What’s really wrong with YA dystopias

[Note from the editor: This article is by prospective staff writer Thomas Ricard. Enjoy!]

Ah, Young Adult novels and film adaptations. Where would we online critics be without you? Just when it looks like the well of youth-oriented pop culture debates is starting to run dry, you bless us with more media- and merchandise-generating machines that will, in turn, fuel thinkpiece after thinkpiece debating their merits until the next cultural trend arrives.

“So,” you might be asking. “Why contribute to the phenomenon by writing yet another thinkpiece on the merits of YA film adaptations?” I’m glad you asked, imaginary reader! The thing is, while the term “Young Adult” still bugs me a little (the audience for these works is mostly comprised of teenagers and you know it), I don’t have anything against YA literature and film in and of themselves. What concerns me is the recent spate of YA dystopias that started with The Hunger Games. To be more specific, I’m worried about the vision of dystopian societies that these film adaptations convey through their storylines, themes, and aesthetic choices.

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Utopian and dystopian fiction has an important purpose: To question the political systems, cultural norms, and/or values that we take for granted. This is usually done by either:

a) Presenting a society whose customs and practices, while superficially similar to those of the intended audience’s, differ in such a way that commonly-accepted alternatives—often represented by a visitor from the creator’s country or time—are met with bemusement or derision by the natives;

b) Exaggerating the amplitude and/or nature of perceived current problems to the point where their dangerous nature becomes incontrovertible;

or

c) A mixture of a) and b) in which present-day problems have been or are being solved through the amplification of already-present oppressive or otherwise pernicious methods.

At its best, each work of utopian/dystopian fiction moves and entertains while also encouraging the reader to think critically about the systems and ideas depicted within, as well as the way he or she engages with them. In other words, contrary to what conspiracy theorists might lead you to think, they don’t just tell you to be distrustful of every word your politicians or media say; they also invite you to ask yourself whether or not you might in fact be part of the problem.

It’s why 1984’s uncompromising portrayal of a completely totalitarian society remains so chilling to this day: Not only do real-life regimes use similar methods to keep their populations under control, but various forms of these methods already exist in most officially free societies and are a commonly accepted part of the background of our lives.

You will find no such thought-provoking content in films like Divergent, The Maze Runner or the Hunger Games. At best, they entertain and try to address real-world issues, but never amount to a cohesive argument.

The Hunger Games’ attempt to link mind-numbing reality TV and blatant wealth inequality to totalitarian regimes is inherently flawed because—while not unheard of in countries like, say, China—such things are more common in liberal democracies with free-market economies. Most dictatorships do their best to hide wealth inequality rather than constantly remind the people they’re oppressing how much better their lives could be. Reality TV shows exist to make money, not to deliberately make people stupid or docile. The critique would have worked better if the people from the Districts, culturally conditioned by a false myth of meritocracy that makes them think they deserve their lot in life, willingly volunteered to sacrifice their children in the hopes that they might prove worthy to join their “betters”.

What's really wrong with YA dystopias

Mockingjay fares slightly better with its propaganda wars between the Capitol and District 13, in that they’re vaguely evocative of real-life powers fighting each other through media representation. Unfortunately, the best that director Francis Lawrence and company can seem to manage is turning the filming of Katniss’s propaganda videos into parodies of real film shoots, without any further self-reflexivity.

The Maze Runner offers the outlines of a conflict between compliance (represented by Gally) and rebellion (represented by Thomas), but while the idea of having a former system insider be the instigator of a rebellion that turns out to play straight into the oppressor’s hands is an ingenious idea, it’s limited by the characters’ one-dimensional writing: Gally is consistently angry and hostile, and Thomas—being the first one in three years to openly question the system and kill one of its guardians—is always right, so the audience is left with no doubt that he’ll refuse to play by the rules once he’s wise to them.

What's really wrong with YA dystopias

The Giver worked on paper because it used its dystopian setting as an allegory for puberty, linking growing political awakening to the familiar sensation most teenagers have of feeling and discovering new things only they understand. By making Jonas an adult who just finished puberty, expanding the plot to detail how his society and government work, and reducing the world’s memories to a series of National Geographic pretty pictures, the movie bypasses its premise’s core themes to preach to a converted teenage choir about the virtues of free will and diversity without actually engaging in them.

Divergent presents a caste system connecting personality traits—rather than blood lineage—to abilities and societal positions, a premise that could have worked as a satire of high school politics or RPG tropes (character classes, guilds…) but, taken seriously, becomes just another action-adventure about a heroine with a super-special destiny and a boring love interest fighting an Evil Empire in a political galaxy far, far away.

