The 2010s saw the rapid rise and equally rapid fall of the YA dystopian genre, with The Hunger Games and its followers dominating headlines and popular culture. It’s been argued that the dystopia boom was inspired by cynicism and anxiety in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, but for those of us who became teenagers in the YA dystopia-obsession era, the films in particular served a different function: They cultivated a distrust for the government, expressing and amplifying how millennials around the world were tired of tyrannical leaders. The Hunger Games in particular helped popularize what had already become a thriving literary subgenre, with books from Lois Lowry’s 1993 novel The Giver to Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series shaping the dystopian boom. And then the wave of Hunger Games copycats oversaturated the market and killed the fad — or so the popular story goes. But there were other reasons the YA dystopia boom ended, and they were built into its premises and execution all along.
The intensity of the fad certainly contributed to its end. In 2014 alone, four would-be blockbuster YA dystopian films hit theaters: The Hunger Games Mockingjay — Part 1, The Maze Runner, Divergent, and The Giver. But saturation isn’t enough to kill a genre, as the last decade’s rolling wave of new superhero films proves. The YA dystopian genre died because it didn’t evolve. Book after book and film after film laid out the same tropes, with the same types of characters all suffering the same generic oppression and experiencing the same teen love triangles. The Hunger Games struck a chord because of its lurid themes and the way it intensified its era’s anxieties about capitalism, imperialism, wealth and power inequality, and technology, but its followers largely added more gimmicks and different kinds of violence, and called it a day.
. . . .
The Hunger Games emerged from similar adults-vs.-youth stories like Battle Royale, but added new layers about media propaganda and the authoritarian structure. Author Suzanne Collins was inspired by Greek mythology, reality-TV programming, and child soldiers, and she used those ideas to give her books more texture. Her protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, is relatable and down to earth: She doesn’t want to become a revolutionary or a hero, she just wants to keep her little sister Primrose safe. Her deteriorating mental health feels realistic, and it was mostly unprecedented in a genre full of bold teen heroes who came through the most horrifying adventures completely unscathed.
Following the Hunger Games series, subsequent YA dystopia films weren’t as richly realized, and the creators didn’t seem to care about the traumatic experiences their young protagonists went through. It’s unrealistic to have a film about teenagers overthrowing tyrants but little to no focus on their emotions. Katniss wasn’t endlessly stoic — Collins allows her to be vulnerable, and to learn that feelings are a sign of strength rather than a weakness. Many of the smash-the-state dystopia stories that followed avoided that kind of focus on feelings — or just followed the Katniss pattern of anxiety and anguish, without finding new territory to explore.
. . . .
While actual teenagers were struggling with their own idealism and a wish for a better world, fiction was telling them that systematic oppression is simple and easily solved with a standard good-vs.-evil fight, and that nothing that comes after that fight is interesting or relevant. The stories of how these dystopic societies were rebuilt would be more novel and enticing, but there was never room in YA dystopias for that kind of thought or consideration.
Which left nowhere for these stories to go after the injustices were overturned and the fascist villains were defeated. They all built momentum and excitement around action, but few of these stories ever considered what young-adult readers want to know: After one cruel leader is gone, what comes next? Injustice rarely ends with the death or departure of one unjust ruler, but YA dystopian stories rarely consider the next world order, and how it could operate differently, without stigmatizing its people. Revolution, post-apocalyptic survival, and restructuring society are fascinating topics, but apart from the Hunger Games’ brief coda about Katniss’ future PTSD, most YA dystopia stories just don’t explore these areas.
. . . .
And just as YA dystopian stories weren’t particularly interested in the future, they also were rarely that interested in their pasts, or even their present. They almost never explored their societies in any depth, beyond declaring them to be evil, violent, and controlling. We don’t really know much about the destructive regimes in the Maze Runner or Divergent series — we just know they’re bad. The run of dystopian movies in particular only offered the quickest, shallowest explanation of why a government would force its children into mazes, or make them kill each other. The Capitol’s desire to terrorize its citizens in The Hunger Games, or The Maze Runner’s focus on population control and disaster response — these are political excuses for mass murder, but not nuanced ones.
Link to the rest at Polygon