Hol­ly­wood’s ob­ses­sion with dystopian tales has never been stronger. So what does it say about us? Rose­mary Neill in­ves­ti­gates

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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



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

cen­tury angst

Clock­wise from top left, scenes from The Giver; To­mor­row, When the War Be­gan; Di­ver­gent; and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

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