Civilisation could be just a few years from collapsing at any time – but enter any cinema and you’d think it’s already the post-apocalypse for teenagers. Social commentary, political undertones and making a stand against capitalism – is it really ideal viewing for young people?
Trends – as long as Hollywood has existed, its films have lived or died on them. It’s almost exactly akin to the fashion industry. From Westerns and monster movies to found footage and vampires; if it’s proven successful for one movie, you can bet your bottom dollar you’re about to see countless imitators attempt to recreate the same success.
Since the dawn of this century, studios have been increasingly turning to best-selling fiction aimed at young adults for potential film franchise material, thanks largely to the worldwide phenomenon sparked by one boy wizard. With eight films and over $7.7 billion at the box office, the Harry Potter series defined a generation and carried an unprecedented popularity. Then the continued success of the (much less fondly reflected upon) Twilight saga proved young adult novels an enormously bankable source of inspiration for Hollywood. But with these two behemoths concluding at roughly the same time, and so many tried-and-failed attempts landing with a thud (Eragon, The Golden Compass, City of Ember, The Mortal Instruments and Beautiful Creatures are just a few of the disappointments), it seemed simply taking trendy teen tales and translating them for the cinema was not what investors had hoped for.
That is, until 2012, when one film arrived seemingly out of nowhere to take the world by storm again – The Hunger Games, based on the first of Suzanne Collin’s trilogy of YA books. Its concept – a group of teenagers forced by the government to fight to the death – was nothing original, having already been realised with the 1999 Japanese novel and 2000 film Battle Royale. Of course, most Western audiences were unfamiliar with this, and a non-R-rated vision promised a much larger audience.
Breaking opening weekend records and making a star of Jennifer Lawrence, a new trend was born – and this time, it had staying power. Sequels were hurried into production and similarly themed adaptations – Divergent, The Maze Runner and most recently The 5th Wave – suddenly appeared, but something was different. It no longer matters whether or not the first film is a hit – or even if it is any good; studios are determined to push a franchise onto us anyway, as fast as humanly possible.
Literature depicting a dark vision of future societies (and their big-screen counterparts) is nothing new of course. Audiences became acquainted with the genre decades ago through classics like Fahrenheit 451, A Clockwork Orange and Nineteen Eighty-Four, and have remained popular over the years with the likes of Total Recall and Children of Men. So what is it that makes dystopias so popular with teenagers – and audiences around the world – all of a sudden? Why do these films all share the same DNA – including the same plot holes and problems? And how much longer until the trendy bubble bursts?
Dystopian fiction all shares similar motifs – a future society that is utopian in its governing eye, with its tightly controlled inhabitants who seem to lack awareness that their living conditions are not perfect. That is, aside from the protagonist, who is frustrated by the control and acts in spite of this.
The urge to rebel and form an identity for oneself is common in teens, which is perhaps why this genre has resonated with them. Though these recent series take it that one step further and shoehorn in a sappy teen romance that ends up consuming anything remotely interesting about the stories themselves.
Each of these franchises takes itself entirely too seriously and severely lacks even the tiniest iota of irony. The Hunger Games is the best of the bunch, but collapses beneath an undermining love story; Divergent comes across as a nonsensical clone; and The Maze Runner purposely puts answers off to its sequels in a desperate attempt to force its audience to stay for the next instalment.
Then we have the anticlimax – broken up into part 1 and 2, of course. It worked for Harry Potter but it hasn’t worked since – splitting the final book of the series into two separate films. Whereas HP’s penultimate entry was nearly 800 pages in length, and contained more than enough substance for two movies, the dystopian finales are no bigger than their predecessors (less than 400 for Mockingjay, just over 500 for Allegiant) and require stretching their material very thin to make over four hours of screen time. It reeks of studios unnecessarily sacrificing quality for that shameless grab for extra cash.
Whatever poignant digs at capitalism The Hunger Games might have had is muddied by the incredibly drawn out two-part Mockingjay adaptation. What could have been a tight, satisfying conclusion becomes a strictly-for-fans mess with no sense of pacing. Part 1 is a stagnant, action-free series of political ramblings, while Part 2 is an overtly-bleak murder mission, devoid of tension, and it amplifies all the issues present in the novel’s climax. Both show a fundamental misunderstanding of why audiences want to see these movies in the first place – do we really care that much for the characters, or are we there for high-stakes games themselves?
More worrying for studios is the dwindling ticket sales, which evidence that dystopias may be on their way out as quickly as they’ve broken in. Mockingjay Part 2 was still a hit at the box office, but made less in total than any of the three previous movies. Releasing it yet another year after the prior entry was waiting a little too long it seems. Audiences these days have short attention spans – releasing a film yearly is already a very quick turnaround, but still too long a wait.
The decision to split Allegiant in two may have been to hasty; its first half, released just a few weeks ago, opened to a critical panning and an underperforming box office, forcing budget cuts to be made on the second segment – still a year away from release. It’s looking dire for Divergent. At least The Maze Runner was wise enough to plan for only one third film.
So maybe the future doesn’t look so grim for teenagers. With The 5th Wave barely making a splash this summer, the dystopias may have had their day. The question then, is what will the next trend be for young adults? Will teens ever be gifted with relatable classics like The Breakfast Club, Fast Times at Ridgemont High or Donnie Darko ever again? Or is a dystopian future ruled by cynical studio output looking more likely?
Images courtesy of Roadshow Films, Twentieth Century Fox, Entertainment One Films, United International Pictures