It's dystopia season at the movie theater again. On November 1, the screen version of Orson Scott Card's science-fiction Ender's Game arrives; three weeks later, Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins will attempt to match the performance of last year's installment of The Hunger Games, the third-best-grossing film in the United States in 2012. A dark take on mid- or post-apocalyptic America seems to be required for box-office success these days—the two films that surpassed The Hunger Games' $408 million were The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises.
But the current crop of dystopias has an even darker twist: their heroes, and victims, are children, perpetrating and witnessing distinctly adult levels of violence. When Stephen King (yes, that one) reviewed the book version of The Hunger Games, he dared: "Let's see the makers of the movie version try to get a PG-13 on this baby."
The 2012 movie, and this fall's sequel, did achieve a PG-13 rating, for what that's worth. But even many admirers admit that the violence requires a heavy dose of parental discretion. One of those fans, Mary Pols, explained to readers of Time.com "Why I'm Not Taking My 8-Year-Old to The Hunger Games," citing a passage where genetically altered dogs gnaw a particularly vicious player for hours (and over the course of four pages). Finally, "the raw hunk of meat that used to be my enemy makes a sound. . . . Pity, not vengeance, sends my arrow flying into his skull." Pols imagines reading to her son at bedtime with the family dog at his feet, saying, "Sweet dreams kiddo! I'll just take the dog with me after this chapter, shall I?"
Defining Dystopia Down
Literary critic Carter Kaplan has observed that dystopias have been with us, in one form or another, at least since Gulliver's Travels, by Jonathan Swift, in 1726. "Dark, pessimistic, and often reflect[ing] paranoia, alarm, or hysteria," dystopian literature "describes how bad things could be."
Dystopias gained new ground, Lev Grossman noted in Time, with John Christopher's series The Tripods, first published in 1967. "Up until then, novels of that kind tended to be for adults," Grossman wrote. "But from the late 1960s on, books about mankind's miserable future began to skew younger."
As they skewed younger, they became more popular. Booksellers and librarians find dystopias appeal to both male and female readers, to bookworms and bandwagon-jumpers alike. Although books like Ender's Game and the Hunger Games trilogy are written for teenagers, both younger and older readers like to indulge in the stories. The one group that tends to struggle with the genre is parents. After all, they get little respect in stories where kids are the heroes. Profanity comes from the mouths of babes trying to act tough, as do sexual innuendo and various kinds of prejudice. But these are relatively superficial reasons to condemn dystopias. When you go deeper, you find that they are both more disturbing, and more potentially rewarding, than they initially seem.
Catching Fire and Ender's Game both take place in a world driven by fear and the memory of devastation—in Collins's world, civil war, and in Card's, alien invasion. In Ender's Game, a sadistic battle school recruits children, like 6-year-old Andrew "Ender" Wiggin, whose skills might ward off the next attack. In these worlds, children are reluctant heroes, even more reluctant saviors, and ultimately scapegoats—which complicates the idea that young readers enjoy the stories because they like seeing fellow children and teenagers save the world. Adults use Katniss as a pawn in their fight to control the country throughout the Hunger Games trilogy; the army manipulates Ender to achieve its own goals.
Indeed, the appeal of these stories may lie partly in their counterintuitive reverence for childlike innocence. In a poignant scene in Card's book, Ender's platoon leader Dink admits that he had to look up the word children in a library archive: "I've got a pretty good idea what children are, and we're not children. Children can lose sometimes and nobody cares. Children aren't in armies, they aren't commanders, they don't rule over 40 other kids. . . . We really are trying to be adults." Card has said his story is ultimately about "a child, our ultimate icon of vulnerability, put under almost impossible stress." Some theorize that perhaps the real reason children devour these books is to see their own vulnerability reflected and affirmed.
Faith Creeps In
In one sense, dystopian books are the very opposite of religious texts. True dystopias, they portray a world without the slightest consolation of faith. And yet faith creeps in all the same. Amid strongly encouraged secularism, Ender's parents secretly baptize their children, name them after saints, and read Scripture to them. But religion in these books is a distant and secret memory. When Ender's friend Alai kisses his cheek and says, Salaam, a word Ender has never heard, Ender remembers his mother praying over him when she thought he was asleep. Ender sees their gestures as "a gift so sacred that even Ender could not be allowed to understand what it meant."
The very bleakness of the books—both their premises and their sober, near-tragic endings—suggests that in the end, both heroes and readers need something bigger than themselves. They raise the question of whether a world without God is bearable.
And their worlds are, after all, not so distant from our own. In the film version of The Hunger Games, armed guards surround the children waiting for the lottery on the platform. The silent, tense scene, down to 1940s-style hair and clothing, recalls a time when families and children were sent to death camps in a world all too much our own. When we dismiss dystopian stories as farfetched or inappropriate, we forget that human beings are indeed capable of standing by silently while others suffer, sacrificing even children for some alleged greater purpose.
As children, my sister and I had a book of illustrated Bible stories. It was filled not with cute cartoons or gentle watercolors but with horrifying images: Abel's smashed head oozing thick blood among the rocks; panicked men and women looking in horror at the tethered Samson as he smashed the temple walls; a guard holding a naked baby by the heel in one hand with a sharp sword in the other, awaiting Solomon's instructions.
We disliked the pictures, but they made it clear that the Bible was serious business. It wasn't about spooning us feel-good bedtime stories. The Bible would teach us hard lessons. It would warn us about the wages of jealousy and pride and lies. And it would teach us how to avoid toying with those temptations.
When all else is twisted in these dystopias, love remains. Katniss and her sister Prim. Ender and his sister Valentine. To save their beloved sisters, Katniss and Ender fight and suffer and survive for them. In another contemporary and controversial dystopia, Lois Lowry's Newbery winner The Giver, the young protagonist Jonas catches a glimpse of hope if love did exist: "Things could be different. I don't know how, but there must be some way for things to be different." In the subsequent books of the Giver Quartet, love overcomes evil again and again, crumbling the dystopia and building a better world.
Ender's memory of his mother's secret prayer is "a memory of holiness," the book tells us, "of how his mother loved him when she thought that no one, not even he, could see or hear."
Even dystopias, at least the best ones, keep alive the memory of that kind of holiness, and love.
Elissa Cooper is an assistant editor at CT. She is earning a master's degree in library and information science at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
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