Since the release of The Hunger Games in 2012, dystopian cinema has enjoyed sustained interest in American culture. Popular young adult novels are being turned into blockbuster Hollywood films every few months, it seems, and with good reason: Beyond their built-in teen fan base, films like Divergent, The Giver, and The Maze Runner draw on some of adult society’s greatest fears of the moment: Is technology tearing us further apart? Will global warming destroy the planet? Will income inequality further create a world of haves and have-nots?
Critics have worried that these particular films stoke an irrational fear of technology, or a distaste for big government, but dystopian stories have long been celebrated (and used in classrooms across the country) because of their ability to push audiences to think critically about their actions.
Yet with the upcoming release of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1, poised to be the biggest film of the year, it’s just as worthwhile to consider what these films don’t seem to fear. While recent dystopias warn youth about over-reliance on computers, totalitarian rule, class warfare, pandemic panics and global warming, very few ask audiences to think deeply about sexism and racism.
Which is strange. If the United States were to truly transform into a totalitarian state, or suffer an environmental catastrophe, it's safe to say society’s deepest divisions wouldn't magically disappear overnight. These dystopian adaptations ask their young audiences to imagine that race and gender issues have been partially overcome in the future, while general human suffering has somehow increased. The results feel false, and undercut the films’ attempts to comment on the present day.
This is not to say that these movies don’t occasionally touch upon identity—both Divergent and The Hunger Games clearly have something to say about gender equity, and The Maze Runner gives boys of color some prominent roles. But none imagines a future in which racism and sexism are significant problems facing their protagonists.
For instance, in The Hunger Games films, there is diversity in the cast. District 11, the site of a brutal execution in the second film, is filled almost entirely with black inhabitants. But at the same time, the film implies that white characters like Katniss and Gale now make up the majority of the poorest district (12).
None of the primary characters seems affected by race or are racist. Instead, the film continues the old sci-fi tradition of imagining the subjugation of white people, essentially saying, "Things could get so bad that people who look like Liam Hemsworth are now at the bottom, too!"
Whenever Hollywood does get an opportunity to talk about race in one of these movies, it minimizes the subject. Characters of color like Beetee, Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), who mentored Katniss, or Christina, Tris’s best friend in Divergent (played by Kravitz’s daughter Zoe), certainly play major roles in these stories, but their race is never at issue. You might say that this is an example of admirably "colorblind" filmmaking—were it not for the fact that the audience’s perspective is always that of a white protagonist.
To an extent, the diversity of characters depends on the source material, but producers typically have some leeway in casting decisions. Suzanne Collins, in her original novel, does not explicitly describe Katniss as Anglo-Saxon (she has “olive skin”), so it’s actually the filmmakers who make the decision to default to white. In fact, Collins intentionally leaves many lead characters in the novels racially ambiguous, creating a more integrated and nuanced world.
When the first Hunger Games film decided to cast black actors in the roles of Cinna and Rue, many fans of Collins’s book (who had imagined the characters differently despite the novel’s clear description of their “dark brown” skin color) were upset, but they still went to see the film in droves. In the sequel, Jeffrey Wright was cast as Beetee, who is in fact described as having “ashen” skin by Collins.
Similarly, the recent film adaptation of The Giver, based on Lois Lowry’s beloved dystopian young adult novel, hinges on the concept of “sameness,” as it imagines a future in which those in power have decided to erase the collective memory of humanity and “protect” people from their own emotions. The result is the creation of a bland and literally colorless community (the first section of the film is presented entirely in black and white). Yet rather than using this opportunity in part to further explore how “color” operates in the real world (namely, how race relates to power), the filmmakers barely touch the subject at all, in essence promoting the very “sameness” that Lowry feared.
It seems like at some point, Hollywood would get around to telling a different kind of story. There are more than a few alternative YA dystopian books for Hollywood to pick from—including epics like Octavia Butler’s novel Parable of the Sower, which explores social and environmental devastation from a more intersectional perspective. Parable of the Sower focuses on the life of 15-year-old Lauren Olamina as she tries to survive in a country devastated by global warming and poverty.
Her primary foe is a rapidly declining society, but like in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Lauren is also up against increasingly patriarchal institutions. In a world where corporations begin to own entire cities, it’s harder for people of color to find safe housing and jobs are especially scarce for women. While marriage itself offers few real benefits anymore, interracial marriage is still a potentially dangerous choice for some characters.
Butler simultaneously confronts a myriad of oppressions and portrays her black protagonist’s success as not only the result of determination, intelligence and bravery—but also her “hyperempathy” for others and an intense belief in the concept of “change.” As Lauren says in the novel:
Embrace diversity. Unite—or be divided, robbed, ruled, killed by those who see you as prey. Embrace diversity, or be destroyed.
This is how Butler weaves a variety of issues into her narrative, without zeroing in explicitly on any one of them. And though “hyperempathy” may seem a heavy concept, consider that the current crop of blockbusters do not hesitate to show kids killing one another in the name of capitalism, violently thwarting monsters to escape the maze of adolescence, and even murdering babies.
It seems then that youth could benefit from a more honest investigation of what a world of increased oppression might really look like, or at least a more resonant reflection of the world in which they already live.