YA Dystopian Films Have Become What They Hate

Photo: Lionsgate

The Hunger Games continues to wend its way towards a conclusion with this weekend’s awkwardly titled The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1. That a Part 2 arrives next year to wrap up the franchise is enough to render this installment in Katniss Everdeen’s uprising saga somewhat less than wholly consequential. Yet even more problematic for Part 1 is that it’s a thoroughly been-here, done-that type of entertainment. In just over a year, movie theaters have been besieged by six dystopian science-fiction films designed for young adults, all of them adapted from best-selling novels: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Ender’s Game, Divergent, The Maze Runner, The Giver, and now Mockingjay – Part 1. More depressing still is the fact that while these films can claim a distinct literary lineage, each one, in making the transition to the big screen, has been cut from a matching cloth, hewing to such a rigorous narrative, aesthetic, and casting template that they’ve become the very thing their stories so vehemently decry: conformist instruments of the ruling modern-Hollywood machine.

The fact that futuristic movies about heroes revolting against conventionality are themselves completely conventional is an irony apparently lost on (or ignored by) the filmmakers themselves, as well as the audiences who voraciously consume them. Of course, each of the five aforementioned films/franchises take their own approach (and social-commentary angle) to the genre. Nonetheless, they share so many similarities that they not only resemble disposable facsimiles of each other, but they negate the very rebel-yell messages they purport to champion. Taking their cues from Logan’s Run, Star Wars, and decades’ worth of other science-fiction stories in which a group of plucky do-gooders band together to stage an insurgency against baddies who seek to control through oppressive uniformity, they recycle familiar material in virtually the same ways — thus calling attention to their own dreary indistinctness.

The stories themselves are fundamentally about generational warfare, in which teens are tasked with overthrowing nefarious adults and their tyrannical regimes. In each case, the heroes are played by fresh-faced, up-and-coming actors looking to springboard to fame via these tentpole genre series (Jennifer Lawrence, Shailene Woodley, Asa Butterfield, Brenton Thwaites, and Dylan O’Brien), while their villainous adversaries and wise mentors are embodied by illustrious, award-winning thespians (Meryl Streep, Donald Sutherland, Kate Winslet, Harrison Ford, Jeff Bridges, Ben Kingsley, Viola Davis, Patricia Clarkson). As evidenced by the titles of both The Hunger Games and Ender’s Game, contemporary dystopian YA sci-fi requires heroes to engage in games created by their overlords — contests that the heroes initially resist, but ultimately use as the means to achieve their triumph. Be it The Hunger Games’ kill-or-be-killed tournaments, Ender’s Game’s war-as-a-video-game simulations, or The Maze Runner’s trial by labyrinth, childlike pastimes (games, video games, sports) are perverted by adults into tools of restraint and then reclaimed by kids as vehicles for liberation. Even in Divergent, Shailene Woodley’s Tris is repeatedly tested by her superiors, both biologically and physically, in order to determine (and thus constrain her in) her place in society — evaluations against which she must inevitably fight. Often, the heroes must ally themselves with those who previously played these games. And usually, the games’ primary lesson is: Killing is wrong and war is bad … unless, of course, you’re a good-looking teen killing and waging war in service of overthrowing a despot. Then it’s, like, totally badass.

Although The Giver features no actual do-or-die contests, it shares with its genre mates a vision of a postapocalyptic world in which harmony (i.e. control) is maintained through rigorous manipulation of the population. From the drugs that keep people emotionless and the world colorless in The Giver, to the fascistic systems of power in The Hunger Games, to the government-selects-your-place-in-society practices employed in Divergent, The Giver, and Ender’s Game, these films all imagine futures in which governments and militaries decide who you are, what you’ll do, and how and what you think and feel — all in an effort to extinguish the very individuality that defines you. That, in turn, requires heroes to discover, embrace, and assert their own uniqueness, and in the process, to discover that what makes them different is also what makes them extraordinary. It’s a notion that appealingly plays into young people’s belief in their own world-altering exceptionality — even if, by advancing that idea, the films come across as like-minded consumer products selling kids an uplifting story about their own potential specialness.

Then there are the rampant aesthetic similarities. Repressive government villains and buildings are decked out in whites and grays, and heroes are demarcated by splashes of color (Katniss Everdeen’s flaming dress in The Hunger Games; Jonas’s Pleasantville-esque ability to see the black-and-white world in vibrant hues in The Giver). Panoramas of empty wastelands, located right outside the borders of the fortified cities controlled by villains, are imagined with impressive CG effects. Walls and other towering structures, epitomized by The Maze Runner’s shape-shifting labyrinth, keep people from venturing beyond their (literal and figurative) limits. Corresponding uniforms are used to delineate citizens' given societal roles. And while women are sometimes allowed to let their hair down — especially in The Hunger Games, which adores ludicrous coiffures — men’s hairstyles are to be closely cropped at all times. After all, they may be anti-authoritarian rebels interested in personal expression, but they’re not hippies!

And finally, there is the central characteristic linking these films: romance. No hero can lead a rebellion without having such efforts complicated by burgeoning feelings for a person of the opposite sex. In The Hunger Games, that comes in the form of a faux love triangle (faux because, c’mon, Liam Hemsworth’s Gale is a one-dimensional wet blanket). Meanwhile, in Divergent, The Giver, Ender’s Game, and The Maze Runner, more straightforward amour flourishes between the protagonist and his or her obvious soul mate. That process invariably involves the hero being crucially aided by his or her obvious love interest, and then realizing that said person — who may have initially seemed like a total jerk! — is in fact their “other half.” In each case, romantic affection is reduced to a series of identical steps: first a few charged glances, then some hemming and hawing (and bickering) over the hero’s go-against-the-grain disposition, and finally intimacy, courtesy of some momentous revelation or victory. It’s love via connect-the-dots formula.

By reducing relationships, passion, and rebellion to a simple recipe, these films underline their own sameness, which even extends to their theatrical posters, full of Photoshopped faces and bodies amidst some background special-effects flourish. They’re all interchangeable tales of cute kids raging against the aged powers that be, eschewing novelty — and the very groundbreaking, awe-inspiring innovation that paves the way for genuinely surprising futures — in favor of establishing and promoting a conformist status quo. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.