With the conclusion of the beloved Harry Potter film franchise in 2011 and the bittersweet finale of the Twilight saga in 2012, there was a void in the film landscape that no amount of Harry Potter merchandise and Team Edward vs Team Jacob debates could fill. Then, amidst the hushed stillness, arose the resounding cry of “I volunteer as tribute’ from The Hunger Games franchise’s unlikely hero Katniss Everdeen, shattering the silence and setting the YA dystopian genre pendulum in motion. Based on the novel penned by Suzanne Collins, the film – which followed 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen in the post-apocalyptic world of Panem- struck a chord with viewers and critics alike thanks to its three-dimensional characters, lurid themes, and rich world-building.
Invigorated by the success of The Hunger Games, a string of imitators keen to capitalise on the YA dystopian craze followed suit in the shape of franchises such as Divergent, The Maze Runner, The Mortal Instruments, and Percy Jackson and the Olympians as well as one-off films like Ender’s Game, The 5th Wave, The Giver, and Ready Player One. Unlike The Hunger Games, most of these films failed to capture the essence of their books and were confined to formulaic plots which audiences soon grew weary of. Thus, by the late 2010s, the YA dystopian genre had become a ghost of its former self, with paltry box office collections bolstered by a shift into other types of coming-of-age stories.
However, there may be no need for tissues or tombstones, as much like a phoenix, the YA dystopian genre appears to be rising from the ashes with the release of The Hunger Games prequel, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, and the Disney+ TV series Percy Jackson and the Olympians in the tail end of 2023. If the countless edits of Tom Blyth’s Coriolanus Snow and the resurgence of Josh Hutcherson’s -who portrayed Peeta Mellark in The Hunger Games franchise- 2014 Whistle edit are any indication, the genre may be making its way back into the popular zeitgeist. But, is it here to stay? In this article, we’ll be exploring the unprecedented rise and subsequent fall of the YA dystopian genre, before taking a closer look at its supposed revival.
The Golden Age
The dystopian genre has been around for nearly a century, with George Orwell’s 1984 and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale weaving tales of oppressive regiments and mass surveillance, which spur resistance and rebellion. However, Suzanne Collins put her spin on the genre and steered it toward an entirely different course by catering to young adult readers, and inadvertently created a cash cow that Hollywood studios could milk for years.
While The Hunger Games did explore darker themes such as power, wealth, and inequality like its predecessors, it managed to toe the line by incorporating elements that are usually seen in soapy reality TV shows such as a love triangle, where Katniss was torn between the fiery Gale and the faithful Peeta. When the books were brought to life on-screen through captivating performances by Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, and Woody Harrelson among others, they deeply resonated with young audiences who found the character’s struggles relatable and sought to emulate their resilience in the face of an increasingly complex and ambiguous 21st century.
Thus began the YA dystopian craze, with franchises such as The Maze Runner, and Divergent asserting their claim on the teen cinema landscape and holding a chokehold on pop culture. The year 2014 was arguably the peak of this era, with four YA dystopian films gracing the screen, namely The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1, Divergent, The Maze Runner, and The Giver. While songs from The Hunger Games soundtrack such as Taylor Swift and The Civil Wars’ Safe and Sound as well as Lorde’s Yellow Flicker Beat dominated the airwaves, kids would show up to school sporting Katniss’ signature braids and seize every opportunity to use the film’s three-finger salute. And when the Divergent series came, every table in the school canteen was full of kids claiming to be Dauntless or Divergent, while The Maze Runner had everyone clamoring to get a spot on the track team.
While The Maze Runner and Divergent weren’t nearly as successful as their predecessor, they managed to carve their niche in the genre and spurred their own fandoms. The YA Dystopian genre also served as a launchpad for the careers of stars like Jennifer Lawrence, Sam Claflin, Shailene Woodley, Miles Teller, and Dylan O’Brien. These stories were an integral stitch in the tapestry of Gen Z and Millenial’s identities, impossible to ignore when reflecting on our youth. Didn’t we all want to shoot arrows and become the face of the rebellion like Katniss? Didn’t we all yearn to be dressed in all-black leather like the Dauntless and jump off trains with Four? Didn’t we all go to sleep hoping that we would wake in the Glade surrounded by Thomas, Newt, and Minho?
By creating such vast and vibrant worlds, the YA dystopian genre beckoned its audiences to slip into its immersive depths, taunting them with the freedom to explore their identities unperturbed by the constraints of reality. Resilient yet relatable characters like Katniss, Tris, and Thomas inspired young audiences to embark on their journeys and taught them that they were capable of anything they set their minds to. The YA dystopian genre’s ‘chosen one’ trope, where the weight of the world rested on the shoulders of the protagonist provided a stark contrast to the mundane lives of young adults, where homework and zits were their biggest hurdles.
Thus, the YA dystopian genre became a fantasy that impressionable audiences could cling to, and the craze was further exacerbated by the rise of fandoms on platforms such as Tumblr, Wattpad, AO3, Reddit, and Pinterest. Through fan fiction, fan art, fan theories, and even fan edits, the community thrived on these platforms, allowing them to delve deeper into these stories and even insert themselves into the post-apocalyptic worlds. Remember taking those Buzzfeed quizzes titled ‘Which Hunger Games guy are you most compatible with?’ or ‘Which Divergent faction do you actually belong in?’? Or, how about those Wattpad fanfictions where you followed Y/N as they fought alongside the rebels and found love along the way? As embarrassing as it may be to admit, these novels, films, and fandoms formed such an integral part of our younger selves, and we undoubtedly carry a piece of them with us even as adulthood attempts to sink its teeth into us.
