Teaching Materials

Young Adult Dystopia
Dr Alison Tedman, Buckinghamshire New University

Introduction

The activities in this teaching resource have been designed to accompany my curated playlist for young adult dystopian films. In the 21st century, well-known young adult dystopian blockbuster trilogies and their adaptations cluster with high visibility, forming what Fitzsimmons and Wilson describe as a ‘hypercanon’ (2020, p. ix). In cinema, further YA dystopian adaptations were produced, predominantly from the mid to the late 2010s. This era is predated by important individual 20th century and early 21st century young adult dystopian films and series, while a more extensive and diverse range of young adult novels exist globally than are filmed. However, Fitzsimmons (2020, p. 3) argues that ‘the YA dystopian trilogy…establishes a new form of twenty-first century utopian writing’. Key overviews of the history and tropes of the young adult dystopia include Hintz and Ostry (2003), Basu, Broad and Hintz (2013) and Fitzsimmons and Wilson (2020). Young adult dystopian novels may address contemporary concerns and suggest ways in which young people may take action, in narratives shaped by the bildungsroman or ‘coming-of-age novel’ (Hintz and Ostry, 2003, p. 9; Fitzsimmons and Wilson, 2020, p. xi). The texts have also been seen to offer a fictive capacity to escape the pressures of teenage life, and to succeed in speculative, metaphorical representations of youthful communities and tests (see for example Hintz and Ostry, 2003, pp. 9-13). Current theoretical research encompasses aspects of global young adult fiction, diversity, fairy tales and myth.

The Hunger Games, 2012

Critical work on young adult dystopian fiction builds, in part, on the study of classic dystopian texts and the wider field of utopian studies. Thomas More’s 1516 Utopia introduced the term ‘utopia’, signifying a place that does not exist. The ‘dystopia’ is defined by Lyman Tower Sargent as ‘a non-existent society described in considerable detail and normally located in time and space that the author intended a contemporaneous reader to view as considerably worse than the society in which that reader lived’ (1994, p. 9). The ‘eutopia’ is meant to be read ‘as considerably better than the society in which that reader lived’ while the anti-utopia is presented as ‘a criticism of utopianism or of some particular eutopia’ (Ibid.). For Darko Suvin (2003) the dystopia is defined as ‘having sociopolitical institutions, norms, and relationships …organized according to a …radically less perfect principle [‘than in the author’s community’]’ (p. 189). Suvin distinguishes between ‘“Simple” Dystopia’ and ‘Anti-Utopia’, of which the latter is ‘a pretended eutopia’, a dystopian society that is presented as ‘more perfectly organized than any thinkable alternative’. The protagonist finds it to be ‘significantly less perfect…’ (Ibid.). These distinctions are useful for film analysis, although this field encompasses many complex definitions and debates.

In cinema and on the small screen, adaptations of classic dystopian novels such as Ninety-Eighty Four (Orwell,1949) are supplemented by original dystopian narratives and by the location of dystopian discourses and aesthetics in hybrid forms. These include a ‘dystopian tendency…within science fiction’, and cyberpunk (Baccolini and Moylan, 2003, p. 1). Studies of young adult dystopias may elucidate their textual differences from classic dystopias, including the potential for optimism and hope that is not closed off at the end of young adult narratives.

The Darkest Minds, 2018

Contemporary young adult dystopian films draw on codes of action, teen romance, science fiction and games, among other genres. They are notable for adventurous, resourceful young heroes, often female. These heroes must survive, gain awareness of oppressive regimes and retaliate within futuristic landscapes. In the films, like the novels, dystopia is sometimes post-apocalyptic; it may be the result of ecological, technological or unspecified disaster, or a war, as in the earlier novel and adaptations of Lord of the Flies (Golding,1954). In young adult dystopian blockbusters, spectacular sequences showcase the work of visual effects companies. A screenwriter will retain the novel’s key scenes, to meet the expectations of its fandom. However, young adult dystopian directors and production designers often find that the novels’ settings do not succeed onscreen as conceived on the page. The resulting production design can be richly stylised, imaginatively appropriating influences that range from the aesthetics of virtual reality and art cinema to family adventures and military training narratives.

