We can relate to the many parallels within these alternate worlds
Dystopian fiction has been a staple genre for literature in the late 20th and 21st centuries.
From the hugely successful Hunger Games and Divergent trilogies to classics such as 1984 and Brave New World, the intricate worlds of dystopia have captured million dollar markets worldwide with film adaptations, TV series and online fandoms. This begs the question; what makes dystopian fiction so captivating to a modern audience?
Although life in a dystopian society is often radically different from our own, part of the genre’s appeal is typically how some elements relate to our contemporary society. Dystopian authors often create storylines to reflect issues within the contemporaneous world, and these microcosms bring a deeper meaning and relevance to the narrative.
One example of this is the Noughts and Crosses series by Malorie Blackman, a series of 5 books that was recently adapted into a BBC TV series. It details the segregation of the noughts (lighter-skinned people) to keep the crosses (darker-skinned people) in control. Here Blackman looks at the ongoing problem of racism through a different lens; by reversing the stereotypical roles of our society, the reader is nudged to take a different perspective on racial discrimination and its impact on people’s lives. This is perhaps especially relevant in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement- we can gain a deeper understanding of the struggles of people of colour and systemic racism within our society.
The Hunger Games trilogy addresses the modern issue of classism, with the wealthy people of the Capitol sacrificing the poorer Districts for their entertainment. Although this is obviously far more extreme than in our world, anyone who has been a victim of a classist system will relate to protagonist Katniss as she rebels against the rich. The age-old fight of upper-class vs. working-class takes on a new relevance in the radical setting of the Games, and we sympathise with those in the Districts as we think about how this problem pervades our everyday lives.
Evidence suggests dystopian narratives may be closer to us than we think. According to The Verge, since Donald Trump’s swearing in as President of the USA there has been a 200% increase in sales of Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale. George Orwell’s novel 1984 has also benefitted from an increase in sales since the election; perhaps the American public are becoming more concerned with the political climate of their country.
On a more superficial level, film and TV adaptations deepen our love of dystopia. Film series have shot actors to worldwide fame, and details such as custom soundtracks and beautiful settings make all the difference in appreciating a good adaptation of a dystopian novel. Dystopian books lend themselves to the big screen, allowing for visual and visceral adaptions where the audience can lose itself in a new world.
By Esther Duckworth: Literature Columnist
The Maze Runner film trilogy satisfied fans of the books, and shone a spotlight on Teen Wolf star Dylan O’Brien as protagonist Thomas; the Hunger Games films had a similar effect with Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss. The Hunger Games also benefitted from a hit original song- ‘The Hanging Tree’ was written by author of the books Suzanne Collins and featured vocals from Jennifer Lawrence. Its appeal within the context of the film had the desired effect, and it has since peaked atop record charts in some countries and prompted remixes. The Noughts and Crosses TV adaptation also had a star-studded cast, including Stormzy and Josh Dylan. Hulu’s adaptation of Handmaid’s Tale has had great success with 3 seasons and a 4th on the way. Produced by author Margaret Atwood and receiving an 8.5/10 on IMDB, it has received rave reviews from audiences and critics alike.
Restrictions are often placed on characters: space, opportunity, access, gender, race. The protagonist is constantly challenged by the rules at play in dystopia. One Room With A View says dystopian films especially appeal to teens as ‘the pressures of teenage lives… are played out on a grand visual scale’. This is definitely accurate- frustration against control, the confusion of relationships and the pressures of fitting in are hugely magnified in dystopia, yet teenagers can always relate to these struggles.
Maybe the true appeal of dystopia is not how it relates to our society, but rather how it doesn’t. The crafting of new worlds within the genre creates a form of escapism unlike any other style of fiction; by creating societies so fundamentally different from our own our focus shifts completely onto the narrative and characters.
One example of this is the Chaos Walking trilogy by Patrick Ness, set in a world where everyone’s thoughts can be heard in a cacophony of words, images and sounds called Noise. This plot is completely unrealistic, yet piques our curiosity- we always wonder what it would be like to hear other people’s thoughts, and are hooked by the excitement of feeling what it might be like. The radical events of dystopia can also prompt us to think more about our own characters and situation; in the Divergent trilogy by Veronica Roth, protagonist Tris has to choose whether to remain with her own faction, or be bold and leave her family for a new life. By facing the main character with a difficult decision, we wonder how we would react in the same situation- would we be brave or stick with what we’ve always known? Lord of the Flies by William Golding is perhaps the most obvious example of this in dystopian fiction; boys stranded on a desert island, forced to do whatever it takes to survive. The reader will always be hooked by situations like these- which character we will side with, who do we relate to, what we would do.
To conclude, dystopia is a timeless genre, perhaps because it is both representative of our time whilst simultaneously being at odds with it. Society, especially young people, will always regard dystopia, perversely, as one of the genres most illustrative of our world.