By: Aashka Dave
Spoiler Alert: This article contains plot details from The Hunger Games trilogy, Divergent trilogy, and The Mortal Instruments series.
Katniss Everdeen, Tris Prior, and Clary Fray don’t know each other, but they have a lot in common. All three young women have hit the silver screen as two “Hunger Games” movies, one “Divergent” movie, and one “Mortal Instruments” movie have come out. Given the fact that all four of these films have been released in a matter of two years, Katniss, Tris, and Clary have come to represent an entire movement. They’re the newest faces for a developing genre – one that’s running the gamut from literature to major motion pictures in one fell swoop.
Walk into any bookstore today and take a look at the Young Adult section. A few years ago, you would have found shelves stuffed with vampire – wait, paranormal – romance. Bella loved Edward. Or – did she love Jacob instead? “Twilight” set a popular, bankable tone and authors, publishers, television producers, and filmmakers alike chose to pipe in. Staid but stylish Nordstrom started selling vampire love triangle t-shirts! Bram Stoker may or may not have turned in his grave.
Today, that same section is full of a different type of literature: books of the dystopian variety. The opposite of a utopia, a dystopia is a society where things are not perfect. Coined by British MP John Stuart Mill in 1868, a “dystopian” was originally a person who believed something “too bad to be practicable.” In today’s version of dystopian literature, this roughly translates to societies with systemic problems. In one way or another, they are flawed.
Children in Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games,” featuring Katniss Everdeen, fight each other to the death as punishment for their ancestors’ rebellious natures. Teenagers in “Divergent,” the Veronica Roth trilogy focused on Tris Prior, are forced to choose one of four “factions” over their families in order to become full-fledged members of society. In the Mortal Instruments books, which center on Clary Fray and were written by Cassandra Clare, a secret race of people called “shadowhunters” has to battle the demons of the underworld.
These stories are alluring because they hold just the right amount of reality – this could be possible in the future. Katniss lives in an impoverished version of Appalachia. Tris lives in a redesigned Chicago where the Navy Pier is a ghost of its past; a Ferris wheel is its only identifier. Clary lives in a New York City with a flourishing crime scene. This time, though, Shadowhunters are the good guys, and the vampires and faeries are the bad ones.
Dystopian literature is not new. George Orwell’s “1984,” Lois Lowry’s “The Giver,” and Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” are just the tip of the iceberg. The literary genre has been thriving for quite some time. Today, though, it has finally hit the mainstream, and has developed great societal significance in the process.
Like the vampire movement before it, dystopian premises have caught the eyes of scores of people and have catapulted the faces of their respective franchises into the spotlight. Jennifer Lawrence, anyone?
Unlike the vampire genre, though, this one is getting attention from more than teenagers. Katniss’ story catches the attention of adults too. Parents, who themselves eagerly await the newest books in dystopian series, debate the merits of exposing their children to such violent stories. Again, their potentiality is irresistible. The NSA has been described as “1984-esque.” Totalitarian governments the world over can be seen as “Orwellian.” Apple even made a world-famous advertisement based on Orwell’s book.
For all the violence and controversy these stories detail, though, the young women helming them are praised. Unlike Disney princesses of yore, these young women are strong role models. Katniss isn’t waiting to be saved by Gale or Peeta, much less a fairy godmother. She’s overwhelmed by the world around her, but she makes her own decisions, and she’s the one who figures out who’s actually pulling the strings in her country’s convoluted civil war. Tris is one of the leaders in an effort to halt the Erudite faction’s evil scheme. Clary is the one who saves the day.
Not every dystopian story features a female protagonist, but many do. Consequently, dystopian tales pose a striking contrast to the female characters we usually see. Swedish cinemas, tired of seeing the same old films praised day in and day out, recently implemented a new film ratings system that takes into account gender bias or its lack thereof. The only film with a female protagonist to pass the test? “The Hunger Games.” In an age when women are told to “lean in” and ask for wage equality, dystopian protagonists are standouts.
Not only does reading a dystopian book feature that escapist element that readers so often cite as a draw for reading, the books themselves call to mind conflicts faced in everyday life. These young women can do what they want to do despite the harshest of circumstances. These oppressive governments can be overthrown using the hardest of efforts. The bad guy is not going to win.
Dystopian worlds are highly detailed, helping their translation onto the big screen. That being said, it comes as no surprise that filmmakers and television producers alike want to take dystopian literature to the next level. This time though, they are not presenting stories of conventionality. They are presenting stories that center on being strong, being an individual in a crowd, and overcoming Big Brother.
May the odds be ever in their favor.