This is one of the major problems with these films: They’re all variations on the same one-size-fits-all Campbellian “chosen one” narrative: A hero who’s special either by some inherent virtue of their birth (Jonas in The Giver, Tris in the Divergent series) or by being smarter, braver, and more critical than everybody else (Katniss in the Hunger Games series, Thomas in The Maze Runner) sets out on a quest to fight the Power, inspiring others to do the same in the process, and wins. Of course, the formulaic nature of this narrative doesn’t necessarily make it incompatible with good and mature storytelling; Gattaca is a good example of a story about a resourceful individual outwitting the system to follow his dreams that still manages to convey interesting ideas about fate and biological determinism. But by encouraging the audience to identify with idealized heroes already predisposed to greatness and pitting them against plainly evil political forces, these stories harm their capacity to teach us anything new.

Ultimately, what prevents these films from being truly subversive is the inability of the creative forces behind them to transcend their industrial nature. From the pop-rock music video aesthetics of Divergent to the more generic look of the Hunger Games sequels, these films look exactly like most other contemporary wide-audience PG-13 movies. That wouldn’t be a problem if the filmmakers could use it to their advantage; Paul Verhoeven did that brilliantly in Starship Troopers by drawing an implicit comparison between military fascism and Hollywood war movies.

Unfortunately, while mostly competent in their own right, none of the people behind these movies seem imaginative enough to think outside the box. These are the kind of dystopias populated almost exclusively by ridiculously hot people, but unlike in Gattaca, this isn’t supposed to look creepy or unnatural unless your loud and tacky wardrobe marks you as a villain. In these worlds, poor people wear somewhat shabby clothes and have untidy hair, but look otherwise clean, healthy, and photogenic, and the heroine still looks pretty even after getting viciously beaten to the point of falling into a day-long coma.

What's really wrong with YA dystopias

Under the guise of a genre meant to make people question power, these movies only offer a shallow illusion of doing so. And that’s what’s most troubling about their success: It conjures the very image of “bread and circuses” that The Hunger Games purports to be all about; in this case, a bunch of rich white men in suits satisfying the adolescent craving for rebellion through feeding them movies deliberately conceived to flatter their self-image that pretend to challenge the status quo all while keeping it fundamentally intact.

Wait a tick. That sounds like a great pitch for a movie. Does anybody know someone from Lionsgate? I think I may have another franchise for them!

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  • Kate

    All these similar series’ coming out at once just makes it look like almost everything today is a carbon copy of each other.
    I honestly haven’t seen any of these films but I have seen clips, trailers, posters and reviews and going purely by those, I got the impression that the Hunger Games films and the Divergent films were all part of the same series. I was quite surprised to learn they weren’t.
    Is it just because I’ve not properly seen them or can anyone who actually has watched them not see any real difference between the two either?

    • Greenhornet

      That would actually be great: a group of “divergents” travel to “the unmapped area” and find a strange society that stages gladiatorial games, pitting teens against each other. Slowly, cautiously, the two groups learn of the other and join forces…

  • Dex_Meridian

    Distopian stories, at their heart, are often about mob mentality. “How can we as a society allow oppression to this degree?” or “What kind of technology/politicial system/obstacle/illusion could empower someone to have total control over everyone?”
    This is why these YA stories are flawed on an artistic level. How can you derisively point at mob mentality when you depend on it in order to sell your product? In a similar vein, Apple made a very famous TV commercial in the ’80s that spoofed IBM as the “Big Brother” of 1984 and portrayed Apple as some form of resistance…whereas many folks would point at Apple as the weird totalitarian regime of the tech industry now, with their closed-source products and creepy Galactic Empire aesthetics. And Apple can’t make that commercial now, because mob mentality is what gets hundreds of people lining up around the block on Day 1 for a smart-watch that nobody needs.

  • Hex

    Having only read the books mentioned, I cannot speak for the movies (except Gattaca). Regarding the books though, there are several factors both in publishing and in the market that lead to why YA dystopias exist as they do, which is why it is unfair to compare them to adult fiction.

  • Greenhornet

    “b) Exaggerating… to the point where their dangerous nature becomes incontrovertible;”
    Or to the point where they become farce.

    Maybe it’s just me, but I think that how a society BECAME a dystopia would be a far more interesting story.
    Take for instance, “Rollerball” (The original). For me, their society was BORING and the game scenes were a relief. I read the short story, BTW, and must say that the movie was well-padded with all that non-game stuff and attempts to explain the movie’s reality.

    • I concur. How the heck did these societies form in the first place? What made the people think that they needed or wanted a totalitarian regime? What drastic circumstances forced them into such a situation? How were they suckered into letting a demagogue take power?

      • Greenhornet

        I understand that it could happen, but HOW? Maybe such a story would serve as a warning to young people not to make the mistakes we made.

  • Cyvaris

    *cracks knuckles

    I’ll knock out the first draft in a week.

  • Hex

    Just read an article from Publishers Weekly that I thought was interesting and reminded me of this article.

