Film, OldVenue

The Rise of the Dystopian

It would be fair to say that in recent times Hollywood has definitely capitalised on the success of the dystopian genre amongst adolescents by producing such box office successes as The Hunger Games, Maze Runner & Divergent (all adapted from popular literary series) and with The 5th Wave set to release in 2016, there are no signs that the popularity of dystopian films is waning. But what exactly is so captivating about dystopian films, particularly those geared towards young adult audiences?

One thing to consider is that the media, particularly visual media, can act as a mirror, reflecting current events occurring in our own society, and projecting them onto the big screen to reach wider audiences. Dystopian films allow for a commentary on social and political events that are relevant to our own society, without directly referencing the current state of affairs, by drawing upon parallel universes. These universes often face comparable problems to our own society, but at a higher extremity and this increased intensity is often appealing to the average cinema goer looking for a dramatic performance.

Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) prepares to take on the Capitol, with Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) by her side.
Why are dystopian film franchises like The Hunger Games so popular with young audiences? Photo credit: Murray Close. Image: Lionsgate.

The Hunger Games, for instance, reflects the ‘pageant’ nature of a great deal of (particularly western) reality television programmes, in which individuals compete for the nations favour. In this case, the level of drama is increased by choosing to depict children fighting to the death, however it is not so dissimilar from adults cohabiting in restricted settings to win monetary prizes (Big Brother) or surviving in isolated environments and completing challenges designed to illicit fearful responses (I’m A Celebrity). In particular The Hunger Games draws attention to the parasitic nature of the media in general, who are more concerned with scandal and drama (Katniss & Peeta’s relationship, or what Katniss is wearing) as opposed to true tragedies and events (for example the fact that each year children are dying for entertainment in the games).

Following the same trend, Maze Runner is based around the notion that the earth has been ruined by a harsh climate and disease plaguing the land (the earth is in ruins and the human race is dying out). This could be seen to reflect many disease ‘epidemics’ that concern society today (Ebola being a recent example which received much media attention) and society’s relative apathetic attitude toward climate change and the repercussions of changing meteorological conditions.

Young adult dystopian films may also have an appeal because they tend to follow a youthful ‘underdog’ – someone who faces many similar problems to those that young people today face (i.e. forming relationships, ‘fitting in’, the uncertainty of adult life, the oppressive nature of institutions or authority figures), but with added dramatic effect for entertainment purposes. Young adult dystopias often reflect how an older generation has destroyed or corrupted civilisation. They follow how younger people must overcome the obstacles created by previous societies, who may have only been concerned at the time by short term effects, as opposed to long term solutions and this is appealing to more forward thinking and liberal younger generations.

Thomas (Dylan O'Brien; Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials) faces similar problems to today's youth, such as fitting in and forming relationships.
Youthful underdogs like Thomas (Dylan O’Brien; Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials) encounter many similar problems that young people today face. Photo credit: Richard Foreman Jr. Image courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox.

Additionally, dystopian films resonate with left-wing anarchists, as well as those who are perhaps paranoid about government control. A simple internet search can reveal the current moral crises concerning surveillance monitoring, and dystopias really capitalise on this notion of extreme government control. Such films usually depict an omnipresent, omniscient government that does not allow for individual thoughts and feelings that go against the narrative they are trying to convey. This has real world application with regards to concerns about the status of freedom of speech and the current state of political correctness that exists in today’s society. Therefore, dystopian films allow an outlet for such fears to be voiced, and allows the viewer to draw the parallel between fiction and reality themselves, and ultimately poses the question – what if this were to happen to us?

Finally, something about disaster & dystopian films is intrinsically alluring; it may appeal to the human inclination to survive despite all odds, and ultimately dystopias are enticing because, usually, there is at least one survivor. Despite significant challenges, individuals, especially young, teenage, individuals do actually survive. Such an outcome offers hope in what can seem like uncertain times, and this is critically important when attempting to face problems in our own society in the current social and political climate.


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August 2021
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