Be aware: This essay on the Starvation Video games phenomenon and the rise and fall of YA dystopias was initially printed in 2021. It has been up to date and republished because of the 2023 launch of the prequel film The Starvation Video games: Songbirds & Snakes..
The 2010s noticed the fast rise and equally fast fall of the YA dystopian style, with The Starvation Video games and its followers dominating headlines and common tradition. It’s been argued that the dystopia increase was impressed by cynicism and anxiousness in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, however for these of us who grew to become youngsters within the YA dystopia-obsession period, the movies specifically served a unique operate: They cultivated a mistrust for the federal government, expressing and amplifying how millennials all over the world had been bored with tyrannical leaders.
The Starvation Video games specifically helped popularize what had already turn into a thriving literary subgenre, with books from Lois Lowry’s 1993 novel The Giver to Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies collection shaping the dystopian increase. After which the wave of Starvation Video games copycats oversaturated the market and killed the fad — or so the favored story goes. Creator Suzanne Collins calls again to it together with her novel and now film The Starvation Video games: Songbirds & Snakes, however she’s unlikely to revive the subgenre, even when the film seems to be successful. There are good causes the YA dystopia increase ended, they usually had been constructed into its premises and execution all alongside.
The depth of the fad definitely contributed to its finish. In 2014 alone, 4 would-be blockbuster YA dystopian movies hit theaters: The Starvation Video games Mockingjay — Half 1, The Maze Runner, Divergent, and The Giver. However saturation isn’t sufficient to kill a style, because the final decade’s rolling wave of recent superhero movies proves. The YA dystopian style died because it didn’t evolve. E-book after ebook and movie after movie laid out the identical tropes, with the identical kinds of characters all struggling the identical generic oppression and experiencing the identical teen love triangles. The Starvation Video games struck a chord because of its lurid themes and the way in which it intensified its period’s anxieties about capitalism, imperialism, wealth and energy inequality, and know-how, however its followers largely added extra gimmicks and completely different sorts of violence, and known as it a day.
The Starvation Video games emerged from related adults-vs.-youth tales like Battle Royale, however added new layers about media propaganda and the authoritarian construction. Suzanne Collins was impressed by Greek mythology, reality-TV programming, and baby troopers, and she or he used these concepts to present her books extra texture. Her protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, is relatable and right down to earth: She doesn’t wish to turn into a revolutionary or a hero, she simply needs to maintain her little sister Primrose secure. Her deteriorating psychological well being feels lifelike, and it was largely unprecedented in a style stuffed with daring teen heroes who got here by means of probably the most horrifying adventures utterly unscathed.
Following the Starvation Video games collection, subsequent YA dystopia movies weren’t as richly realized, and the creators didn’t appear to care in regards to the traumatic experiences their younger protagonists went by means of. It’s unrealistic to have a movie about youngsters overthrowing tyrants however little to no deal with their feelings. Katniss wasn’t endlessly stoic — Collins permits her to be susceptible, and to study that emotions are an indication of power relatively than a weak spot. Most of the smash-the-state dystopia tales that adopted averted that sort of deal with emotions — or simply adopted the Katniss sample of tension and anguish, with out discovering new territory to discover.
The Starvation Video games collection focuses on ending a brutal regime that executes kids for sport, which requires a revolution and an entire restructuring of society. However the tales all the time stopped proper after the most recent oppressive regime fell, as if that may resolve all of society’s issues. Whereas precise youngsters had been fighting their very own idealism and a want for a greater world, fiction was telling them that systematic oppression is straightforward and simply solved with a typical good-vs.-evil combat, and that nothing that comes after that combat is attention-grabbing or related. The tales of how these dystopic societies had been rebuilt can be extra novel and engaging, however there was by no means room in YA dystopias for that sort of thought or consideration.
Which left nowhere for these tales to go after the injustices had been overturned and the fascist villains had been defeated. All of them constructed momentum and pleasure round motion, however few of those tales ever thought-about what young-adult readers wish to know: After one merciless chief is gone, what comes subsequent? Injustice not often ends with the dying or departure of 1 unjust ruler, however YA dystopian tales not often think about the subsequent world order, and the way it may function otherwise, with out stigmatizing its folks. Revolution, post-apocalyptic survival, and restructuring society are fascinating matters, however other than the Starvation Video games’ temporary coda about Katniss’ future PTSD, most YA dystopia tales simply don’t discover these areas.
