Searching for a Better Dystopia

Insurgent, like Hunger Games and other recent dystopias, isn’t really a dystopia.

Originally published in The American Conservative

Watching “Insurgent,” it was easy to get caught up in the laughter and enjoyment of the audience. The second film adaptation of Veronica Roth’s popular YA dystopian series, “Insurgent” features a good cast, some talented young actors and actresses, some great visual effects, a couple intense action scenes.

But the problem you will hear consistently from reviewers and watchers is this: it’s a cookie-cutter version of a book, and thus a movie, that has been made several times over throughout the past decade. Obviously, it still has some appeal—”The Maze Runner” series, final installment of “The Hunger Games,” and final adaptation of the “Divergent” series will all be coming out over the next couple years. Yet audiences are still expressing some weariness over these parallel plots.

They usually feature some sort of sorting system or hazing ritual for the books’ high school protagonists. There is also some sort of authoritarian government ruled by out-of-touch grownups. The character cast often features a young and likeable side character who dies, or is hurt in some way. And the protagonist is always some sort of Luke Skywalker-esque “chosen one,” who approaches their fate-appointed leadership role with an alarmed, selfless “Who, me?” response.

It should be apparent why this storyline so often appeals to young adults who read the books: we all like to be the wronged and tortured ones. When we’re young, it’s easy to think our lives are dramatic, star-crossed—we even like a little tragedy, as long as it doesn’t directly hurt us. We often also like to think the adults in our lives are evil dictators, trying to prevent us from being happy. The modern dystopian novel just adds action and drama to a modern high school setting.

In addition to all this, the book/films’ protagonists are not emotionally complex or interesting. They’re not even consistent, most often. In The Hunger Games, Katniss is a stormy, moody character—but without any consistent internal development, personal conflict, or overarching motive. Her familial affections are constantly overlooked, clouded, or forgotten in light of her romantic interests—which seem to waffle from page to page. Her relationship with the antagonist (President Snow) is at once defiant, then terrified, then sullen. Because of this volatility, we never get to really understand who Katniss is—thus making it very difficult to empathize with her. Divergent’s Tris, while similarly moody and overwrought, develops a sliver more consistency in voice over time. But both Jennifer Lawrence’s and Shailene Woodley’s portrayals of the books’ protagonists seem considerably more developed and consistent than the authors’ versions.

Why we haven’t seen more diversity in the dystopian genre as of late? It would be one thing if these were just films: we’re used to seeing the same underdog sports story, the same superhero films, over and over again. But these are book adaptations, plots created by authors who are regurgitating up the same tired stories at a ceaseless rate.

It could be that Hollywood has not discovered some unknown gems that may lace the dystopian genre—and if so, hopefully such works will begin to surface. But we still need some new novels—if not for our own sakes, at least for the young adults who more consistently read them. They needn’t be entirely new and brilliant; but couldn’t we at least write something more along the lines of Brave New World than 1984? It would feature a contrasting world, a diverse yet interesting array of characters. It would look at the consequences of hedonism, rather than the consequences of authoritarianism.

But perhaps the reason Huxley’s dystopia is the less popular of the two, is because it hits too close to home. It’s more fun watching domineering bad guys get crushed by upstart teenagers than it is to see a pleasure-centric society killing itself with ignorance and lust.

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