Hollywood’s obsession with dystopian tales has never been stronger. So what does it say about us? Rosemary Neill investigates
WHEN Hollywood actor Jeff Bridges started lobbying to have the award-winning young adult novel The Giver adapted for the big screen, he hoped his father, Lloyd, would play one of the central parts. However, it took so long — 18 years — to secure backing for the film, Bridges ended up playing the part of the Giver (an official historian in a society purged of past memories) himself.
For years it seemed no one in Hollywood wanted to take a punt on a futuristic story aimed at teenagers, and partly told in blackand-white, about a boy who rebels against a dystopia masquerading as a perfect society. Then along came a girl with a dark, thick plait, a killer scowl and a handy way with a bow and arrow. The box office behemoth that was The Hunger Games was the breakthrough Bridges and his co-producer, Nikki Silver, desperately needed.
The big-screen adaptation of The Giver — directed by Australia’s Phillip Noyce and starring another Australian, rising star Brenton Thwaites alongside Meryl Streep and Bridges — was released here this week (see review, page 15). Silver recently told The Hollywood Reporter: “The success of The Hunger Games helped get this movie made, 100 per cent. People finally believed that teens wanted something other than superheroes and rom-coms.’’
In fact, The Hunger Games has been the catalyst for a wave of films centring on plucky teen heroines and heroes: telegenic chosen ones who take on the corrupted and corrupting authority figures in societies gone bad. (It helps that these teenagers have survival skills that would put Bear Grylls and his raw snake-eating antics in the shade.) Some call it “going dystopic’’, and these films — high-concept tales set in quasito-talitarian societies and featuring teenagers fighting each other to the death, living underground or injecting emotion-suppressing drugs — have become one of Hollywood’s most in-demand genres.
The Maze Runner, in which boys are corralled inside a gigantic stone maze populated by monsters with saliva-control issues, opens on Thursday. The big mamma of the genre, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part I, the third film adapted from Suzanne Collins’s mega-selling novel series, will be out in November. Divergent, about a girl who is in danger because she doesn’t fit neatly into a society regimented into factions, was released recently, as was the bigbudget Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.
While the ape epic isn’t specifically aimed at teenagers, it’s a post-apocalyptic tale that has vast crossover appeal, as do the more lucrative teen dystopias. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes features a grim future in which a simian flu has wiped out most of humanity. A community of advanced, hand-signalling, horse-riding apes — these primates sit as upright on their mounts as any Austenesque romantic hero — are locked in a battle with humans for survival.
The trend will continue next year with a screen adaptation of post-nuclear war young adult novel Z for Zachariah and Ridley Scott’s version of Hugh Howey’s YA Wool novels; in this saga, everyone lives in a 100-storey underground silo because of the toxic atmosphere above ground. The ultimate punishment: to be sent outside.
Also slated for release next year is Equals, a love story set in a time and place from which all human emotion has been eradicated. This film comes with bankable leads in Twilight’s Kristen Stewart and X-Men’s Nicholas Hoult, and Stewart recently described it as an updated, romantic version of Nineteen Eighty-Four. (This provoked howls of indignation from Orwell fans, but an Equals producer has since insisted the film’s story-line is original.)
Why have these big-screen takes on messedup futuristic societies, mostly re-created from the pages of well-known young adult novels, gained so much traction in Hollywood? After all, the big studios are frequently accused of serving young viewers an unending diet of superhero flicks and man-children comedies padded out with fart, wee and burp jokes ( Grown Ups 2, anyone?).
The factors behind the dystopia craze range from the obvious (adaptations of bestselling books come with a ready-made fan base) to the unorthodox (kids killing each other in reality television-style games or fighting monsters in a maze is an allegory of high school life).
Writer Laura Miller has argued in The New Yorker that the gladiatorial contests portrayed in The Hunger Games books — where teenagers are conscripted to fight each other to the death — could be considered “as a fever-dream allegory of the adolescent social experience … Adults dump teenagers into the viper pit of high school … The rules are arbitrary, unfathomable, and subject to sudden change. A brutal social hierarchy prevails, with the rich, the good-looking and the athletic lording their advantages over everyone else. To survive you have to be totally fake.’’
So far, so whimsical. A bigger factor in the drawing power of these films and books is that they serve as empowerment fantasies in an age of helicopter parenting and childhoods rigidly organised around everything from fencing to French horn lessons. These films’ young heroes and heroines have an extraordinary degree of freedom, autonomy and influence, and this is attractive to 21st-century teens and adolescents, who are materially indulged but perhaps the most closely supervised generation in history.
In fact, these grittily determined, smoothskinned protagonists strike at the heart of their corrosive societies, often before the clueless and co-opted adults do. In The Maze Runner, young hero Thomas resists the climate of fear that keeps teenage inmates confined to a small space inside the maze, even if it means fighting slimecovered monsters known as grievers.
