Looking Back on The Hunger Games and YA Dystopia
By Sarah Druhan
Photo: The Hollywood Reporter – Source
It’s difficult to forget just how inescapable the ‘teen dystopia’ genre was in the world of 2010s pop culture. Starting with Suzanne Collins’s novel and 2012 film The Hunger Games, similar franchises like Divergent and The Maze Runner quickly developed cult followings and ended up defining a lot of the early teen years of Gen Z. However, despite their initial popularity, it became clear that no other YA dystopia series quite had Hunger Games’ cultural presence.
After years of no real replications of this success, the genre gradually petered out. It’s sometimes tempting to dismiss the whole feverishly popular trend as a parade of soulless cash grabs, but it’s also worth taking a look back. What exactly was it that made The Hunger Games so wildly effective when all the films that it inspired never found the same footing?
First of all, as it usually happens when Hollywood attempts to profit on a recent trend, the resulting Hunger Games plagiarists took much of the bare-bones structure of their predecessor, but failed to replicate any of its heart. While The Hunger Games’ protagonist Katniss Everdeen—a young woman from the part of the country that suffers most under the antagonistic ruling class she rebels against—made sense as a main character, The Maze Runner never quite gives us the same insight into its equivalent Thomas.
Thomas gradually becomes the leader of a group of amnesiac teen boys trying to escape the maze-entrapped ‘Glade’ that they each one day woke up in. While this plot is relatively entertaining, it doesn’t have much else. Thomas’s amnesia is an interesting plot point, but as the series progresses it seems like it was thrown in just to be interesting. The eventual reveal that he used to work with the creators of the mysterious ‘maze’ is a shocking plot twist, but it doesn’t amount to much other than just being shocking. Once the characters escape from their prison and into the dystopian world outside, The Maze Runner’s two sequels lose a lot of substance—while the
filmmakers of the adaptation had thrown in enough elements to keep the audience’s attentions in the first installment, their ‘dystopia’ ultimately had nothing to really drive towards.
Likewise, while the Divergent trilogy was relatively popular, all three of its films were critically panned. Its central idea of the population being sorted into five ‘factions’ is somewhat similar to the ‘districts’ of The Hunger Games, but the only purpose of Divergent’s ‘factions’ seemed to be to generate personality quizzes and to get audiences talking about which faction they would be in. The setup of Divergent’s society and its central romance were interesting enough for a time, but the series as a whole never used these elements to really say anything, and so never had any true momentum.
These movies of the teen dystopian era fell flat because their creators were operating off the very commercialism and corporate hollowness that the dystopia is designed to lampoon. In not understanding the fundamentals of the genre, they essentially worked against everything that was supposed to give their films meaning. Because so many plot devices of The Hunger Games were ripped off to create lesser films, it tends to get lumped into the same category.
But The Hunger Games stands leagues apart because of one stark difference. In actually understanding the nature of dystopian fiction, it intentionally uses these devices to develop a legitimate commentary about contemporary issues. The ‘Hunger Games’ themselves were not just exciting plot points like The Maze Runner’s maze, but representations of how people in power force those beneath them to struggle against each other, distracting from who they should actually be fighting.
Like Divergent’s Tris and Four, the romantic subplots in The Hunger Games attracted public vitriol for being ‘tropey’ and redundant to the narrative. In reality, the infamous Hunger Games love triangle was very effectively used to develop both Katniss’s character and the story’s most important themes. It’s not about whether Katniss chooses Gale Hawthorne or Peeta Mellark, but whether she will choose Gale’s willingness to conform to the same corrupt ‘games’ of the powerful Capitol or the open defiance of the Capitol’s methods that she shows alongside Peeta. In the first installment’s climax, Katniss and Peeta’s attempt to poison themselves rather than fight for the win was included not for romantic reasons, but rather to establish one of the story’s most essential themes. Together they elect to not be pawns in the ‘games’ of the rich and powerful, and in uniting against their actual enemy they take one step closer to real victory.
The Hunger Games series succeeds because, unlike its corporate copycats, it actually utilizes its dystopian setting to propose an extremely relevant message. It is about seeing the systems designed by those in power to divert those below them from the real problem. It is about how justice can only be achieved by refusing to participate in these systems. The teen romances and exciting competitions weren’t thrown in just to fuel the plot, but were intentionally and effectively used to develop the story toward the last film’s final haunting line: There are much worse games to play. It’s a pressing message that has only grown more timely every year since Mockingjay -- Part 2’s 2015 release, but was lost in the public’s focus on ‘the love triangle’ and the immediate attempts by movie studios to cash in on it. One might worry this would steal from The Hunger Games’ well-deserved legacy, but the commercialistic blindness to its true message may have actually given The Hunger Games the ultimate victory—it completely proved its point.