So-called ‘Young Adult’ (or YA) dystopian films have given a shot in the arm to both the teen and science fiction genres, yielding some of the biggest box office takings of the decade. But why are these films (and the novels on which they are based) so popular? One answer is that the audience identifies with both the vulnerability and the power of the protagonists.
The vulnerability of the heroes is one of the typical features of the sub-genre. Katniss in The Hunger Games, Triss in Divergent and Thomas in The Maze Runner are all members of oppressed groups, struggling to stay alive. They are also ‘special’ in some way, chosen or blessed with skills that threaten the status quo. The architects of that status quo - whether it be the shadowy WCKD organisation, corrupt Faction leaders, or Presidents Snow/Coin – wish to either neutralise the threat of the hero’s skill, or exploit it for their own ends. Going beyond the usual fight-to-survive narrative familiar from other dystopias, in the YA genre the heroes must first find their own identity before they can properly fight back – once they know who they ‘are’, then the regimes against which they struggle can be brought down. This mirrors young peoples’ own political and psychological awakening. The search for identity and the rebellion against the restraints and mistakes of the adult world are typical of the teen movie genre, but in YA sci-fi this is transformed from the personal to the revolutionary.
So what are Katniss and co rebelling against? On the surface it is a fight for survival, but at their hearts the revolutions in these films are against being classified, a resistance to being told who you are and how you should behave. Years of standardised testing in schools has led to our children being categorised from an early age (students I speak to regularly refer to themselves as ‘scientists’, as ‘arty’, ‘sporty’ or ‘outdoors’ types). Then in the social milieu of high school, there are peer-imposed hierarchies of popularity that young people must navigate. Similarly, the heroes of YA fiction also must identify strategies of conformity to fit in or to disguise their uniqueness . If we look at Katniss’ walk around the training area in The Hunger Games, each contestant sizing up the murderous skills of the others, the introduction to the denizens of the Glade in The Maze Runner, or the first day being Dauntless in Divergent – all mirror the ‘first day of school’ scenes in US high school movies like Heathers, Clueless or Mean Girls, where the social ‘rules’ and hierarchies are introduced. The pressure to conform, for the approval of peers - all governed from afar by adults - is a universal vulnerability amongst young people. As is the fear of failure – the narratives of all three films are structured around formalised testing, some intensely violent or physically dangerous (the Games, the Maze), some more like a social game where the rules are unwritten (‘passing’ as the appropriate Faction, the gameshow-meets-Nuremberg pomp surrounding the Hunger Games). In the era of league tables and OFSTED, the pressure is on children to perform and to achieve academically, with regular testing and assessment in lessons (similar to the daily scoreboards in Divergent). Meanwhile social media has become a massive arena for young identities to form and to be judged – Katniss and Peter must play out a traditional romance narrative in order to win the hearts of a huge media audience and stand a chance of survival. Failure to pass the state or social tests in real young lives can be devastating. Failing an exam can doom you to unemployment; the smallest incident or misunderstanding online can documented and shared. Failure in YA films may result in death – or at best exclusion - but the fear of being unable to fit in or pass the test are a daily reality of many young peoples’ lives.
However, a more optimistic explanation for why these YA dystopias resonate so profoundly with audiences is they also create a shared sense of empowerment. Teens and early twentysomethings are ‘digital natives’. They have grown up with instantaneous access to the internet and other communications technologies. They have access to more knowledge, and wider range of opinion, than anyone in history. If the mainstream media doesn’t supply them with the information they need, or if they distrust the media they are given, this generation will seek out alternatives. We can see this distrust of the media and it complicity with oppressive political parties explored in both sides of the conflict in The Hunger Games. In the first half of the 20th century there was a 400% rise in high school enrolment in America – which gave birth to the early teen subcultures of the 50s. In high school, young people had a place to gather and to interact, share hopes and fears and desires, and to create a ‘peer culture’. Today, digital tools like mobile phones and social media have super-powered teen peer culture.
Young people use each other to gather and share information and bypass traditional media structures. Digital natives are not only able to access this wealth of information, they have the tools to create and distribute their own. When they tire of stereotypical representations of young people in the mainstream adult-controlled media, they simply turn to their peer networks, where Youtubers like Zoella or PewDiePie have become celebrities by circumnavigating mainstream institutions (and the adult approval needed to work with them). These ‘new media celebrities’ may only be commenting on games, toys or make-up but their power and influence is vast (a Variety study in 2015 found audiences had seven times the emotional attachment with Youtubers as with mainstream celebrities). One reason for these Youtube stars’ success is that young audiences can identify with them – they aren’t polished media professionals, they are silly, scrappy, candid; their aesthetic is DIY, their words unscripted. They have a sense of authenticity. And we can see these qualities in the heroes of YA dystopias. Katniss, Thomas and Triss have found power through the back-door, and they are stridently not super-heroic. These characters have plenty of identifiable ‘real-world’ personal issues: they suffer betrayal, sacrifice and grief, they fall in love, they question their feelings; they even question the victories they have won. Similarly, Youtube stars are celebrities that are relatable, candid (many speak openly about depression or sexuality) – human beings rather than ideals.
So when we look at the success of the various YA dystopian franchises and the conventions that link them together, we can also get an insight into the contemporary youth culture that forms their fanbase. We can see not just reflections of young people’s vulnerabilities and fears, but also of their idealism and empowerment.