dystopia / movies

Oh No, Not Another Teen Dystopia?

Gird your loins for the latest Young-Adult-dystopian-novel-turned-into-teen-dystopian-action-flic (YADNTITDAF). The Giver comes out in movie theaters tomorrow.

Yup, I’m going to go see it.

The professional critics’ reviews make me a little nervous. A number of them accuse The Giver of imitating other YADNTITDAFs to come out in the last year: Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Divergent, Ender’s Game. The irony is The Giver predates all recent YADNTITDAFs (except Ender’s Game) in book form.

I read Lois Lowry’s book when it first came out in the mid-‘90s, when I was just a year or 2 older than Jonas, the main character. (The movie Jonas is cast way older than the book Jonas.) I remember thinking it was unlike any book I’d ever read: sad, yet compelling, and worldview-shifting. It stuck with me for years. Lowry earned that Newbery.

I hadn’t heard the word dystopia yet. If I had I would have confused it with the medical term for nearsightedness. Which is ironic, because a dystopia is the opposite of myopia—it offers a far-reaching vision of society, albeit taken to extremes.

The dystopia is an old genre, reaching back to at least 1868, when John Stuart Mill coined the term in opposition to Thomas More’s 1516 Utopia. What is new, so it seems to me, is that this recent rise of dystopias is largely written for and driven by young audiences. By recent, let’s call The Giver and Ender’s Game (Orson Scott Card) two of the first of the wave, followed in the last 2 or 3 decades by The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins), Divergent (Veronica Roth), Uglies (Scott Westerfeld), The City of Ember (Jeanne DuPrau), and dozens of others. When I look at Aldous Huxley’s 1931 Brave New World (one of my favorites), every main character is an adult. Yet in this new wave, most of the main characters are underage. Jonas in the book The Giver is just turning 12 (or as he would say, he’s a Twelve).

There are more YA dystopian novels out there than Amish romance novels. (Has anyone written an Amish dystopia?)


Why is this?

At first I was stunned at the darkness writers expect young readers to deal with in these books. Characters are injured or even die for unjust reasons. Yet is this new? No. In the first 10 stories alone of Grimm’s Fairy Tales (1812), we have:

  • 1 case of spousal abuse
  • 1 case of cruelty to animals
  • 1 case of human trafficking
  • 1 attempted abduction
  • 2 cases of infidelity
  • 2 thefts
  • 1 evil spell
  • 10 murders (plus the murders of an unnamed number of leaders in a village)
  • 2 attempted murders
  • 1 attempted execution

You could argue the old fairy tales were geared toward adults. Well, the morality tales of the early Victorian Age were decidedly written for the instruction of young people. Take Heinrich Hoffman’s 1845 Struwwelpeter. One of his cautionary tales features Little Suck-A-Thumb. His mother warns him not to suck his thumb, but oh, cheeky little Suck-A-Thumb does not listen. One day, a tailor comes and snips his thumbs clean off his hands. Or take Wilhelm Busch’s 1871 book, Max and Moritz, in which two mischievous, chicken-torturing lads are eventually rolled in dough, baked, and eaten.

Sleep well after that bedtime story, kiddies.

For readers who are disturbed that Katniss from The Hunger Games is forced to kill people while in her mid-teens, I would point out that Jack (from Beanstalk fame) willfully commits the following crimes while he’s about the same age:

  1. Breaking and Entering
  2. Theft (coins and a hen that laid golden eggs)
  3. Abduction (the harp spoke, so it was sentient)
  4. Murder (Yeah, the giant was trying to grind Jack’s bones to bake bread, but since Jack was the one breaking and entering, the giant might have been able to plead self-defense.)
  5. I’m sure chopping down that beanstalk was some kind of EPA violation. Beanstalks that reach to the clouds have to be some kind of rare and protected variety.

ID-100230648I’m not justifying all violence/criminality in literature for young people. In fact, I have mixed feelings about it. Some is permissible, but for me it depends on why it’s there. I’m simply pointing out it’s been there for centuries.

So if tales for children have been dark in other eras, what else could explain the new rise of the YA dystopia?

It helps that we live in a time and place when a large majority of young people are literate and have some disposable income. They also have an almost unprecedented degree of autonomy in their entertainment choices. They enter adolescence earlier and exit it later. And teens, by all studies, are the most peer-oriented age group. So if one young person enjoys a story, she is bound to tell 10 friends, or post a meme for 300.

But here’s the biggest reason I think YA dystopias are on the rise:

A dystopia is a coming-of-age story, only it involves a whole society.

Actually, some of the best dystopias about are both.

Adolescence is an age when we are naturally wired to rebel. If real-life experience doesn’t teach you this, read any of the books on the neuroscience. Our teen years are a physiological and mental time when we separate from our parents, in preparation for becoming autonomous adults. It’s also when we are wired to act impulsively, which makes for a good action sequence in a novel.

If I were interviewing protagonists for the job of bringing down a dystopian society, I would include on my list of qualifications:

  1. The ability to act spontaneously and adapt
  2. A disregard for authority
  3. The ability to think outside the box
  4. Passion/the ability to feel deeply
  5. Physical resilience


All of these traits are also traits of many (not all) teenagers. I want to emphasize not all because I can hear some of the excellent young people I work with saying, “Hey, don’t stereotype!”

Are the people who are drawn to dystopias the world’s most cynical, or the world’s most hopeful? Do they point out the dysfunctions in society because they are jaded, or because they hope to provoke change?

I have a theory—and no doubt others before me have had the same notion—that anytime we see a rise in the publication of dystopias, it is because people are uncomfortable with their own society, especially the rate of change in their own society. So perhaps we can put some of the rise of the YA dystopia to the fact that young people see the world they are about to inherit, and are dissatisfied. How many governments has the average 16yo today seen overthrown on the newsfeed? And despite accusations that the young generations are self-centered, many studies show they are actively involved in volunteer work. Many young people want to better the world, alleviate poverty, become better stewards of our natural resources, end human trafficking.

If part of the point of a dystopia is to point out the potential downsides of where our own society is going, and provoke change, who better to enlist in that movement than young people?

The dystopia is a model of youth itself. A young person escapes his old world where others make the rules (childhood). He begins to see the harsh reality behind it, and question it, but is yet powerless to act (the transition into young adolescence). His restlessness and newfound abilities enable him to act (late adolescence/the move into adulthood). His decisions will either destroy or change that society beyond recognition (the passing of authority from one generation to the next).

An adult who reads a dystopia is probably more cynical than a youth who reads the same novel. On my office wall, I posted a statistic I once read:

About 2/3 of young people today think they can make the world a better place. Only about 1/3 of adults believe young people can make a difference.

I work with youth for a living, and some of them are the most other-oriented, community-service-minded, proactive people I know. So a quote like the above just makes me mad. As do some of the comments from professional (and I hardly need to add, adult) critics about The Giver. In essence, they say:

“Oh please, not another young-person-saves-the-world story.”


But isn’t that exactly what we should want our young people to do? See the flaws in society and try to fix them? Hopefully not by the same methods we see in some modern dystopias (yes, the guns and explosions do give me pause). But I find I cannot condemn YA dystopias as whole. Some are cautionary tales with no happy ending for the world, an expanded version of Little-Suck-Thumb who loses something he can never recover. But my favorites are ones which, at the end, offer a glimmer of hope and redemption. Call it the Christian in me. We live in a fallen world, but there is a way out.

I am rereading The Giver in preparation for the movie. I hope to offer a comparison in an upcoming post.

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