For anyone over the age of 21, the recent cinematic trend of adapting dystopian fiction seems a little baffling. Taking a look at the abusive vampire flicks and cancer-based teen dramas we’re used to seeing rattled out for the lucrative teen market, it’s clear that it shares the intensely bleak outlook teenagers seem so hungry for. Still, it can’t just be the prospect of impossibly hot couples crying at each other before dying in increasingly painful ways that draws them in – so why is it that a new generation of young adults is desperate to watch themselves beaten, bloodied and broken by an older generation that is desperate to control and annihilate them, mind, body and soul? Ah. Maybe it isn’t actually so complicated when you put it like that.
Let’s take the three most successful dystopian franchises out at the moment: the Hunger Games, Maze Runner and Divergent series. In each of these films, the pressures of teenage lives – education, sexuality, family, disenfranchisement, inequality, fear and sacrifice – are played out on a grand visual scale.
Inequality fostered by politicians is a key frustration shared by each of these stories, though The Hunger Games is perhaps the bluntest. In a post-‘Civil War II’ US, the remaining population have been divided into thirteen districts: the few living in District One enjoy incredible decadence, comfort and wealth while the others compete in the games for supplies. As an allegory for the education and job race, the way in which a generation is forced into a brutal and unavoidable competition with each other in return for those rewards necessary for survival – food, medicine, safety, money – aligns perfectly with young adults’ real-life struggle to stay ahead of the curve.
Competitors from wealthier districts are better trained and better equipped to win, whereas others don’t have a chance at all – young or uneducated competitors from poorer districts are often killed first but no less brutally. Like so many approaching our education system, they have had to spend their time working menial jobs to ensure their family’s survival, rather than to train, appreciate and hone their own skills. In the middle are the competitors who have a little of each – some time to train, some encouragement, the best efforts of good teachers and parents, and some appreciation of tactics that may give them a chance. With some natural talent and a lot of luck they may make it through, maybe even win. But in the end, they are all put up for slaughter – in the end, they are disposable. In the end, they have no control over their fate and the world that put them there.
It’s this fury towards a psychopathic and controlling baby-boomer generation that is so consistent in YA dystopian films. Divergent is an incredibly satisfying allegory for the feeling that an older generation is forcing you to choose a path before you’re ready – you’re not only expected to know what you like and who you want to be, but to already display aptitude. The ‘dependents’ (pre-choice children) must choose between five factions that reflect their one virtue: Abnegation (selflessness), Amity (peacefulness), Candor (honesty), Dauntless (courage), and Erudite (intelligence), and though they do not have to agree with their pre-choice test results, they had better be sure in their choice because once made there is no changing. The only way out is as a ‘factionless’: to be kicked out of the system entirely and left to live as a homeless unskilled beggar.
Tris (Shailene Woodley) undertakes brutal training on arrival at Dauntless which echoes that initiation into education, where rigorous and unending testing now takes the place of time that was once spent in personal development and experimentation. Similarly, in The Maze Runner, Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) wakes up with no memory in the small, all-boy community. ‘The Glade’ is a functioning society built by the boys, which is slowly revealed as a huge psychological experiment, the purpose for which remains hidden. They are put through test after test, during which group members are sacrificed, labelled, and pitted against each other by those who are responsible for them. In a world that dares you to try and make your way without a map, The Maze Runner is a simple allegory for the confusion of entering adulthood without preparation, for the rigorous testing that determines your entire future and for learning to be a functioning member of a society with hidden rules and obvious traps.
Significantly, this generation is constantly disappointed by those that came before it. Katniss’ mother sank into a deep depression after Katniss’ father’s death, and Katniss was forced to provide to keep the family alive. Four in Divergent was violently and horrifically abused by his politician father and the children of The Maze Runner are manipulated and sacrificed by the scientists who took guardianship over them. These children are consistently put under incredible, insane and unnecessary pressure, and they rail against it. They cry, they fail, they see those they love fall and slip away, always followed by the threat that they will fall off the edge of the precipice their predecessors have built for them.
Though the debate over whether this generation of teenagers have it easier than previous generations will rage for all eternity, the success of these stories reflects how young adults feel at the moment and how grateful they are for a little understanding. We are the generation that will suffer for the economic crash, increasing financial and social inequality and the inaction over climate change, yet we are powerless – we must simply wait until it is our turn and make the best we can of what we are given. These dystopian films all have two things in common: a respect for the legitimacy of young adult feelings, of their passions, power and love – and they each depict an unjust, cruel and unnavigable system torn down by the good in the younger generation and their knowledge that this is not the way. For the young adults flocking to see these films, they are not revelling in a dystopia, but a utopia. Crushed by the failings of the previous generation they battle through the system that tries to control them and right their world’s wrongs. What’s depressing about that?