The Ender's Game, 2013

This resource includes the first film of three main blockbuster franchises, followed by other films that offer interest but are without sequels, and two standalone British independent adaptations that draw poignantly on traditions of the pastoral, and in one case, the school system. Questions for discussion are provided for each film, with proposed reading. All of the films listed are adaptations, and some suggested sources deal with the original novels. These are useful, if distinctions between the literary text and the screen adaptation are kept in mind.

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  • The Hunger Games (2012) begins the playlist, as it is arguably one of the most critically well received and high profile young adult dystopian film franchises. It is listed in second place for Lifetime Gross in the Box Office Mojo categories of Young Adult Novel Adaptation, Book Adaptation and Post-Apocalypse, with The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013) attaining first place in each (Box Office Mojo by IMDbPro no date a, b, c). The novel series by Suzanne Collins offers a narrative premise in which two young people from each district in a future version of remaining areas of America, called Panem, take part in a controlled, televised fight to the death each year. This is treated as a means of ideological control over the districts.

    Like the novel trilogy, the film series raises many ideological and ethical questions, and both have led to critical debates about the feminist agency of Katniss, the teenage hero. Books and academic papers address areas ranging from spectacle and surveillance to masculinity. Although Katniss becomes a figurehead for revolution, as her journey progresses the series problematises the overthrow of one powerful authority over another, and reveals the sacrifices involved in resistance.

    While the film is an action adventure, the harshness of its premise makes The Hunger Games particularly useful for considering definitions of dystopia in fiction. Like other young adult dystopian fiction, a hybrid is constructed from youth genres that here include a coming of age narrative (bildungsroman), game influences, action and romance.

      1. Using critical definitions of dystopia and of young adult dystopia, discuss the ways in which the film connotes a dystopian society. How is this impacted by the conventions found in genres associated with a youth audience?
      2. Discuss Katniss’s role, comparing her character and her skills to those of other action heroines in fantasy films and series. To what extent does the film offer the potential for a feminist reading?
      3. Do particular shots and filmic strategies position Katniss as the object of the gaze, and does she control others’ gaze?
      4. In what ways do filmic techniques connote Katniss’s subjective viewpoint in her interviews or in the arena, and how does this affect our understanding of her?
      5. Critically discuss race and ethnicity in the film, with particular reference to Rue, applying critical approaches that include intersectionality.

    Further reading:

      Driscoll, C. and Heatwole, A. (2018) ‘The train from District 12: Panem as dystopia’, in The Hunger Games: Spectacle, Risk and the Girl Action Hero. Abingdon and New York: Routledge, pp.68-84.
  • Divergent is set in a post-apocalyptic Chicago where young people must choose to join a faction. A simulation aptitude test indicates their personality type. Their faction defines their role in society. Tris, the protagonist, does not fit one group, but must hide this. The film’s production design is by Andy Nicholson, whose credits include another young adult film in this resource, The Host (2013), as well as Gravity (2013) and Captain Marvel (2019). Method Studios, the company that constructed the mirror room, also created visual effects for The Maze Runner (2014). As the first of an incompletely adapted literary series with two sequels but no conclusion, Divergent also offers an effective standalone film and was a strong success at the box office.

    Tris is notable for her determination to succeed in the initiation process for Dauntless, after being uprooted by choice from her quiet upbringing in Abnegation. She is secretly told that she is divergent and suited to more than one faction, after a simulation test. She is the first to leap off the roof into the net when entering the headquarters, and works hard to rise up the score board in training, to avoid being factionless. She must also disguise her divergence in the simulations that test Dauntless initiates’ responses to their own individual fears.

