By Pamela Bedore, Ph.D., University of Connecticut
It seems like a lot of popular films for young adults lately have been dystopias—The Hunger Games, Divergent, The Maze Runner. And the most popular of these dystopias are phenomenally successful. The Hunger Games trilogy sold 65 million copies domestically—28 million copies of The Hunger Games, 19 million of Catching Fire, and 18 million of Mockingjay. Why are teens so drawn to dystopia?
The History of the Genre
What current anxieties are being tracked in this large body of young adult literature? What’s the impact of this literature on young adult readers, and are the dystopias marketed to teens substantially different than those geared at adults? The answer lies in the history of the genre.
In the 1860s, several factors worked together to create popular literature, new mass production techniques for print, higher literacy rates, and increased leisure time that people could use for reading. This led to the advent of ‘penny dreadfuls’ in Britain and the analogous dime novels in the United States.
It’s in this mass of popular literature that we first got the codifications of many of the genre categories we still use today, science fiction, detective fiction, western, adventure, and romance.
The dime novels, which actually cost anywhere from 5–25 cents, dominated the popular marketplace in the U.S. from 1860–1917. It’s pretty unusual to be able to mark the end of a popular mode down to a specific year—1917—but we can with dime novels.
This is a transcript from the video series Great Utopian and Dystopian Works of Literature. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Young Adult and Women’s Fiction
The publishing industry is, of course, a business, and it responds to market demand. With recent increases in self-publishing, especially in young adult and women’s fiction segments, competition is fierce, which makes a phenomenon like The Hunger Games all the more remarkable.
As one might recall, the turn of the 21st century was dominated by J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series and its many imitators. The big hit of the early century was Twilight, the vampire trilogy whose monsters were completely unrecognizable to readers of classical vampire literature.
Learn more about young adult dystopian fiction.
Contemporary Young Adult Literature
How do we get from wizards and vampires to dystopias? Why is The Hunger Games the trilogy that defines contemporary young adult literature, spawned many of the most popular series to follow? As usual, the answer lies partly in the real world—the market forces and cultural anxieties of the moment—and partly in the aesthetic world—the tropes and techniques used in the novel.
One can safely say that young people today are not lacking for anxieties. Literary scholars such as Carrie Hintz, Balaka Basu, and Katherine Broad, divide up these anxieties in their recent scholarship about young adult dystopia.
They use four categories. One, liberty and choice, two, environment, three, justice, and four relationship between self and technology. There is also a fifth category, based on young adults who worry about choosing a major in college that will lead to a job and about student debt-economic security.
All of these issues and anxieties clearly map onto the dystopian genre. And many of them, are directly addressed in the series The Hunger Games.
The Hunger Games
Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games is a well-written series, complete with a well-thought-out setting, complex characters, and a compelling plot that addresses real-world issues and anxieties within a fictional world with a vague timeline—it’s easy to imagine this world in a not-too-distant future or to imagine it as entirely elsewhere.
The first novel of the series came out in 2008, during the economic crash and at the height of war weariness, as Americans wondered how long the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan would last.
Wars and Economic Chaos
There are lots of ways to read the immediate success of The Hunger Games as linked to concerns about the ongoing wars in the midst of economic chaos. In the first novel, we see the 74th Hunger Games, a reality TV based competition where two children from each district are sent to the Capitol where they are forced to fight to death against children of other districts.
The Hunger Games can also be read as a critique of the culture industry and, especially, the way popular culture can be used to obscure and/or justify economic inequality. And then there is the question of reality TV.
Learn more about apocalyptic writing.
Reality TV is an extremely common guilty pleasure, and reality game shows are at the center of this phenomenon. These have long been seen as having good narrative potential, by none other than Stephen King, who wrote two highly successful novels about reality game shows under his pseudonym, Richard Bachman. The Running Man, published in 1982, was adapted into a popular film starring Arnold Schwarzenneger in 1987.
The Long Walk, from 1979, was listed by the American Library Association as one of the top 100 books for teens to read published between 1966 and 2000. The game here bears many similarities to the Hunger Games.
We have a group of 100 teenaged boys, and they must walk—at a pace of over four miles per hour with two warnings and no breaks—until only one remains. It’s a psychological thriller, detailing the impacts of competing to the death on the teen psyche as well as the horrors of teen death as a marketable spectacle.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that two of the best-known early reality game show fictions were written by the greatest living master of horror fiction. And The Hunger Games taps into the same horror that likely drew Stephen King to this topic.
Common Questions about Young Adult Literature and Dystopia
The four categories of anxiety that are reflected in the young adult dystopias are liberty and choice, two, environment, three, justice, and four relationship between self and technology.
Stephen King wrote two highly successful novels about reality game shows under the pseudonym Richard Bachman.
The Hunger Games can be read as a critique of the culture industry and, especially, the way popular culture can be used to obscure and/or justify economic inequality. And then there is the question of reality TV.