From Willie Wonka to Heisenberg, Katniss to Kent Brockman, one game, more than any other dominates both big screen and small – yet it’s the last one anyone ever thinks of.
Recently we published an article about the most popular games in movies, though all of these games were plot devices, mere dots to join, rather than a plotline that joins those dots.
Take 2006’s Casino Royale; which used a high stakes poker game as a plot device, and the game itself as a core centre piece of the movie.
The actual plot, however, wasn’t really about poker, it was about Bond falling in love with, and eventually being betrayed by, a fellow agent while in pursuit of a master criminal.
Bond’s story arc – cynical agent who falls in love, quits, is betrayed, then returns to work colder and more determined than ever – could easily be told without Bond ever setting foot in a casino. The poker game, or baccarat in the case of Fleming’s original novel, is mere dressing.
Lottery games, on the other hand, are different.
They’re used both as plot devices and as the central premise of many movies and TV show episodes.
These can be split into two distinct categories, plots which revolve around contemporary lotteries and others where events are set in motion by a lottery-style selection process.
Lotteries As a Plot Device
1994’s It Could Happen To You, starring Nicolas Cage, where a New York cop promises to share his potential lottery winnings in lieu of a tip, is perhaps the most obvious lottery movie, though it’s hardly the only example.
There’s also the hilarious Irish comedy Waking Ned, which sees an entire village try and defraud officials from the Irish lottery. Another honourable mention is Lucky Numbers, starring John Travolta – itself actually based on a true story of attempted lottery fixing back in the 80s.
Winning the lottery, improbable though it may be, happens a lot in TV-land. Springfield has seen not one, but two big lottery wins with both Kent Brockman and Homer Simpson winning big. Family Guy’s Peter Griffin also hit the jackpot after spending the Griffin family’s entire life savings on lottery tickets.
Towards the end of the series, the titular character Rosanne won the lottery and Friends had a lottery episode which tested the limits of their very friendship while discussing a hypothetical lottery win – itself a plot device borrowed from Anton Chekov.
Lotteries also feature in many crime dramas, including Monk, Cold Case and Castle, often serving as the motive for criminal activity, while Breaking Bad’s Walter White, on the other hand, disguised the coordinates of his buried ill-gotten gains as lottery number picks.
Then there was the lottery ticket from Lost – and that time that thousands of players won at the same time when they played the exact same numbers from the hit show.
Selection by Lottery
Ok, so lotteries are used a lot, you’re thinking, but are they really the most popular game in movies and TV?
Well, by expanding beyond contemporary lotteries, to the ancient process of “drawing lots”, we see just how popular lottery-game plots really are.
Such plots can be found as far back as ancient Greece, as well as in the works of Edgar Allen Poe and Chaucer. It’s also become an extremely handy way for scriptwriters to advance the plot by forcing characters into unlikely situations.
How many times, for example, have you seen a group of people draw lots to decide who goes on a dangerous mission (such as in the 90s summer blockbuster Armageddon) or performs an undesirable task (Shallow Grave)?
Horror movies, in particular, tend to mix this with the age-old “we should split up” trope. Someone always gets the short straw and is forced into the most dangerous situation – in many cases sealing their doom.
Finally, we get those shows and movies where the entire plot begins with a simple lottery-style selection.
Perhaps the most popular in recent times is The Hunger Games, where participants are chosen by lottery. This lottery may not be central to the subsequent story, but it remains the catalyst which sets all subsequent events in motion.
Of course you won’t find any hungry youngsters at Willy Wonka’s Chocolate factory – where admittance is gained by finding a lucky golden ticket. Roald Dahl’s classic tale graced the silver screen twice, first in 1971, starring the late Gene Wilder, and again in 2005, this time starring Johnny Depp and directed by Tim Burton.
2005 also saw the release of The Island (pictured), starring Ewan McGregor. In this underrated sci-fi thriller everyone dreams of winning “The Lottery” to gain a better life – but the reality of winning is much darker.
On-screen lotteries, therefore can be a double edged sword, they came bring wealth and joy (or chocolate) to some and certain death for others. In the end it’s really up to the whims of the scriptwriter – and the luck of the draw!