Panem et Dystopia

The entertainment industry has sucked all that is constructive out of the new dystopian trend.


In the past decade or so there has been a huge surge in mega-popular dystopian and speculative fiction literature. Leading the way are the three major big-hit novel-to-film series: Divergent by Veronica Roth, Maze Runner by James Dashner, and the most popular of them all, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. But there are countless other novel series of almost identical format (MatchedDeliriumLegend, etc.) and ideologically-charged action movies (ElysiumMad Max, etc.) that have made “new dystopia” a real and present trend.

There are two potentially obvious ways to view and discuss this new genre of work, and which one is obvious to whom is simply based on how one has become accustomed to critiquing popular media.

The first method — fit for all of the pop culture fanatics out there — is to see new dystopia as little more than Hollywood and the entertainment industry doing what they do well: taking what is considered “retro,” giving it a new and creative medium, and fitting it into the current trajectory of entertainment trends in order to make it the next hot thing. With the excitement of The Day After Tomorrow-esque natural disaster movie era wearing off, producers found in The Hunger Games a perfect, new, action-packed spin on the classic twentieth-century societal disaster novel, thus making the contemporary recreations of Huxley and Orwell even more popular and profitable than they would have been had they been left to their original medium.

For my fellow self-proclaimed cynics and over-analyzers of culture, the second way to think about the emergence of the new dystopia genre is, of course, that it is a popular manifestation of societal discontent. Although I do not feel comfortable commenting on all of the new art that is pouring into the portfolio of this genre, having read and seen all of The Hunger Games, it is clear to me that there is more to these movies than action, romance, and the excitement of fictional disaster. Collins packs into these stories serious critiques of post-modern neoliberalism — centralized government subservient to consumerism, corporocentrism, systemic economic marginalization of certain peoples, highly manipulative media, desensitization to inhumanity, the subtle return of “bread and circuses” in reality televison — the list goes on and on. And although initial popularity may have been due to The Hunger Games being a really great action movie with a good love story, simply great actions movies with good love stories just don’t develop the kind of cult following that The Hunger Games has. Young girls want to be like Katniss not because she is pretty and cool and a badass, but because she is a pretty cool badass that fights against an oppressive establishment. And people don’t root for District 13 because it is the underdog and they are supposed to; even more than that, they identify with its struggle and see in the Capitol the evil that they see in their own greedy CEOs and corrupt senators.

Now, isolated in themselves, neither of these methods of combined artistic expression and speculation are particularly harmful. If we accept that we live in a society in which the entertainment industry does indeed exist in order to make money, then it must be completely alright for novelists and filmmakers to capitalize on trends in thematic popularity. Conversely, it is undoubtedly the duty of art to properly express societal sentiment, especially if that sentiment is discontent.

The danger comes when, as has been done within the new dystopia trend of speculative fiction, the two come together in a way in which one subsumes the other. And in our increasingly venture-driven capitalistic society, it is almost always the former that subsumes the latter.

In this situation, that means that, as soon as these pieces of literature hit the hard-cover bookshelves and, to an even greater extent, the silver screen, they are already stripped of their critical potency. Becoming pop culture means playing by the entertainment industry’s rules, the big players of which now own how these series are branded. Whatever commentary the original authors had in mind has been heavily watered down — the steep price they pay for international exposure of their work. Through marketing, fanfare, and the de-politicization of the public, the Hunger Games that inspired protests against the military government in Thailand no longer exists, and Katniss Everdeen has been demoted to the status of Jason Borne‘s female incarnation.

Thus the future of art as social critique is shaky and worrisome. If a clear and obvious depiction of a dystopian future visibly reminiscent of our present is able to be twisted into more or less mindless pop entertainment, what does that say about the future of grassroots change and activism in America? It is what many historians, most notably Thomas Frank, have called “co-optation,” and it is a sign of business culture’s purposeful acquisition of counterculture.

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