In the 2010s, the equally dystopian YA genre soared and fell as quickly as it did with The hunger Games and its followers dominate headlines and popular culture. It has been argued that the dystopia boom was inspired by cynicism and fear after the 9/11 attacksBut for those of us who became teenagers in the era of the YA dystopia obsession, the films served a different purpose in particular: cultivating distrust of the government and expressing and reinforcing tyrannical leaders like millennials around the world did fed up. The hunger Games With books from Lois Lowry’s 1993 novel, the popularization of the already flourishing literary subgenre contributed in particular The giver to Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series, which is shaping the dystopian boom. And then the wave of Hunger games Copycats have saturated the market and killed the fad – that’s the popular story. But there were other reasons the YA dystopia boom ended, and they were being built into and executed on his premises all along.
The intensity of the fad certainly contributed to its end. In 2014 alone, four potential dystopian blockbuster YA films hit theaters: The Hunger Games Mockingjay – Part 1, The Maze Runner, Divergent, and The giver. But the saturation isn’t enough to kill a genre, as evidenced by the rolling wave of new superhero films over the past decade. The dystopian YA genre died because it didn’t evolve. Book after book and film after film laid out the same tropes, with the same types of characters, all suffering the same generic oppression and experiencing the same adolescent love triangles. The hunger Games struck a chord for its glaring themes and the way it heightened the fears of its era about capitalism, imperialism, wealth and power inequality and technology, but its followers for the most part added more gimmicks and various types of violence and called it a day.
The hunger Games grew out of similar adult-versus-youth stories like Battle Royale, but added new levels of media propaganda and the authoritarian structure. Author Suzanne Collins took inspiration from Greek mythology, reality TV programming, and child soldiers, and used these ideas to add texture to her books. Her protagonist Katniss Everdeen is relatable and down-to-earth: she doesn’t want to become a revolutionary or heroine, she just wants to protect her little sister Primrose. Her deteriorating sanity feels realistic and has been largely unprecedented in a genre full of brave teenage heroes who have weathered the most terrifying adventures completely unscathed.
After the Hunger Games series, subsequent YA dystopia films weren’t as abundantly realized, and the makers didn’t seem to care about the traumatic experiences their young protagonists went through. It’s unrealistic to have a film about teenagers who overthrow tyrants but have little or no focus on their feelings. Katniss wasn’t infinitely stoic – Collins allows her to be vulnerable and to learn that feelings are more a sign of strength than weakness. Many of the dystopian stories about the destruction of the state that followed avoided this kind of focus on feelings – or simply followed the Katniss pattern of fear and anxiety without finding new territory to explore.
The Hunger Games series focuses on ending a brutal regime that executes children for sport, which will require a revolution and complete restructuring of society. But the stories always stopped right after the overthrow of the latest oppressive regime, as if this would solve all of society’s problems. While real teenagers struggled with their own idealism and desire for a better world, the fiction told them that systematic oppression is simple and easy to resolve with a normal struggle between good and evil, and that nothing that comes after that struggle is interesting or relevant. The stories of how these dystopian societies were rebuilt would be more novel and enticing, but YA dystopias never had room for that kind of thought or reflection.
Which left nothing to those stories after the injustices were undone and the fascist villains defeated. They’ve all built the momentum and excitement of action, but few of those stories have ever thought about what young adult readers want to know: What’s next after a cruel leader disappears? Injustice seldom ends with the death or departure of an unjust ruler, but dystopian tales from YA seldom consider the next world order and how it could function differently without stigmatizing its people. Revolution, post-apocalyptic survival, and society reorganization are fascinating topics, but aside from the short Hunger Games coda about Katniss’ future PTSD, most YA dystopia stories just don’t explore these areas.
And just as YA-dystopian stories weren’t particularly interested in the future, they were rarely as interested in their past or even their present. They have almost never explored their societies in depth, except to declare them evil, violent and controlling. We don’t really know much about the destructive regimes in the Maze Runner or Divergent series – we just know they’re bad. The number of dystopian films in particular offered only the quickest and shallowest explanation of why a government would force its children into mazes or make them kill each other. The Capitol’s desire to terrorize its citizens in The Hunger Games, or The maze runner‘s focus on population control and disaster relief – these are political excuses for mass murder, but not nuanced ones.
At the same time, YA’s dystopian stories have always relied too heavily on the heroic model, in which a lone teenager starts a revolt and does most of the work to crush a totalitarian state. While this is an empowering vision, it feels like an outdated, hollow model to young adults engaging in collective action. We probably live in dystopian times in the midst of a changing world in which authoritarianism and fascism are on the rise. both in America and around the world. And resistance to it must be cooperative and not depend on the heroes of the chosen one. Inequality and oppression are instigated, not individual villains who could easily be brought down. The simplicity of stories of a brave young person stopping a monster and revolutionizing society quickly felt like a simplified fantasy.
Part of the way these dystopian fantasies avoided reality was to avoid the real and relatable problems teens face. Katniss, Differentis Tris and Maze runnerThomas ‘s Thomas are all teenagers, but their stories’ main admission to their age is the little love triangles they face. Their stories are about topics related to technology, environmental degradation and state control, without, however, explicitly drawing parallels between the innovative ways in which young people use technology or interact with the educational systems they are supposed to shape. Teens experience an abundance of emotions as we grow up, but these dystopian films rarely felt authentic about fears or fears of teenagers – their heroes felt like generic adult heroes played by younger actors.
And of course there are hardly any non-white people in the dystopian movie wave. The few BIPOC characters are never fully developed and the audience can never know about their stories. Studies show that there are white characters represented far better in YA literature than other groups, which might explain how strange some fans were bothered by black characters in the Hunger Games Films – in such a white-dominated genre, not only did they not expect anything else, they also couldn’t handle it when it arrived.
These dystopias suggest that they take place in some sort of post-racial utopia, but they get there by indicating that non-white people would not exist in a dystopian society. Despite Jennifer Lawrence and Shailene Woodley dominate the genre with messages of female empowermentThey still live in fantasy worlds that exacerbate some real-world issues like government overreach and pervasive inequality, but barely address the other real-world issues women and teenage girls face, such as gender discrimination and harassment. Pretending that none of these things would exist in dystopian society when we know from real experience that oppressive regimes actually make the problem much worse, feel flat and wrong.
But who knows, as the march against new fascist regimes continues, the genre may be revived in a new form. Trends come and go, but they tend to be cyclical – and the second or third time, they tend to have evolved. As the wave of diversity spreads across various cinematic and literary genres, from fantasy to romance to science fiction and beyond, the YA dystopia genre could be revived in new forms. With the rise of more BIPOC creatives in the industry, we may end up with a distinctive dystopian YA movie with more color characters.
Not everyone wants to live in or imagine a dystopian society. The dystopian fad may have faded in part because young readers and viewers are open to a certain positivity and less fantastic, simplified problems and solutions. But it can also be that you do the work yourself now. Young people are conducting increasingly sophisticated political campaigns against the real dystopian futures they face, from the climate crisis and the resurgence of authoritarian governments to country-specific issues such as sectarian violence, wars, white nationalism and terrorist attacks. Perhaps writers could take inspiration from this reality and revive the genre in more compelling and compelling forms.