The YA dystopia craze is now trapped in an actual YA dystopia.

The era of teenage dystopian sci-fi ended a few years ago, before anyone noticed.

by MATT STOKES | MARCH 2, 2018

Major shifts in consumer demand often leave those who should be most invested caught unawares. Blackberry stubbornly clung to the belief that people wanted physical keyboards on their phones until 2013, when it made its first all-touch model many years after it was too late. Newspapers insisted people preferred reading a product they could hold in their hands and that they’d be willing to pay a premium for this. Kodak remained committed to film well into the era where digital cameras and smartphones became ubiquitous.

And earlier this year, moviegoers everywhere ignored the release of The Maze Runner: The Death Cure. But let’s go back a few years.

The publication of The Hunger Games in 2008 came one month after the publication of Breaking Dawn, the final entry in the Twilight series. It was an epochal shift in young adult literature, with the age of sexy teenage vampires effectively over, supplanted by the age of sexy teenage antiheroes thrust reluctantly into dystopian science fiction futures centered on contrived competitions. The shift was certified four years later when the final film in the Twilight series made more than $100 million less than the first Hunger Games movie.

The publishing industry always gives people more of what they say they want, so The Hunger Games gave way to The Maze Runner (2009) and Divergent and Ready Player One (both 2011), all followed by sequelsI)The Ready Player One sequel is currently being written. and all adapted into movies. Naturally, the dominance of the genre led to countless thinkpieces and academic analyses about what it said about the world that teenagers are so attracted to these kinds of stories. Teenagers are worried about student loan debt, said some. Climate change, said others. Or maybe it’s the pressures of identity, or the chafing influence of technology.

But if the waxing and waning of popular taste can tell us anything (and I’m not sure it can), then I’m most convinced by Laura Miller, who brilliantly wrote in The New Yorker in 2010 that The Hunger Games and its ilk are actually about high school:

Adults dump teen-agers into the viper pit of high school, spouting a lot of sentimental drivel about what a wonderful stage of life it’s supposed to be. The rules are arbitrary, unfathomable, and subject to sudden change. A brutal social hierarchy prevails, with the rich, the good-looking, and the athletic lording their advantages over everyone else. To survive you have to be totally fake. Adults don’t seem to understand how high the stakes are; your whole life could be over, and they act like it’s just some “phase”! Everyone’s always watching you, scrutinizing your clothes or your friends and obsessing over whether you’re having sex or taking drugs or getting good enough grades, but no one cares who you really are or how you really feel about anything.

That seems exactly right. High school feels like a nonsensical dystopia, especially when you look at your fellow students who seem to be doing so well and wonder what they know that you don’t know. The popularity of dystopian YA fiction among adults speaks to how much post-high school life has in common with high school. College, the workplace, and general adult social interactions can make you feel like you’ve been dropped into the middle of a life-or-death competition, and everybody else runs faster than you and knows which berries are poisonous.

None of the dystopian YA books and movies are particularly great (although the Catching Fire movie comes pretty close), but they’re all competently written (in contrast to Twilight) and contain fascinating ideas. The Hunger Games obviously tackles income inequality pretty broadly, but it also invites readers to examine all the consumer choices we make—we assume these choices are apolitical, but the books take the choices to the extreme to show how very political they are. The people in the Capital of Suzanne Collins’s books don’t think they’re making a political choice when they view the Hunger Games on television, and we don’t think we’re making a political choice when we watch football games, but an outside observer who didn’t know any better would see right away that of course we are. There are moral compromises involved even in simple entertainment.

The Maze Runner was published a year after The Hunger GamesII)It’s often dismissed as an “imitator” but I wouldn’t say that. For one thing, it’s much more like Lost than The Hunger Games. But really, it’s more that James Dashner wrote a book that publishers decided they could sell well because of the success of The Hunger Games, not that he read The Hunger Games and decided to write his own version. and has two intriguing concepts. The first is that the series of books takes place in a vast, post-apocalyptic world full of history, but the first story doesn’t even see or explain that world. The characters are plunged into a very narrow slice of that complex world without understanding the greater world beyond. It’s a way of dropping the reader in media res into the story but not telling the reader what kind of story it is. The second is that it’s a story of lab rats who don’t know they’re lab rats, with the story ending as the rats realize their world is someone else’s scientific experiment. Again we can think of high school, where students are literally graded and assessed based on their performance and submitted to educational experiments.

The problem with the non-Hunger Games series is that their characters generally aren’t interesting enough to sustain interest beyond a single book or movie. The public seemed to have caught on by about 2014, when the first Divergent movie grossed less than half of the first Hunger Games movie at the domestic box office, and the first Maze Runner movie did even worse than that. This was the same year that the long-brewing movie version of Lois Lowry’s The Giver was awkwardly adapted to fit the adolescent dystopia genre of the 2010s rather than the early ’90s when it was written. The film bombed. Later that year, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1III)Something Twilight can be blamed for is the clunky naming schemes for these movies. The book titles are all generally nondescript, so the movies have to go with The Twilight Saga: Eclipse or The Divergent Series: Insurgent. was a big hit, but it made almost $100 million less at the domestic box office than its predecessor had. The next year, the final film in the Hunger Games series was an even bigger box office disappointment.

We can blame Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows for starting the precedent of turning the final book in a series into two movies to make twice the money, but by the time the last Divergent book was split in two, audiences had grown exhausted of the whole endeavor and moved on. If a final Divergent movie gets made at all, it’ll likely debut on television.

Is it just me or does everyone in the Divergent movies look like they’re in a Canadian-produced CW show?

And earlier this year, the final Maze Runner movie was dumped onto audiences in January to widespread indifference. What reaction there was consisted mostly of, “Wait, they’re still making these?” Indeed, the movie was delayed more than a year when its lead actor Dylan O’Brien was injured filming a stunt. It feels like the world changed pretty drastically during that time, as if The Death Cure were an erotic thriller starring Michael Douglas and Michelle Pfeiffer.

But really, the YA dystopia phenomenon ended four or five years ago. And if the fact that it existed at all is supposed to say something, then what does its ending mean?

And what of the teenagers who ingested these books and their ideas? Will those ideas inform their politics? Or does the next generation of voters already have instincts that are drawn to YA dystopian novels? I’m not sure about this, either. I grew up reading Harry Potter, and my politics seem pretty aligned with J.K. Rowling’s, but I don’t know that there’s a causal relationship there.

Or maybe the entire phenomenon was more about one individual series (The Hunger Games) than an entire genre. A new YA dystopian series could very well come along and become every bit as big. Until then, all the dystopian series are in a YA dystopia of their own, shooting each other with arrows and trying to scale the wall and get out.

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Footnotes   [ + ]

I. The Ready Player One sequel is currently being written.
II. It’s often dismissed as an “imitator” but I wouldn’t say that. For one thing, it’s much more like Lost than The Hunger Games. But really, it’s more that James Dashner wrote a book that publishers decided they could sell well because of the success of The Hunger Games, not that he read The Hunger Games and decided to write his own version.
III. Something Twilight can be blamed for is the clunky naming schemes for these movies. The book titles are all generally nondescript, so the movies have to go with The Twilight Saga: Eclipse or The Divergent Series: Insurgent.