Dystopian themes draw today’s teens into books and movies

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Photo: Riley Smith

Some of the most popular literature and movies now all center around the idea of a dystopian world. The library shelves are filled with today’s most popular teen dystopian novels.

By Riley Smith, The Flyer Staff

Recently, it seems like every new film and young adult novel revolve around a similar situation: a main character who must rise up and fight an oppressive government. This thread of revolution against extreme regimes is a common theme of dystopian narratives — which seem to be gaining popularity all over the world.

Dystopian stories are the current fad for many Fairmont teens, too. But what exactly is a dystopia? Fairmont senior Cody Lewis defines it as “a society in which people are no longer functioning as individuals.”

This may sound familiar to fans of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, which features heroine Katniss Everdeen, who becomes the symbol of the revolution against the oppressive government of Panem.

Dystopian societies share a lot of characteristics. The government is usually run by one all-powerful being, who holds the reins of all of the people’s lives. Individuals lack any power and often don’t have many freedoms. The authoritarian government even goes so far as to control every aspect of one’s daily life: many choices, such as who marries whom, who lives where, and many others are decided by the government, and that decision is final.

Decisions like these often spur protagonists into action because they want to change the fate the government has decided for them.

One example of this is in Ally Condie’s young adult novel Matched. The heroine, Cassia, can either marry the man the government has told her she should marry — the boy they have “matched” her to — or go against the status quo and marry the one she thinks she loves in her heart.

This choice comes with many repercussions, and the story focuses on Cassia’s struggle against the controlling government and her journey to discover what she really wants — her match, or her (possible) true love.

The ‘scariest environment imaginable’

Fairmont English teacher Emily Bruzzese notes that dystopian societies often lack individualism and that the government usually controls its citizens by restricting necessities, such as food and water.

“Things are taken away instead of given to the citizens,” Bruzzese said. “It’s the scariest environment imaginable.”

We are obsessed with dystopias because we are fascinated with the illusion of perfection. Everyone wants to be perfect, even though no one is.”

— Kristen Secrest

Bruzzese explained why living in a dystopia could be so frightening, referencing a classic dystopian novel, 1984 by George Orwell, in which the government supervises almost every aspect of citizens’ daily life. This includes when they get up in the morning, where they work, what they eat for every meal of the day, and everything in between.

“It’s the little things that you would notice,” said Bruzzese, “like in 1984, when Winston has to wake up every morning and exercise,” as per government regulation. “I love having that choice. I got up and did yoga this morning, but I didn’t have to.”

Lewis notes that the lack of individualism and personal rights can dehumanize the citizens in a dystopian society. “It’s set up so that people aren’t people: they’re more like machines,” he said. “They’re not allowed to be imperfect. Everyone sees the same thing, everyone does the same thing, and no one has any personal ties.”

One such novel based around this idea is Lois Lowry’s classic novel The Giver, which recently made its film debut. In The Giver, a council of elders establishes all of the norms of society and act similarly to the government in Matched: every aspect of a person’s life is chosen and planned by the government.

The elders within The Giver have also deemed that human nature is what has kept the human race from achieving perfection, and this is why they strive to take away all chances for humans to make their own decisions. If humans cannot make their own decisions, the elders reason, then they cannot make any mistakes, allowing society to run perfectly.

This is the perfect setup for Lowry to deliver the central message of her novel. “She is trying to show that human flaw is what makes us human,” Lewis said.

Why are we obsessed with dystopian themes?

With the releases of film adaptations of Divergent by Veronica Roth and the final installments of The Hunger Games, dystopian societies are certainly in the forefront of literature and movie adaptations.

Freshman Kristen Secrest believes that what draws readers in is the idea of a utopia — a perfect world.

“We are obsessed with dystopias because we are fascinated with the illusion of perfection,” Secrest said. “Everyone wants to be perfect, even though no one is.”

This is what captivates readers of The Giver, or at least what held Lewis’s attention when he read it for the first time.

“It was different. A lot of dystopian books involve a big tragedy that causes everything to be messed up and chaotic,” he said.