      1. To what extent does the film present an undesirably dystopian Chicago, through the regulation of its citizens, and through its cityscape? Is the faction system, and particularly Dauntless presented as pleasurable for Tris and the audience, or even utopian?
      2. Discuss Tris’s role as a hero, making comparisons with other young adult dystopian heroes.
      3. How do Neil Berger’s direction and Andy Nicholson’s production design – including camerawork, editing and costume - convey the distinctions between factions, Tris’s narrative journey and her subjective point of view? Discuss examples.

    Further reading:

      Basu, B. (2013) ‘What faction are you in? The pleasure of being sorted in Veronica Roth’s Divergent’, in B. Basu, K. R. Broad and C. Hintz (eds.) Contemporary dystopian fiction for young adults: brave new teenagers. New York and Abingdon: Routledge, pp.19-33.
      Green-Barteet, M. A. (2014) ‘“I’m beginning to know who I am”: the Rebellious Subjectivities of Katniss Everdeen and Tris Prior’, in Day, S. K., Green-Barteet, M. A. and Montz, A. L. (eds.) Female rebellion in young adult dystopian fiction. Farnham: Ashgate Publishing Limited, pp.33-49.
  • The Maze Runner is interesting for its distinct, high concept premise, in which the hero emerges with memory loss from an underground lift into a walled glade within a maze. This is the first film adaptation in a post-apocalyptic trilogy that, like a number of young adult dystopian texts, deals with a world beset by environmental changes, raising ecological issues.

    Like most young adult dystopias, the film is a genre hybrid, drawing on science fiction and games influences. Unlike the novel, the living spaces in the Glade were designed to suggest that the Gladers had created them themselves from natural materials (Ball, 2015). The Glade’s production design offers a potentially idyllic yet fraught pastoral setting for mainly male friendship. Escape is hampered by deadly Grievers and the mechanised shifting, gamified landscape of its central maze.

      1. How is Thomas’s gradual development to a hero depicted in the narrative?
      2. To what extent does the film connote a dystopian society, and does it contain any utopian elements to appeal to its audience?
      3. Analyse the visual representation of the Glade and the maze.
      4. What function do memories play and how are they depicted?
      5. Discuss the film’s use of science fiction conventions and aesthetics. Can it be analysed using other forms or genres, such as fairy tales or myths?

    Further reading:

      Fitzsimmons, R. (2020) ‘Exploring the genre conventions of the YA dystopian trilogy as twenty-first century utopian dreaming’, in R. Fitzsimmons and C. A. Wilson (eds.) Beyond the blockbusters: themes and trends in contemporary young adult fiction. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, pp.3-18. See pp. 3-8 to the end of the section titled ‘Phase One: Rules and Realities’.
      Suvin, D. (1978) ‘On what is and is not an sf narration; with a list of 101 Victorian books that should be excluded from sf bibliographies’, Science Fiction Studies, 14 (5), Part 1. https://www.depauw.edu/sfs/backissues/14/suvin14art.htm This is useful for Suvin’s definition of the novum.
  • This is the first adaptation in a curtailed franchise. The film is directed by Jennifer Yuh Nelson and based on the 2012 novel in a series by Alexandra Bracken. It is an example of a less-filmed strand of young adult dystopian fiction in which young people gain powers. Here, they are viewed as a threat to society. Ruby - Amandla Stenberg, whose young adult credits include Rue in The Hunger Games, and Starr in The Hate U Give (2018) - has the capacity to control minds and to erase memories. As in Divergent, young people are sorted, but not by choice: they are constrained in special camps, and their powers are colour-coded.

    The Darkest Minds draws on the road film, and landscapes beyond the road contrast idyllic and troubled or dangerous views of the pastoral, as in The Hunger Games, The Maze Runner and How I Live Now (2013). The film’s hero, Ruby (Amandla Stenberg) negotiates escape, friendship, romance and sacrifice during the narrative.

