Jumping on board the Dystopian Bandwagon

Dystopian science fiction has the potential to be a tremendous genre. Indeed, in the past it has been. Dystopian stories show us the worst possible depths which we, as part of a society, can sink to. They borrow humanity’s worst attributes and take them to their logical (if extreme) conclusion, bring us tales about; post-apocalyptic disaster areas, government controlled capitals and futuristic worlds where we have strayed too far off course.

The fact that the dystopian genre seems to be making a comeback at the moment should be a good thing. Every generation has needed to explore its own flaws and the dangers it faces in the safe environment of good-old-fashioned science fiction; however I’m now concerned that the scourge of this generation may well be a surplus of rushed, badly made, inadequately lifted from the book, money-making, teen dystopian films.

The novel/film franchise which really started all this off was The Hunger Games, written by American Suzanne Collins in 2008. I’m being extra-specific about the details here so that the children born after the dystopia-overkill apocalypse will be able to read my blog and know where the first seeds of humanity’s downfall where planted. Sorry, Suzanne.

The first film was directed by Gary Ross and released in 2012. The Hunger Games stars the super-awesome Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen, a girl who lives in the poverty-stricken District 12 and who dreams of running away from Panem; a place where two children from each district – one male and one female – are selected each year to fight to the death in the Games. I really enjoy these films. When I went to see the first Hunger Games at the cinema, I was taken by surprise at how much I cared about the characters and their plight from the off. I do resent the now almost standard practice of cutting the final part of the trilogy into two halves and selling them both at too high a price, but this still doesn’t make them any less watchable for me. Collin’s ideas are less original than they may have appeared to younger audiences unfamiliar with the much darker and much more Asian Battle Royale (2000), but the film has been made with care and attention; every character is distinctive, every event is well paced, the Capitol is thoughtful and playfully styled (although the residents there do remind me of the Vulgarians from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang). I even like Ross’ decision to use shaky-cam during many scenes. The Hunger Games films stand up to repeat viewings, and the big moments (Katniss volunteering as tribute, Katniss and Peeta riding in on their chariot for the first time, Rue’s death) don’t lose their impact when watched for the second, third of even forth times.

Then in 2009, The Maze Runner, written by James Dashner, was published. The story in essence is quite straight forward; a group of boys have been trapped somewhere, their only escape out is through a maze populated by nasties. Every day they ‘run’ the maze to try and find the way out; every night the walls of the maze close off the entrance, and the maze itself changes layout. The film was directed by Wes Ball and released in 2014, staring Dylan O’Brien as Thomas. You’ll have to forgive me; the rest of the boys all blurred into one another. In the book, they feel more distinctive, but little is done to make their differences clear in the movie. The female lead, Teresa (Kaya Scodelario) is rendered redundant by plot omissions and the fact that she no longer communicates telepathically with Thomas as she does in the book also makes her appearance a lot less interesting. There are a lot of pointless feeling chronological plot alterations and the narrative function of certain characters changes completely. The people I watched this film with didn’t know the novel and were lost; I’d only just finished reading the trilogy and I felt lost.

The film felt more like The Lord of the Flies than novel did. Instead of the boys living in structured accommodation and allocating themselves their own jobs and  roles in a way that shows them to be more civilised than those who keep them trapped there, things are more savage. In the absence of adults, the boys turn to revelry and drinking, fighting one another for fun. The choice to show these kinds of moments meant that there was a lot less time for talk and reflection. In my view, the ending loses emotional impact because the audience lacks attachment to the characters.

Some small but enjoyable details from the book were absent, including the paring down of the Glader’s slang. I missed in particular the use of the word “clunk” (after the sound that human waste makes when it hits the pan.) There were a few bonuses on screen, however; the scope of the maze was larger than I imagined and a lot more action was set within the maze itself, showing it reconfigure around the Runners. This was probably done to satisfy the over-the-top special effects quota that every film seems to have to meet now. My favourite casting choice was Patricia Clarkson, who played Ava Paige. Ever since Lars and The Real Girl (2007) and Shutter Island (2010), I’ve enjoyed watching her lend gravitas and a twinkle to anything she’s in, even if she was delivering a stereotypical and exposition heavy if-you-are-watching-this-tape-then-I-am-dead speech.

Divergent, published in 2011, was written by Veronica Roth. The film was another 2014 release and was directed by Neil Burger. The plot follows Beatrice (portrayed by the fairly un-extraordinary Shailene Woodley) who lives in a society where, at sixteen, you must pledge yourself to a particular faction for life; Dauntless, Erudite, Candor, Amity or Abnegation, choosing either to remain with your family, or to go your own way in life if you feel that your true self does not belong in the faction in which you were raised. When Beatrice takes the test designed to give her some indication of her true faction, she learns that she is Divergent; her results suggest she could join any one of three of these groups. Being Divergent, we learn, is very dangerous. What stands out when you watch this film are these visual signs of difference between the factions; obviously they are described in the novel, but to see the five groups gathered together makes clear the sense of separation and difference (admittedly, mainly through costuming).

The movie has some halfway decent cast members, with Ashley Judd playing Beatrice’s quietly mysterious mother. Scenes in the Abnegation household where Beatrice lives, however, feel like a replay of life in the Seam with Katniss and her mother, complete with the same unspoken tensions. Kate Winslet portrays the Erudite faction representative, Jeanine, and does cold and calculating well. My worry is that these talented women are playing these parts only to impress some young teenage relative who’s read the books; surely they can’t be choosing these roles on the merits of their screenplays.

This adaptation is actually very close to the novel. Although the idea of a society which has become radicalised out of a desire to avoid an encore of a recent near-apocalyptic war has been done a few times now, the idea of the five factions does feel new. The film version, however, takes away all of the excitement of letting you slowly unravel the story-world for yourself; it’s all served up to the audience straight away through voice over. To me, the basics of character and pacing and due care and attention to filmmaking are not shown here. The film feels like a good idea turned into an action movie for kids; without really asking the big questions dystopian fiction should strive to.  I’m aware I’ve said this before about films, but Divergent might have been more darkly real and engaging if it were more indie made; it seems too big and glossy; much as The Maze Runner does. Both works also contain actors who are, in my view, much too old to be playing the main lead roles which the books call for.

So I’m going to ‘fess up; I feel asleep watching this film. Quite early on, too. Maybe it’s me; maybe my mind’s closed off to these generic rehashes now. Maybe if I’m bored of teen dystopian fiction I should stop watching it or quit complaining.

I don’t know why The Hunger Games and its sequels works so well, and the seemingly relentless parade of others just don’t do it for me. To read; I rather enjoyed The Maze Runner (though I’d had enough by the last one). I thought Divergent was a pretty good novel, too – and certainly better written than The Maze Runner and The Hunger Games put together in my mind, although by the time I had finished it, I was fit to burst and had no more room for the sequels. Although following an old formula, The Hunger Games came out at a time when audiences had forgotten the pleasures of a well thought-out, if not entirely original premise; when we were ready to put our full focus and attention into some well considered characters and to go along with them for the ride. The greed and eccentricity of the Capitol was also another interesting aspect to the film.

The most recent teen dystopian trilogy I’ve read is the Slated books (the first was published in 2014) by Terri Terry. It follows the story of Kayla, a girl who has had her memory wiped. She has been told she was a criminal who has been given a new start and will be given a new identity and a new family. It’s an interesting idea, and I’ve been happy enough to go along with the ride whilst reading these books, feeling vaguely comforted by the idea that there is no accompanying film to ruin the experience for me. I have learned very recently, however, that the film is now in development.  Darn.

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