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.
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;
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”.
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.
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.
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!