Decoding dystopian politics in literature

What “Twilight” did for the supernatural, “The Hunger Games” did for dystopia. And it has been gaining steam ever since. With two more young adult dystopian adaptations in progress, “Divergent” and “Matched,” the genre is poised to convert those who haven’t yet jumped aboard the dreary alternate future bandwagon.

The term “dystopia” is literally the opposite of utopia, defined by the World English Dictionary as “an imaginary place where everything is as bad as it can be.”

It’s not hard to understand why the genre appeals to today’s youth. With struggling economies, mass shootings and tensions among the U.S., Israel, and Iran, dystopian bleakness is relatable. Young characters actively participate in world affairs and provide vicarious empowerment for those in a society with high unemployment rates and political mudslinging.

Yet there has been a lot of talk of real youth refusing to participate in world affairs by not voting. There has been a lot of talk of youth — if they do vote — voting more left than right. Dystopian worlds tend to be cautionary tales of government run amok, controlling the most basic aspects of life.

Katniss Everdeen’s Capitol decides which children live or die. The synopsis for “Matched” claims, “Officials decide. Who you love. Where you work. When you die.” For tales targeting supposedly apathetic, liberal readers, dystopian literature seems to warn of government interference, a decidedly conservative viewpoint.

Several critics appropriated “The Hunger Games” as a story for the Occupy generation due to its gap between the wealthy and the poor. The reality, however, is much more complicated. Acknowledging the Occupy possibility, Film.com critic Laremy Legel tossed around ideas for the film’s moral before concluding, “Perhaps it’s about African genocide or the Iraq War, infomercials or maybe nothing at all.”

We can read into a genre and possibly find whatever we want. Mass media tends to thrive on playing both sides. Nonetheless, as a conservative, I find using dystopian stories to encourage notions of class warfare too simple. These tales’ essential warnings worry about abuse of powerful institutions, the basis of conservative ideas.

Indeed, dystopia’s appeal is its brand of rebellion, the willingness to give up what is known and secure for the sake of independence. Meanwhile, real young adults, confronted with an uncertain future, understandably side with political ideas favoring security over independence.

Even if you disagree and view “The Hunger Games” and its upcoming cinematic counterparts as left instead of right, I encourage you to sincerely think about the precise role of the government and institutions in these stories.

Even the richest inhabitants of Panem’s Capitol are subjected to propaganda, monitored and unable to voice dissent. Having everything doesn’t equal freedom if the price of that wealth is surrendering control of your life. Even these exaggerated, fictional circumstances have practical applications to how we view our own politics.

With at least three dystopian adaptations gearing up for production, let’s resist the urge to oversimplify or to simply live vicariously through the protagonists. Let’s think more critically about how they reveal instinctive concerns regarding government involvement.

Don’t just read about heroes and heroines questioning the government’s role in their lives, but become a hero or heroine yourself, trying to answer those questions and then acting on them.

 

Reach the columnist at esther.drown@asu.edu or follow the columnist at @EMDrown