And simply as YA dystopian tales weren’t significantly sooner or later, in addition they had been not often that inquisitive about their pasts, and even their current. They virtually by no means explored their societies in any depth, past declaring them to be evil, violent, and controlling. We don’t actually know a lot in regards to the damaging regimes within the Maze Runner or Divergent collection — we simply know they’re dangerous. The run of dystopian motion pictures specifically solely supplied the quickest, shallowest rationalization of why a authorities would drive its kids into mazes, or make them kill one another. The Capitol’s need to terrorize its residents in The Starvation Video games, or The Maze Runner’s deal with inhabitants management and catastrophe response — these are political excuses for mass homicide, however not nuanced ones.
On the identical time, YA dystopian tales had been all the time too depending on the hero mannequin, the place a single teenager sparks a revolt and does the majority of the work in taking down a totalitarian state. Though that’s an empowering imaginative and prescient, it looks like a dated, hole mannequin to the younger adults participating in precise collective motion. We’re arguably residing in dystopian instances, amid a altering world the place authoritarianism and fascism are on the rise, both in America and around the world. And resistance to it needs to be cooperative, not depending on Chosen One heroes. Inequality and oppression are pushed by establishments, not single villains who may simply be introduced down. The simplicity of tales the place one courageous younger individual stops a monster and revolutionizes a society rapidly began to really feel like simplistic fantasy.
A part of the way in which these dystopian fantasies averted actuality was by avoiding the actual and relatable points that youngsters face. Katniss, Divergent’s Tris, and Maze Runner’s Thomas are all youngsters, however their tales’ major concession to their ages are the minor love triangles they face. Their tales discover points round know-how, environmental destruction, and authorities management, however with out, for example, explicitly drawing parallels between the progressive methods youngsters use know-how, or work together with the schooling techniques designed to form them. Youngsters expertise a plethora of feelings as we develop up, however these dystopian movies not often felt genuine about teen angst or anxieties — their heroes felt similar to generic grownup heroes, performed by youthful actors.
After all, non-white folks barely exist within the dystopia-film wave. The few BIPOC characters are by no means totally developed, and the viewers by no means will get to find out about their tales. Research spotlight that white characters are far better represented in YA literature than different teams, which can assist clarify the way in which some followers had been weirdly bothered by Black characters in the Hunger Games motion pictures — in such a white-leaning style, they not solely didn’t count on the rest, they couldn’t deal with it when it arrived.
These dystopias recommend that they happen in some kind of post-racial utopia, however they get there by suggesting non-white folks wouldn’t exist in a dystopian society. Regardless of Jennifer Lawrence and Shailene Woodley dominating the genre with messages of female empowerment, they nonetheless reside in fantasy worlds that amplify some real-world points, like authorities overreach and profound inequality, however that hardly tackle the opposite actual points dealing with ladies and teenage women, like gender discrimination and harassment. Pretending none of these items would exist in dystopian society, once we know from actual expertise that oppressive regimes truly considerably compound the problem, feels shallow and false.
However who is aware of, because the march towards new fascist regimes continues, the style could revive in a brand new kind. Traits come and go, however they are usually cyclical — and the second or third time round, they’re extra more likely to have advanced. As the variety wave spreads by means of completely different cinematic and literary genres, from fantasy to romance to sci-fi and past, the YA dystopia style may revive in new varieties. With the rise of extra BIPOC creatives within the trade, possibly we’ll get a particular YA dystopian movie with extra characters of coloration.
Not everyone needs to reside in or think about a dystopian society. The dystopian fad could have light partially because younger readers and viewers are prepared for some positivity, and for much less fantastical, simplified issues and options. However it may be that they’re doing the work themselves now. Younger persons are mounting increasingly more refined political campaigns towards the real-world dystopic futures they’re dealing with, from the local weather disaster and the revival of authoritarian governments to nation-specific issues like sectarian violence, wars, white nationalism, and terrorist assaults. Ultimately, it is likely to be potential for authors to take inspiration from that actuality, and revive the style in additional convincing and compelling varieties.