Revisiting YA Dystopian Fiction In My 20s

Revisiting YA Dystopian Fiction In My 20s

Okay, those in their mid-twenties right now, this is for you. Do you remember the phase of book series and subsequent movies that were set in dystopian worlds, where people (often children) were in torturous situations that played on the restrictions of class and discrimination that actually exist in society? Well, I remember, and they were certainly a great success amongst much of our generation, but why were we so obsessed with these dark portrayals of dystopian futures? And, more importantly, are they as good as we remember now that we’re living in one such dark dystopian future?

This whole thought process was triggered by a recent binge of these films, with the Divergent series on Netflix and The Maze Runner series on Disney+ at the centre of my watching. Equally as notable was The Hunger Games trilogy which made itself into four movies, following the trend at the time of splitting the finale of a book series into two separate movies. These three series will serve as the focus of my study.

Being a bookworm as a child, I always read the books before seeing the movies and was frequently disappointed with content that was missed out or adapted in a way I didn’t exactly imagine it. However, I always understood that time and budget limitations meant the entire book could not be recreated in film.

One difference I find when coming back to these movies around 10 years later and not having read the books in equally as long, is that the movies now function as their own works and I no longer compare them to their literary origin. The actors that portrayed the characters now personify them as much as my initial imagining of the character.

Witnessing parents’ deaths, dealing with childhood abuse and watching your friends massacre a population are certainly not light-hearted topics, but Divergent takes them all on.

For the Divergent series, I remember the group of initiates being much younger in my mind, perhaps relating them more to my own age at the time. However, I recognise the themes of the series and the actions they partake in as being much more suitable for older actors. Witnessing parents’ deaths, dealing with childhood abuse and watching your friends massacre a population are certainly not light-hearted topics, but Divergent takes them all on in its trilogy.

This is a common trope for a lot of teen fiction; characters that are supposedly teenagers are played by actors nearly a decade older (the male protagonist in Divergent was played by 30-year-old Theo James). Understandably, though, as the dystopian aspect of these stories often requires much more emotional investment than a teenage actor might be able to offer.

The Hunger Games similarly depicts actors Jennifer Lawrence, Liam Hemsworth and Josh Hutcherson, all in their twenties at the time, as teenagers confronting social injustice, unrequited love, the deaths of several of their peers and the breakdown of capitalist ideology. I find now that the love triangle between the three main characters is somewhat lost in the horrific situation these children find themselves in, but I remember the question of ‘Team Peeta or Team Gale?’ being important to any dedicated teenage fan.

The Hunger Games […] began the trend of dystopian fiction crossing from book to screen so it’s not surprising that it is the one that has survived well into the 2020s.

This series remains the most prevalent for today’s young fans, thanks to the fame of its now Oscar-winning star and the progressively increasing quality of its sequels. It began the trend of dystopian fiction crossing from book to screen so it’s not surprising that it is the one that has survived well into the 2020s.

The Maze Runner series lacked the most artistic quality with weak portrayals from the leading cast; only Will Poulter’s darkly conflicted Gally stood out among the group. Its dystopian themes were also much more abstract, although strikingly appropriate to the current worldwide circumstances. The children are kept under surveillance and control supposedly due to an illness raging through the world, causing only a small portion of the population to survive. They are deemed as those intelligent and gifted enough to discover a way out of the pandemic and kept safely in confinement while their wits are tested.

Without knowing it was published way back in 2009, this kind of thing seems like it may have been written soon after the events of the pandemic we are currently going through (or perhaps many more years later, since I doubt any of us will want to relive the experience of lockdowns in a fictional setting any time soon).

Ultimately, Divergent was my personal favourite, the idea of categorization by personality tropes was fascinating and the idea of a fear landscape terrifying, and I was, and remain, a fan of both the main actors. It also gave me the ability to sprinkle ‘candor’ and ‘erudite’ into my vocabulary which I have taken into adulthood, trying to sound intelligent while knowing I can only be certain of their definition through the trope they were aligned with in the series.

Unashamedly, I will admit I still enjoyed watching all of these movies. They had the same homely comfort as the warm embrace of your childhood blanket or meeting a friend you hadn’t seen in a long time. There were certainly areas that I could see were lacking in terms of writing and acting quality that I may not have noticed as a teen but, overall, the experience was somehow distracting from our modern day dystopia, despite highlighting much of real life’s experiences in the extreme. I hope re-watching these might provide those going through their quarter-life crisis with a bit of stability, rooted in the memories of childhood fantasy and a time when extended periods of isolation could only ever be thought of as a dystopia.

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