      1. How does the film combine conventions of different genres? Examples might include dystopia, science fiction, war, action adventure, road movie, and young adult romance. How do these conventions bring out the benefits of being in a small resistant group within the film’s society?
      2. The young group’s powers can be used in playful or romantic ways. Discuss contrasting uses of these powers. What is their role in the narrative?
      3. Does the film suggest metaphoric references to social issues? What does it connote about the control of otherness in society?

    Further reading:

      Cummins, A. (2021) ‘Categorize your powers: film adaptations of dystopian young adult literature in The Hunger Games, Divergent and The Darkest Minds’, in A. J. Carranza (ed.) Our fears made manifest: essays on terror, trauma and loss in film, 1998-2019. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers.
  • Saoirse Ronan stars in a young adult dystopian narrative that utilises the trope of the young adult dystopian hero as uniquely resistant to oppression. The Host deals with a speculative future in which aliens have colonised and inhabited their human hosts’ bodies.

    The film is adapted by its director, Andrew Niccol, from Stephenie Meyer’s novel. It makes strong use of the tropes and aesthetics of science fiction, to raise questions about posthuman identity, mind and body, inclusivity and female or interspecies bonding. Niccol’s work includes writing and directing the science fiction film Gattaca (1997) [link to film in BoB: https://learningonscreen.ac.uk/ondemand/index.php/prog/000BCF11?bcast=134676763] Gattaca offers a useful comparison, since it deals futuristically with masculine identity.

      1. How do some of the conventions and visual style associated with screen science fiction combine with other conventions of young adult dystopia?
      2. What issues does the film raise in relation to nature, healing, science, ecology?
      3. In what ways can the film’s treatment of identity, posthumanity and otherness be read?

    Further reading:

      Bökös, B. (2019) ‘Human-alien encounters in science fiction: a postcolonial perspective’. Acta Univ. Sapientiae, Film and Media Studies,16, pp. 189–203. https://doi.org/10.2478/ausfm-2019-0010.
      Bould, M. (2012) Science Fiction. London and New York: Routledge.
  • How I Live Now is based on novel by Meg Rosoff and directed by Oscar-winning documentary and feature director, Kevin Macdonald. It stars Saoirse Ronan as Daisy, an American staying with her British cousins in the countryside. She falls in love with one of her male cousins, Eddie (George Mackay), before they are separated by a future war and she and her young female cousin Piper (Harley Bird) are sent away. The film shares many young adult dystopian tropes, yet it is naturalistic blend of romantic drama and war film, albeit with a sense of British rural mysticism and the uncanny elements.

    War brings separation, threat, violence, trauma and loss to the young protagonists, yet the film offers the element of hope that is seen to distinguish young adult dystopian films from dystopias aimed at an older audience. The film conveys female agency and strength, and in Daisy’s relationship with Piper, offers a sense of sisterhood as they embark on a road trip through a wild British landscape.

      1. In what ways does Daisy’s initial, isolated self-sufficiency help her to take on the young adult dystopian hero role once she and Piper move away?
      2. How does the film deal with war and its effects on people?
      3. What meanings do different natural landscapes connote and what atmosphere is conveyed in the first part of the film, later when Daisy and Piper are travelling, and at the conclusion?

    Further reading:

  • Ender’s Game is adapted and directed by Gavin Hood, from a 1985 novel by Orson Scott Card. Fitzsimmons (2020) cites the novel and The Giver (Lowry, 1993) as among ‘early examples of the YA/dystopia generic blend’ (4) while their adaptations ‘rode the twenty-first-century dystopian wave’ (187). Through young recruit Ender (Asa Butterfield) and his military superiors and trainers, including Graff (Harrison Ford), the film raises ethical, ideological questions about war and the enemy as other.

    Like several other young adult adaptations, Ender's Game includes fight training, simulations as othered game spaces, and resistance to controlling adult ideologies. The narrative and mise en scene make use of science fiction tropes, virtuality and gaming.

      1. Discuss the ways in which military training is transposed into game conventions and settings within the narrative.
      2. What view does the film present of the integrity of adults, and of the ethics of combat?