The Giver’s protagonist Jonas realises his seemingly ideal community is a repressive, socially engineered state that practises infanticide alongside mass sedation, and has outlawed everything from music to kissing. Despite his tender age, Jonas goes from being an anointed one, a trusted insider, to a hunted dissident.
In The Hunger Games, 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen signs up for the murderous games to save her younger sister. Although she has bags of what we once called ’tude, she becomes a symbol of rebellion against the evil President Snow and a regime that is as decadent as it is authoritarian.
Phil Oneile, marketing director at Roadshow Films, which is distributing The Giver and The Hunger Games in Australia, says the box-office success of teen films within and beyond the dystopia genre “has probably helped bring young adult fiction back into the frame, particularly Twilight, but definitely The Hunger Games. The success of that property in both books and films has been phenomenal.’’
He says the first Hunger Games film, released in 2012, was seen by more people in Australia (on a per capita basis) than “almost any other territory’’. The franchise’s second film, Catching Fire, was the biggest grossing film here last year, according to Roadshow’s figures. Far from assuming the series’ popularity has peaked, Oneile expects that word-of-mouth and DVD sales for the first two films will draw even more Australians to Mockingjay Part I.
He is unsure, though, whether it is audience demand or the big studios that are driving the dystopian phenomenon: “I don’t know whether that’s a push or pull thing — does Hollywood see that (the more successful teen films) and then think, ‘ Well, let’s make more of them’, or does the audience see that and yearn for more of them? I think it’s probably a bit of both.’’
The genre has also flexed its muscles in the local film market. The Australian feature Tomorrow, When the War Began, based on the first novel of John Marsden’s bestselling YA series, was the highest grossing locally made film for 2010. In the film and book, Australian high school kids turned guerilla fighters take on a vaguely Asiatic “coalition of nations’’ that have invaded their coastal town. Interestingly, Marsden told The Australian last year he had “a pretty good idea’’ the Tomorrow series “would smash all sales records and change teenage fiction’’ because “they were almost the first books that put teenagers in charge of the world’’.
Although most of these YA protagonists aren’t old enough to vote, they endure everything from war, mind-altering serums and nerve agents, to killer dogs, maze monsters and the death of their parents. Sure, they have hormone-soaked meltdowns and misgivings, but mostly they are super-resilient, as only lead
characters in money-spinning film and book franchises can be.
Despite the atrocities they witness and endure, their stories will end optimistically. In fact, it’s a golden rule of YA speculative fiction — and one that sets these tales apart from adult dystopias — that the story must hold out hope for a better, wiser world, one that is less done over by power-tripping adults. DAVID Kelly, senior lecturer and director of film studies at the University of Sydney, argues that teens are drawn to such films because they project the idea that being young is, of itself, heroic. “These narratives, often featuring a media-driven, vaguely totalitarian future, generally offer the saving grace of youthful ingenuity resisting and finding its way, and this no doubt offers a sense of identification for younger viewers who will be pleased to see that youth itself is inherently heroic,” he says.
“The ingenuity has something to do with the innocence of those who have not yet been absorbed into the system because they are too young to have been. It’s rather like the innocence of Huck Finn in discovering his human kinship with Jim on the raft, despite his society insisting that Jim isn’t human because he is a slave — a teenage outcast. Huck hasn’t internalised wider social prejudice and thus achieves a kind of moral heroism.’’
As well as glamorising youth, many teen dystopias maximise their market appeal by sashaying shamelessly into the romance genre, with a subplot revolving around a love interest (or two). Grown-up dystopias tend to be more emotionally austere. The forbidden romance between Winston and Julia in Nineteen Eighty
Four does not end well and that is the point of Orwell’s cautionary tale; Big Brother’s control dehumanises everyone. In contrast, The Hunger
Games’s Katniss is pursued by not one but two hot guys, without being a beauty queen or a beach babe — it’s the ordinary suburban girl’s ultimate fantasy. Nevertheless, The Hunger Games and Diver
gent series, both by female authors (Collins and Veronica Roth respectively), offer tough-minded heroines whose world-saving roles are as important as their love lives. Compare this with
Twilight’s Bella Swan (also played by Stewart) who chose to die just so she could bed her dishy vampire boyfriend. She was one the dodgiest young heroines in pop culture, which is precisely why adolescent girls couldn’t get enough of her.
Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss is that rare creature in Hollywood, a take-no-crap heroine who
DYSTOPIAN FICTION OFFERS A SAFE AND ENJOYABLE WAY TO MASTER THESE FEARS
attracts young male and female cinemagoers — not for nothing is Lawrence one of Hollywood’s highest paid actresses. The conventional wisdom with children’s and young adult films is that girls will watch films with a boy or girl hero, but boys will watch films with only male heroes. But the box office muscle of Lawrence and other action and sci-fi actresses including Scarlett Johansson ( Lucy), Shailene Woodley ( Divergent) and Zoe Saldana ( Guardians of the Galaxy) suggests this cynical assumption is finally under challenge. Britain’s The Sunday Times reported recently that these actresses’ releases this year “have sold more tickets than predicted, reflecting a social change: young men now are happy to pay for films where attractive young women ‘kick butt’, say analysts, something regarded as a Hollywood taboo in previous generations’’.
But not everyone is having a good time at the dystopia party. Peter Travers, film critic for
Rolling Stone, recently complained: “The current onslaught of movies excreted from dystopian teen fiction would make any YA yak.’’
In The Guardian last week, Ewan Morrison argued that “progressive’’ parents should consider steering their children away from “dystopian narratives which are currently consuming the minds of millions of teens worldwide’’ and “communicating right-wing ideas’’. Morrison claims The Hunger Games, Divergent and The
Giver promote capitalism and individualism, partly because they cast as bad guys “the state and those well-meaning liberal leftists who want to make the world a better place’’. Really? Has Morrison read or watched The
Hunger Games? Katniss and co stir up political rebellion because of the gross social inequalities that characterise Panem — the vast majority in this fictional state live in abject poverty while the elite, the pampered 1 per cent, bask in luxury in the technologically advanced Capitol. Take away the bullet trains and holograms, and Panem could pass for pre-revolutionary France or Russia, or the plundered colonies exploited by European imperialists.
Whatever the critics say — and they are right that not all YA adaptations have worked — these stories will continue to be told because they excavate contemporary anxieties and maladies, just as the genre’s adult classics do. Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (adapted for the screen in 1956 and 1984) was a stinging denunciation of Stalinist totalitarianism, while Ray Bradbury’s anti-censorship novel Fahrenheit 451 (adapted as a film in 1966) was written under the long shadow of McCarthyism.
The current crop of dystopian YA movies suggests that if we keep abusing the environment ( The Maze Runner, Wool), allow technology, mass media or anti-democratic governments to control us ( The Hunger Games,
Divergent, The Giver), if we misuse science and
medicine ( The Giver, Dawn of the Planet of the
Apes) we could end up being poisoned by the atmosphere, fighting a civil war against gun-toting, genetically manipulated apes, or watching our children kill each other for mass entertainment. As Kelly puts it, dystopias reflect “our anxieties of where we’re heading and what’s to come — a grim prospect these days, with our customary apprehensions ratcheted up by the 24-hour news cycle and the public appetite for stories of political, social, or personal (often celebrity) crisis”.
Teens and antisocial behaviour go together like Delta Goodrem and internet trolls — at least that’s the stereotype. Yet research shows this phase of life is also a time for discovering the big issues. The University of Queensland’s film and media studies director Jane Stadler points out that “older children who read young adult literature and then, as teenagers, flock to big-screen adaptations like The Hunger Games, are frightened by conceptual rather than perceptual threats’’.
Stadler says that while nine to 12-year-olds “fear the death of parents and caregivers, and personal injury, illness or physical destruction, adolescents … also begin to worry about social, political, and environmental concerns outside their control’’. Citing research by US academic Joanne Cantor, she says: “It’s a time of big transitions for them (adolescents) physically and socially, and dystopian fiction with empowered, attractive young adult protagonists offers a safe and enjoyable way to master these fears.’’
Will the dystopian trend run out of puff? The success of John Green’s YA tearjerker The Fault
in Our Stars has prompted publishers to predict the next big thing in teen fiction will be gritty realism. Green’s book-turned-movie is a love story about two teenagers dying of cancer, and the film has been an unexpected hit. Even the author has admitted he once believed “Hollywood would struggle to make a movie where the female romantic lead has nasal cannula tubes in her nose for the entire movie’’.
Suzanne O’Sullivan, children’s and young adult publisher for Hachette Australia, confirms that “dystopian is declining (in publishing), but I don’t think it will ever go away altogether. There will always be some writer who puts a new spin on it, and writes so well that they make the genre feel fresh.’’ She adds: “Adults can be quite blinkered in their reading. But teens don’t have those preconceived ideas, so YA offers writers a huge amount of freedom to explore different concepts and create new genres.
“There is so much creativity and talent in this field right now, so it’s not surprising that film studios are finding great ideas here.’’ Read Stephen Romei’s review of The Giver, which is screening now, on Page 15. The Maze Runner opens on Thursday. The Hunger Games:
Mockingjay Part I opens on November 20.
Jennifer Lawrence in the trendsetting film
The Hunger Games
The appeal of postapocalyptic scenarios reflects early 21st
Clockwise from top left, scenes from The Giver; Tomorrow, When the War Began; Divergent; and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes