A previous version of this article was published in August 2015 on Bookworm Blues and Downright Dystopian.
The past few years have seen a huge growth in the dystopian film genre, from The Hunger Games franchise to an adaptation of Lois Lowry’s The Giver. In a 2015 article for The Guardian, Joe Queenan went so far as to call it “a golden age,” while lamenting the fact that these films always portray “a grim, totalitarian nightmare.” However, as a more recent article points out, that silver screen golden age may be nearing an end. So why this cinematic dystopian explosion? Why do we think the future will be so tragically depressing? And is this explosion primed to go out with a whimper?
As far as I can tell, there is certainly a dystopian film glut in the current marketplace. I also believe there is a glut of superhero films (do we really need Ant-Man?). I’m not sure we should take popular culture’s fascination with dark futuristic scenarios as evidence for a collective death wish any more than we should take the abundance of superhero films as evidence that the majority of society believes there are mutants among us with superhuman powers.
First and foremost, I believe dystopian fiction, whether literary or cinematic, serves as a form of social criticism. A critic does not necessarily believe society is utterly hopeless, merely that certain aspects of the social order warrant improvement. I doubt The Hunger Games author Suzanne Collins truly believes our destiny lies in a future in which we force our children to fight to the death; this plot was simply a convenient vehicle for her bigger message. (Perhaps superhero films likewise point to a desire for pure, honest heroes in a society of corrupt politicians, abusive celebrities and performance-enhancing athletes.)
But why now? Is there something about our current society that is so demanding of such criticism in comparison to past eras? In the first place, we should distinguish between dystopian fictions targeted toward a younger audience and those targeted toward adults. Young adult (YA) dystopian fiction like The Hunger Games tends to focus on totalitarianism as a way to inspire younger readers to think critically and independently about the world and ideas in general. Such themes are especially relevant in today’s age of information overload.
In contrast, totalitarianism may have been a theme of earlier adult dystopian fiction such as George Orwell’s 1984. But those stories were typically produced during the Cold War, when totalitarian states were more prevalent than they are today. Much of contemporary adult dystopian fiction focuses more on environmental issues and the side effects of continued advances in technology. (Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy provides one such example).
Furthermore, most dystopian films are adaptations of novels. As a result, the film and book industry have become inextricably linked in the dystopian genre. I can’t think of a highly successful original dystopian film since The Matrix trilogy, released in 1999 through 2003. Entertainment on the big screen necessarily differs from entertainment on the page. Films rely more heavily on visual effects, elaborate costumes and breathtaking scenery. For example, The Hunger Games looks impressive on film thanks in part to Collins’ creation of a nation divided into distinct groups, customs and physical appearances. Modern film technology then highlights the technological wizardry of the capital city and games battlefields for a visually stunning experience. In contrast, many twentieth-century dystopian novels describe simpler, starker worlds. The film adaptations that exist, such as 1984 and A Clockwork Orange, don’t quite live up to the authors’ descriptions.
As a result, the current success of dystopian films influences the growth and visual style of the corresponding literary genre. At the same time, modern film technology’s ability to faithfully depict of elaborate futuristic worlds provides more opportunities to adapt dystopian literature to cinema. Twenty-first-century problems might not actually be more calamitous or more deserving of criticism than those of previous eras. However, greater technological advancements provide more opportunity for cinematic examination through parables of dystopian futures.
Ultimately, the short answer to Queenan’s question, “why is the [dystopian] future on film always so grim?” is the same reason horror films are scary and comedies are funny. Dystopia just is “a society characterized by human misery, as squalor, oppression, disease, and overcrowding” (Dictionary.com). Dystopian fiction magnifies these issues, which we observe on a limited scale in our own society. The answer to the more stimulating question of why we find miserable futures so compelling at this point in history is a combination of new social challenges such as the proliferation of information and the awareness of the environmental costs of human progress, along with advanced cinematic technology that allows for realistic depictions of the future on the big screen, in turn inspiring new authors to enter this genre.
As for the impending burst of the dystopian bubble, sequels rarely match the brand new experience of the original. We may also be riding the aftershocks of the dystopian quake. The popularity of The Hunger Games literary series played a huge role in the success of the film franchise. This success inspired other dystopian adaptations, which may never have been as compelling as Collins’ work to begin with. Finally, the novelty of seeing futuristic worlds faithfully depicted on the big screen may have lost some of its luster through this repetition. I’m not sure that any of these factors suggest the death of an entire genre, merely that the dystopian film market may have reached its saturation point.