BySarah Gibson, writer at
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Sarah Gibson

Since the times of Huxley's Brave New World and Orwell's 1984, Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale and H.G. Wells' The Time Machine, we've had our minds monitored by the fictitious iron fist of totalitarianism and been made to taste the bitter pill of dystopian catastrophe. Now more than ever, the trend is coming out of the woodwork in a big way - manifesting itself in the movies and literature of the Young Adult genre, as movies like The Hunger Games: Catching Fire rake in a cool $800 million at the worldwide box office.

Suzanne Collins' insanely popular franchise is perhaps one of the most nebulous tales to ever be popular for 12- to 18-year-olds. Anyone who's read Mockingjay (and is awaiting the movie with baited breath) will know that it's more sinister and more grim than most of its counterparts in adult fiction. Characters die, unavoidable, terrible consequences happen, and the ones left over are so permanently destroyed by the events of the story that even in the aftermath, no one is really "happy". Instead, Collins gave us a bleak, realistic finish; they are all still haunted by the past.

55% of YA fiction is read by the over-18 age group

Books for young people set in post-apocalyptic or dystopian worlds are nothing new. But they're certainly the big thing for today's teen audience, and not for them alone. Research in the US indicated that 55% of young adult fiction is read by over 18s [1]. But, what is it that especially attracts teens to read this kind of fiction and watch these kind of movies?

Why are these depressing situations suddenly more sexy?

Quite apart from the current politics surrounding Edward Snowden and the NSA scandal, which Snowdon said surpassed anything imagined by Orwell in 1984 in terms of a futuristic vision of an all-knowing state, dystopian fantasies have become increasingly more popular as the perfect backdrop for our favorite franchises. But why?

"No one understands me" mentality

Anyone who's already been through them, or is there right now, will know that the teen years are the most tumultuous. Everything flips upside down as you start sprouting body hair in places you never knew existed, and discover the delights of antiperspirant. Teen entertainment, thus, is becoming increasingly more responsive to its readers' calls to reflect their own lives and experiences.

Throughout works of YA dystopian fiction, one constant is the "no one understands me" mentality, in which an outcast protagonist is the minority, struggling to fit into subcultures created in this setting, feeling isolated, trapped, and ostracized, sometimes with tragic results.

As The Wall Street Journal describes, for example, Veronica Roth's Divergent is

Really an extended metaphor about the trials of modern adolescence: constantly having to take tests that sort and rank you among your peers, facing separation from your family, agonizing about where you fit in, and deciding when (or whether) to reveal the ways you might diverge from the group.

Constructed teenage communities have established factions most teenagers find themselves pressured to fit neatly into one. So where do we fit? Or are we faced with the horrid concept of being Divergent? Hidden behind the text of these novels about societal pressures for teens are our cultural anxieties and quiet - sometimes desperate - desires for change.

Mistrust of authority

After Twilight, my expectation for dystopian young adult novel The Hunger Games was pretty low. I predicted bad acting and a nauseating love story. Instead, there were bloody battles and an ever-present sentiment of teenagers not being able to trust in any authority other than their own.

73% of Americans distrust the decisions made by their own government

Anyone familiar with the The Hunger Games franchise will recognize the overwhelming sense of dread, as well as a distrust of authority made more profound by the fact there truly are no "good guys" in the novels' positions of power. We learn that much of the poverty stems from the policies of the oppressive government, used to instill fear in and control the population (See: this awesome article about sci-fi and politics by Moviepilot's Mark Newton) - something which rebellious teens struggling with teachers, parents, and a seemingly overwhelming amount of rules and regulations can relate to.

Recent polls in the States also show that 73 percent of Americans distrust the decisions made by their government [2] and that distrust of government has changed little in recent years. My point is that popular young adult dystopian fiction in our current age of living in fear and distrust and dealing with the day-to-day struggles of teendom has given rise to a deep desire for more models of courage and rebellious behavior on the part of fictional individuals, like Katniss, who can think for themselves.

Coming of age

]![]![Ahhh, to be adolescent. When we start stashing away the Barbies and toy trains and start noticing the opposite sex instead, life can be exciting. But, for every first school prom dance and every first sip of alcohol stolen from your Dad's booze cabinet, there are heartbreaks, breakouts and much, much worse.

As a teenager, trying to maneuver all these new emotions for the first time, nothing makes much sense - and so we look for any type of guidance, from anyone, anywhere, be it from friends or fiction. This where the YA movies come in... Take The Giver, for example, which is making its big-screen debut in August, 2014.

Lois Lowry's critically-acclaimed YA novel takes place in a dystopian future

Fiction offers a coming-of-age guidance we might not find in reality

where all humans conform to a government-enforced phenomenon called 'Sameness.' In this world society runs like a machine, where citizens are genetically engineered and drugged to suppress emotions or 'Stirrings.' With no sadness, suffering, or choice, citizens live in blissful ignorance of the full human experience. This changes for Jonas when he is selected as the 'Receiver of Memory,' the sole keeper of all historical knowledge of life before the Sameness. The crisis comes when Jonas experiences feelings for the first time - the first tingle of snowflakes, the first time he sees color, the first time he feels love.

There's a reason why so many people gravitate towards coming-of-age fiction. Those types of movies and books - showing the protagonists grow and become more adult in the book - speak to a turning point in our lives that is critical to who we'll become.


Hope is what keeps young adults going through their tumultuous years, no matter how dire their circumstances. What teenager hasn't looked around his or her high school and reassured themself, "Just x more years until I'm out of this place!" The Hunger Games are meant to give the people of Panem just enough hope to keep going. There is hope that they or their children won't be chosen, but if they are, there is hope that they will survive and will have enough money to rise out of squalor. But by the end of the first book, there is an even greater hope: The dawning idea for the citizens of Panem that they might create a new world, a different life. What teenager has not wanted that for him- or herself? Like President Snow says "Hope. It is the only thing stronger than fear".

Author William Faulkner once said in his acceptance speech for his Nobel Prize

The writer's duty is to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past.

Does there have to be a "happily ever after" ending to young adult dystopias? Absolutely not. Young adult books don't need a happy ending, but in the end, there must be a window of hope - a way where we can see that the characters we've grown to love can move on from tragedy, united in the darkest of suffering.

They offer a reprieve from the mundane

]![Where science and math commonly explain the rationality of the science fiction genre, young adult dystopias use something more, namely fantasy. An unexpected catalyst happens to the (generally hesitant) protagonist, and the teenager is thrown into the unknown - far, far away from the stability of their previous life - setting foot in new worlds of jeopardy and risk, and beginning the inevitable journey that will change their lives. The stakes are high and everything is at risk for our central character - pretty distant from the mundane existence of normal life.

It's little wonder that teens are obsessed with the stuff that embraces outsiders, questions authority, and ends with glimmers of hope for our coming-of-age heroes. The dystopian worlds of YA literature echo the fraught landscape in a teenager's head, and act as both a mirror and a pressure valve, at a fraught time when reality is often stranger than fiction.

[1] Bowker Market Research via Publishers Weekly

[2] Pew Research via RT


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