    “Nielsen’s figures show that 80% of all the YA books that are selling are being bought by adults.” http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/childrens/childrens-industry-news/article/68083-nielsen-summit-shows-the-data-behind-the-children-s-book-boom.html

    I don’t know what their sample group size is but in my experience selling books, it makes sense.

    • John Connor

      Critics, be good to your young adults. Young adults will read as they do. Young adults become readers who turn into adults, so adults be good to your young adults too.

  • I am a little confused on the thesis of the article, that the meta-textual nature of producing multiple hacked out movies in a genre has made the genre cheap? Yeah, but that is true of everything, look at all the shitty superhero movies that cropped up before they started to get some editorial grasp on things.

    But then my disagreements might have something to do with my low opinion of “Gattaca” which is being used as a positive example. I find its dystopia laughable, and the hero of that movie is just intrinsically wrong, “I do not give a shit if it is your dream to be an astronaut, you have a heart condition and that means you are a risk to the mission, you don’t get to fucking go, because other astronauts’ lives might depend on your heart being in top shape.”

    Katniss is not a magical chosen one. She is a bitch who happened to be put into a position to stick it to an authority figure and she took it, that it worked out for her and that she got caught up as some symbol of the oppressed was beyond her control, and clearly beyond her desire to participate in the process.

    Just because a story has a central protagonist does not make them the chosen one. At no point is it prophesied or foretold she would lead the people.

    Furthermore, they aren’t supposed to be hard science looks at the future, they are marketed to teens who care more about the emotions of the narrative rather than the nuts and bolts, they aren’t “Dune” (and even “Dune” is over rated as all hell).

    And you can’t really avoid most of the movies being hacked out garbage, because the studios are chasing a trend, and the last person to the party gets no money.

    • Schwanwald

      Rocketboy wrote: “I do not give a shit if it is your dream to be an astronaut, you have a
      heart condition and that means you are a risk to the mission, you don’t
      get to fucking go, because other astronauts’ lives might depend on your heart being in top shape.”

      I’m sorry, but I’ve read that bullshit one too many times in reviews of GATTACA. You are one of those people who are (deliberately?) missing the point, a fact that the movie makes quite clear:
      –> Vincent Freeman, the protagonist, DOES NOT HAVE A HEART CONDITION. <–
      All the prenatal DNA testing did was find a predisposition, a high percentage chance he *might* be born with a heart condition or develop one early on in life, that they automatically marked him as genetically flawed. No-one bothered to actually test him as an adult to see if he actually had one! He didn't have one, otherwise he wouldn't have been able to pass the rigorous physical training regime. If he actually had had a heart condition, all the borrowed DNA in the world wouldn't have let him pass.

      GATTACA's society had become so blindly obsessed with biological determinism that they forgot that genotype does not equal phenotype… how your body develops is massively influenced by your environment, by nutrition, illnesses, stress, parasites and such, which is why developmental genetics has made way for such fields of study as epigenetics, proteomics and glycomics. (Note: You can inherit epigenetic markers from both parents, as well as gain them during life, and pass these markers to your offspring.) The coding genes only provide *options* to build from. We know now that the work of regulatory genes, the switches that control protein expression by activating or muting genes, is far more important. How cells "read" (express) genes allows quick and dynamic alterations in the transcriptional potential of a cell, instead of waiting for genetic drift and random mutations (many of which are neutral and thus "invisible" to selection anyway) to alter the genetic sequence.

      I'm sorry, but as a biologist, I get pissed off when ill-informed people fall for the "genetic determinism" nonsense. I don't fault the movie, because a) it's supposed to be a dystopia, and b) back in 1997 when the movie was made, the modern field of epigenetics didn't exist yet (despite the fact that the term was invented earlier and used in other contexts).

      • Except that he had to fake his heart performance during the cardio vascular sessions. Where he practically fell down puking. He hid his difficulty with the test. Regardless of the test results for disposition (which is also still relevant), he is less qualified to be an astronaut then other candidates.

        My problems with the movie run deeper than that. That he was a rocket scientist level intellectual who worked as a janitor, that a blood test was used to enter the building, that he had to keep his desk so spotless just in case they did a secret sweep. The idea that constant reevaluation of someone on a genetic level who has already passed a battery of tests (fraudulently or not) is just insane to me, it would be both impractical and unnecessary even if it wasn’t a literal pain for the employees. How many people sued that company for catching some blood born pathogen just so they could come into work?

        They underline how stupid it is more so by revealing Uma Thurman’s health conditions that keep her grounded but still useful. That is a conflict in the logic of the movie.

        • Toby Clark

          Plus, even aside from the heart problem that he may or may not have yet/may or may not develop later, he’s also lying about his eyesight and hiding his contact lenses. So yeah, I wasn’t on his side either.