This is similar to The Hunger Games: heroine Katniss and the revolution rebel against all of the actions President Snow and the government of Panem have taken to control its people since it quelled the last revolution 75 years ago.

Within The Giver is an ideal and flawless world. “Everything’s perfect,” Lewis said. “For the first few chapters, you think everything is perfect. Then it slowly unravels, until finally, it breaks, and you realize, this is not a perfect world; it is corrupt, it is wrong.”

Secrest also thinks this recent popularity is due in part to the nature of modern American society. “We are pitting teens against each other,” she said. “We want them to fight for the title of best in academics and sports and whatnot.”

This, in turn, encourages authors to try to get that message out to young readers in a manner that they will understand, through dystopian novels aimed at a teenage audience, in books like Divergent, The Hunger Games and Matched.

“You are more interested in a novel. It’s not just some article,” said Secrest. “You get involved with the characters and the plot. It has more meaning to you.”

Grappling with social issues or joining a fad?

Interestingly, many of the fictional dystopian novels present issues within actual society that the authors think readers should pay attention to.

Senior Becky Friedmann says that Divergent’s Veronica Roth is trying to emphasize the major presence of stereotypes in society. “In society, we all have these preconceived notions of certain types of people and how they look,” Friedmann said.

In Divergent, at the age of around 16 every youth chooses to become a member of one of five factions (one might even say districts) that are based on one aspect of human personality. These five factions are called: Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Dauntless and Erudite. In non-SAT words: self-denial, friendliness, honesty, fearlessness and scholarly or learned.

These factions are strikingly similar to and parallel modern-day stereotypes. “The Dauntless are the brave and the courageous and the outgoing; Abnegation are the shy and quiet ones who are reserved; and so on and so forth,” said Friedmann.

We are sort of melting into sameness. To an extent, I don’t think we appreciate difference.”

— Emily Bruzzese

Bruzzese feels similarly, noting that society seems to be compacting itself. “Aren’t we sort of being condensed down into five brands, two labels, and one ideal vision of beauty?” asked Bruzzese.

She said she feels there is a growing loss of uniqueness in modern society.

“We are sort of melting into sameness,” Bruzzese said. “To an extent, I don’t think we appreciate difference. I think the most educated appreciate difference, but I think we have fewer and fewer educated people in this country.”

There’s no doubt that dystopian novels are in the spotlight right now. “I think our pop culture has trends,” Bruzzese said. “If there’s going to be one summer blockbuster that is about a meteor hitting the Earth, there are going to be two of them.”

Lewis agrees, saying that dystopian worlds are just a popular theme at the moment and will probably fade away soon.

“I think it’s just a phase,” Lewis said. “I think when The Hunger Games came out, people started looking at other books along the same lines, thinking they should bank on the success of The Hunger Games. I think it’ll pass, but it will be a theme that persists, maybe just not as strongly.”

Dystopia makes for a compelling read

Bruzzese explained that she enjoys studying and reading about dystopian societies.

“I’m a rule follower,” she said. “I am not one to question authority. So I think that a dystopia sort of holds a freakish fascination to me, because I would be one of those people who say ‘Let’s just follow along! Let’s just do what we’re told!’”

She also points out that it is more appealing to read about power struggles and conflicts than stories where everything is sunshine and rainbows.

“It’s human nature to want to read about conflicts people are having and how they overcome those, or don’t overcome those, depending on the situation,” Bruzzese said. “I think it’s interesting to study these characters who are so small and seemingly insignificant but that might possibly cause something bigger than themselves to happen.”

This often makes depressing stories, especially if the protagonist is crushed under the foot of the government. However, this scenario might bring out some problems within society, including ideas that real-life citizens must become aware of. Often, the fictitious citizens let the government become so controlling that they could not destroy it because it was too late.

“I’m not happy that the government wins in 1984, but I like the message that the people let things happen to the point where they became so insignificant that they weren’t precious anymore. They were just part of the machine,” said Bruzzese.

Bruzzese feels this is also important to the central idea in The Giver, one that speaks to many readers about being unique and giving power to individualism.

“We need to hold onto that selfness and that oneness,” Bruzzese said.