    Further reading:

      Vint, S. (2018) ‘Cyberwar: the convergence of virtual and material battlefields in cyberpunk cinema’, in Murphy, G. J. and Schmeink, L. (eds.) Cyberpunk and visual culture. New York and Abingdon: Routledge, pp. 253-75.
      See pp. 255-260 for the main section on this film. Vint (2020) positions the gaming and virtual elements within the cinematic cyberpunk context since the 1980s, and relates them to CGI and militarisation.
  • This film is a young adult dystopia presented as a melancholy, impactful realist tragic drama, rather than as science fiction. It is directed by Mark Romanek, and based on a novel by Kazuo Ishiguro with a screenplay by Alex Garland. Its main cast includes Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield and Keira Knightley.

    The film raises crucial ethical issues.

      1. How does it deal with its sensitive subject matter, and what questions does it raise?
      2. In what ways are mise en scene, including props, and music used to construct a tone or mood for the audience?
      3. In what ways is it dystopian, and how does its depiction of dystopia differ from that of films such as The Hunger Games?

    Further reading:

      Fisher, M. (2012) Precarious dystopias: The Hunger Games, In Time, and Never Let Me Go. Film Quarterly, 65 (4), pp. 27-33.
      Johnston, T. (2011) 'Never Let Me Go'. Sight & Sound, 21 (3), pp.72.
    • Baccolini, R. and Moylan, T. (2003) Introduction: dystopia and histories, in Baccolini, R. and Moylan, T. (eds.) Dark horizons: science fiction and the dystopian imagination. New York and London: Routledge, pp. 1-12.
      Ball, W. (2015) Audio commentary by Wes Ball and T.S. Nowlin. The Maze Runner. Dir. Wes Ball. 2014. 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment. DVD.
      Basu, B. (2013) What faction are you in? The pleasure of being sorted in Veronica Roth’s Divergent, in Basu, B., Broad, K. R. and Hintz, C. (eds.) Contemporary dystopian ciction for young adults: brave new teenagers. New York and Abingdon: Routledge, pp.19-33.
      Basu, B., Broad, K. R. and Hintz, C. (2013) ‘Introduction’, in B. Basu, K. R. Broad and C. Hintz (eds.) Contemporary dystopian fiction for young adults: brave new teenagers. New York and Abingdon: Routledge, pp. 1-15.
      Bökös, B. (2019) Human-alien encounters in science fiction: a postcolonial perspective. Acta Univ. Sapientiae, Film and Media Studies ,16, pp. 189–203. https://doi.org/10.2478/ausfm-2019-0010.
      Bould, M. (2012) Science Fiction. London and New York: Routledge.
      Bracken, A. (2012) The Darkest Minds. Reprint. London: Quercus Children’s Books, Hodder and Stoughton, 2018.
      Collins, S. (2009) The Hunger Games. London: Scholastic Children’s Books.
      Cummins, A. (2021) 'Categorize your powers: film adaptations of dystopian young adult literature in The Hunger Games, Divergent and The Darkest Minds', in A. J. Carranza (ed.) Our fears made manifest: essays on terror, trauma and loss in film, 1998-2019. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers.
      Dashner, J. (2009) The Maze Runner. Reprint. Frome: Chicken House, 2014.
      Driscoll, C. and Heatwole, A. (2018) ‘The train from District 12: Panem as dystopia’, in The Hunger Games: spectacle, risk and the girl action hero. Abingdon and New York: Routledge, pp.68-84.
      Fisher, M. (2012) 'Precarious dystopias: The Hunger Games, In Time, and Never Let Me Go'. Film Quarterly, 65 (4), pp. 27-33.