The Dark Ages
Although the YA dystopian genre soared like a shooting star for a few years, akin to the ephemeral nature of the cosmic wonder, its light eventually dimmed as it hurtled towards the ground amidst the changes in trends and tastes. Although the on-screen adaptations of YA dystopian novels seemed refreshing after the barrage of romantic comedies in the 2000s, and their first iterations such as The Hunger Games appeared to do justice by their source material thanks to stellar performances and screenwriting, subsequent efforts failed to recapture the magic of the books.
This can be attributed to the cockiness of Hollywood studios in the wake of the golden age of the YA dystopian genre, where studios thought they could get away with pumping out mediocre YA dystopian films with lazy writing. They refused to break away from the stock ingredients of a typical YA dystopian movie, – the headstrong protagonist, the forbidden romance, the oppressive government, the broken family, and the desolate landscape- resulting in a string of films that were merely poor imitations of one another- much like the Capitol’s jabberjays in The Hunger Games.
Take The Hunger Games series and Divergent series as an example; while Panem is divided into 12 districts by industry, Divergent also spits its society into factions based on personality. And, while Katniss takes on President Snow to overthrow an oppressive government, Tris does the same to Erudite’s Jeanine Matthews. Of course, the most obvious similarity is that they both follow a 16-year-old conventionally attractive white girl who strikes up a romance with an equally dashing white boy.
The wave of The Hunger Games-esque movies saturated the market, leaving audiences overwhelmed and desperately craving something different. Thus, as YA dystopian movies fell into the trapping of increasingly cliché and predictable plots and settings, and lacked the heart of earlier entries, the genre eventually lost its lustre and bowed out of the cinema landscape. Unfortunately, even the star power and stellar performances of their casts weren’t enough to save the genre, with box office numbers for The Maze Runner falling with each new release and the final movie in the Divergent series being cancelled.
The downfall of the YA dystopian genre was brought upon by its inability to evolve with its audience, who felt a sense of disillusionment creeping in as they realised that the ‘chosen one’ trope perpetuated by these films was not conceivable in the real world. Instead, young audiences craved character-driven stories with authentic and flawed protagonists, as they more accurately represented their struggles than plot-heavy stories featuring polished and wooden protagonists, who served no purpose other than to fulfil some great prophecy. For instance, coming-of-age indie films such as Lady Bird, The Edge of Seventeen, Booksmart, and Call Me by Your Name were sleeper hits in the late 2010s as they weren’t afraid to push the envelope and portray the patchwork quilt of sometimes beautiful-sometimes ugly that encapsulates being a young adult.
Are you, are you comin’ to the tree?
Where they strung up a man, they say, who murdered three
Strange things did happen here, no stranger would it be
If we met at midnight in the hanging tree
–’The Hanging Tree’ from The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes
Just when the world had dismissed the YA dystopian genre, leaving it to suffer a painful death in the hanging tree, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes’ Lucy Gray Baird came along, urging audiences to meet her at the tree to witness the resurrection of the genre. Although The Hunger Games prequel received mixed reviews from critics upon its release, the film reminded Gen Z and Millenials of the 2010s YA dystopian era, catalysing the wave of nostalgia that overtook social media as fans rehashed their love for the original franchise and expressed their excitement over the new addition. Be it through thirst traps of Tom Blyth’s Coriolanus Snow, praise for Rachel Zegler’s performance of the songs written by Suzanne Collins, memes of Josh Hutcherson, or even the bashing of the so-called ‘Prim Reaper’, Gale Hawthorne, the people who grew up with these movies have rallied to give the genre the love it deserves.
Admittedly, the prequel is not as big a cultural phenomenon as the first installment was, but the film managed to address most of the issues that plagued the genre. As the film centres around the morally grey character Coriolanus Snow grappling with his identity and struggling to reconcile his love for a girl from District 12 – Lucy Gray- with his desire for control, it marked a significant shift from the two-dimensional protagonists that closed out the 2010s YA dystopian era. Of course, the obsession with the film was partly fueled by ‘White Boy of the Month’ Tom Blyth’s good looks, but his portrayal of Snow was also an interesting take on how power can corrupt even the best of us- which is especially relevant in an age where countless wars have ravaged nations and robbed innocent people of their lives. Plus, although Lucy Gray’s weapon of choice is a guitar, her resilience in the face of danger and unwavering commitment to those she loves are akin to the traits possessed by Katniss Everdeen, who inspired a generation of young women.
The Percy Jackson and the Olympians TV series that just dropped on Disney+ has also contributed to the revival of the YA dystopian genre. The show learns from the mistakes of its poorly received predecessors by staying true to the book and bringing on author Rick Riordan as the executive producer of the series. Hence, long-time fans of the books have finally been vindicated, and the newer generation has been introduced to the genre that will always be our Roman empire. The episodic format of Percy Jackson and the Olympians allows for a more detailed exploration of the mythological world, and has more time to linger on heartfelt moments and comedic beats, lending the series a sense of authenticity that was missing from the movies. Hence, it’s no surprise that the show has also found its way onto social media, with fans weighing in on each episode, and even digging up somewhat cringy videos of the cast from the past.
Although the release of The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes and the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series has temporarily renewed our interest in the YA dystopian genre, it remains to be seen whether it is merely an isolated instance that will fizzle out as quickly as it materialised or whether it will once more become a widespread phenomenon that rivals even the 2010s prime. Nevertheless, it is plain to see that The Hunger Games is the standout amongst the other tributes that entered the arena nearly a decade ago, as its themes continue to remain relevant in these trying times, cementing its status as a classic. As for the rest of the films within the genre, only time can tell whether they will reign over cinema once more. But, until then, may the odds be ever in their favour.
Written By: Priyanka
Edited By: Tarini