and gameshows specifically became wildly popular, since the trope requires the audience to be familiar with the idea of people humiliating themselves for fame and money.

Found new information: The short story The Prize of Peril, by Robert Sheckley published in 1958, contains perhaps the earliest example of "deadly reality show", and was likely an inspiration for "The Running Man". A link to the complete story is on wikipedia.

  • Excellent examples. Hopefully someone can find something older that's as close a match as the Stephen King ones are. – Plutor Nov 16 '11 at 20:15
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    What?! The Running Man was originally written by Stephen King? Wow, I never would have imagined one of his books to end up starring Arnold when turned into a movie. – user1027 Nov 17 '11 at 1:09
  • @Plutor I've added a few more possibilities to my answer, and a reason why it probably didn't appear until the 1950s or 60s. – thedaian Nov 17 '11 at 16:55
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    +1 for Sheckley; he's the classic writer of this kind of story, and a good place to start looking. – Tynam Mar 19 '12 at 11:04
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Theseus and the Minotaur? circa 800 BC

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    That was more a case of X men and women enter, and no one leaves. – Kyralessa May 15 '12 at 13:47
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    I think you mean 800 BC. – Junuxx Oct 13 '12 at 14:29

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