      Fitzsimmons, R. (2020) ‘Exploring the genre conventions of the YA dystopian trilogy as twenty-first century utopian dreaming’, in R. Fitzsimmons and C. A. Wilson (eds.) Beyond the blockbusters: themes and trends in contemporary young adult fiction. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, pp.3-18.
      Fitzsimmons, R, and Wilson, C.A. (2020) ‘Introduction. Boom! goes the hypercanon: on the importance of the overlooked and understudied in young adult literature’, in R. Fitzsimmons and C. A. Wilson (eds.) Beyond the blockbusters: themes and trends in contemporary young adult fiction. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, pp.ix-xxiv.
      Golding, W. (1954) Lord of the Flies. London: Faber and Faber Limited.
      Green-Barteet, M. A. (2014) ‘“I’m beginning to know who I am”: the rebellious subjectivities of Katniss Everdeen and Tris Prior’, in Day, S. K, Green-Barteet, M. A. and Montz, A. L. (eds.) Female rebellion in young adult dystopian fiction. Farnham: Ashgate Publishing Limited, pp.33-49.
      Hintz, C, and Ostry, E. (2003) ‘Introduction’, in C. Hintz and E. Ostry (eds.) Utopian and dystopian writing for children and young adults. Children’s literature and culture Vol 29. New York and London: Routledge, pp. 1-20.
      Ishiguro, K. (2005) Never Let Me Go. London: Faber and Faber, Limited.
      Johnston, T. (2011) 'Never Let Me Go', Sight & Sound, 21 (3), pp.72.
      Lowry, L. (1993) The Giver. Reprint. London: HarperCollins Children’s Books, 2008.
      Meyer, S. (2008) The Host. Boston: Little, Brown and Company. Orwell, G. (1949) Ninety-Eighty Four. Reprint. London: Penguin Books Ltd. 2013.
      Romney, J. (2013) ‘Film of the week: How I Live Now’, Film Comment, 7 November 2013. https://www.filmcomment.com/blog/how-i-live-now-kevin-macdonald-review/
      Rosoff, M. (2004) How I Live Now. Reprint. London: Penguin Books Ltd., 2010.
      Roth, V. (2012) Divergent. London: HarperCollins Children’s Books.
      Sargent, L.T. (1994) ‘The three faces of utopianism revisited’, Utopian Studies, 5 (1), pp. 1-37.
      Suvin, D. (2003) ‘Theses on dystopia 2001’, in R. Baccolini and T. Moylan (eds.) Dark horizons: science fiction and the dystopian imagination. New York and London: Routledge, pp. 187-201.
      Vint, S. (2018) ‘Cyberwar: the convergence of virtual and material battlefields in cyberpunk cinema’, in G. J. Murphy and L. Schmeink (eds.) Cyberpunk and visual culture, New York and Abingdon: Routledge, pp. 253-75.
    • City of Ember (2008) Directed by Gil Kenan [Feature film]. Century City: 20th Century Fox.
      Divergent (2014) Directed by Neil Burger [Feature film]. Santa Monica: Lionsgate.
      Ender’s Game (2013) Directed by Gavin Hood [Feature film] Santa Monica: Lionsgate.
      Gattaca (1997) Directed by Andrew Niccol [Feature film] Culver City: Sony Pictures Releasing.
      How I Live Now (2013) Directed by Kevin Macdonald [Feature film] Toronto: Entertainment One.
      Never Let Me Go (2010) Directed by Mark Romanek [Feature film] Century City: Searchlight Pictures.
      The Darkest Minds (2018) Directed by Jennifer Yuh Nelson [Feature film] Los Angeles: 20th Century Studios.
      The Hate U Give (2018) Directed by George Tillman Jr. [Feature film] Los Angeles: 20th Century Studios.
      The Host (2013) Directed by Andrew Niccol [Feature film] Los Angeles: Open Road Films.
      The Hunger Games (2012) Directed by Gary Ross [Feature film]. Santa Monica: Lionsgate.
      The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013) Directed by Francis Lawrence [Feature film]. Santa Monica: Lionsgate.
      The Maze Runner (2014) Directed by Wes Ball [Feature film] Los Angeles: 20th Century Studios.