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What Hollywood Got Wrong (And Right) About Dystopia

I think it’s safe to say that at this moment, we are living in a pretty scary time. Now I know a lot of people could say that during a lot of different times, but 2020 really is special. A pandemic. A harshly divided civil rights movement. An election that could potentially change everything for our nation. And that’s not including our everyday worries ranging from online hacking to nuclear threats to basic human fears like I don’t know, a bear attack or something. Anyway, all I’m saying is, 2020 has not been easy. If anything, we’re almost living in our own sort of…dystopia. Cue, the Hunger Games whistle!

Dystopia is one of those topics that has pervaded our society for a long time now; a futuristic world where, basically, everything is terrible (and evilly corrupt). The list goes on and on for novels: “1984”, “A Brave New World”, “Fahrenheit 451”, “A Handmaid’s Tale”, etc. For movies we have end-of-the-world films like “The Day After Tomorrow” or disaster films like the 2020 classic, “Contagion.” And of course, in TV we have series like “The Society” or “The 100.”

For me, one example of dystopian content that comes immediately to mind is the barrage of films that came out in the 2010s. Think “The Hunger Games” and “Divergent.” Upon release, these movies ignited a love among young people for stories in which the world has completely lost its marbles and the only ones who can bring down the corrupt evildoers are a bunch of scrappy teenagers. Such movies made us wonder what really would happen in the future. Would we eventually leave our familiar world behind for a seriously damaged, violent society? At first glance, the answer is no. America 2020 is nothing like Panem. But if you look closer, the two converge more than you would think. 

 First and foremost, let’s look at the similarities. These two films have a few distinct themes going that America might be able to relate to. Inequality. Classism. Prejudice against minority groups. Violence. Corrupt governments. Rebellion. No pandemic, but we can’t have it all. Suffice it to say though, you might see for yourself the parallels our society has with classic dystopian movies, especially the themes of rebellion. Just take a look around your neighborhood or peruse your social media feeds. How many signs do you see urging you to vote or angry Twitter posts about yet another BIPOC unjustly killed? The uprising is all around us, even if it’s not the physical one we see on The Silver Screen. 

So with these striking similarities, why does it feel so wrong to say that we are living in a real dystopia? I think maybe it’s because what Hollywood has taught us through film isn’t exactly the “perfect field guide” to the end of the world. 

Let’s look at some differences between them and us. How many people do you know donning their father’s old hunting jacket along with wool tunics and hefty hunting pants? Do you tend to dress all in loose gray or an eye-catching all-black ensemble to match your super cool tattoos? No! It’s 2020! We’re wearing Vans and Nike Leggings and chunky sweaters. We dye our hair crazy colors or wear ballet flats every day. Each person you pass on the street looks just a little bit different. “The Hunger Games” doesn’t have that. And entertainment-wise, these dystopias definitely have some cool tech, but nothing close to what we’re familiar with. Sure, Tris can enter a simulation showing her worst fears, but can she scroll through Tik Tok for hours? Can she get into fights on Facebook with middle-aged people? No, she can’t.

I’m going off on a tangent, so let me rein it in. Let’s get clear. The primary difference between Hollywood dystopia and our world is that we are real. While these films create dense, dark worlds that we only get a brief glimpse of, American society has been creating history and popular culture and a sense of identity for centuries, so much so that we learn it in school and know it like the backs of our hands. Of course we think Panem isn’t like America because we don’t know how they got to where they are. We don’t see them as real people, people like us. Plus, wouldn’t you think that it would be impossible that Americans could let our world fall into such disarray as Panem? Maybe that was once the case but in 2020, everything is up in the air. 

So yes, we think that despite the pandemic and the corruption and everything else we aren’t living in a dystopia because our world seems so much different than “The Hunger Games” and “Divergent.” But it’s not. We might have made it through the year 1984, but we still aren’t perfect. Far from it. And these stories aren’t meant to simply entertain, or at least we shouldn’t let them be just that. They should fuel the fire that has already been sparked this year. Things in this world need to change. So let’s do it.

Megan Hemenway is a sophomore at Endicott College, studying Communications with a minor in Creative Writing. Originally from Woburn, Massachusetts, Megan loves reading and writing. In the future, she hopes to be able to continue writing, specifically about entertainment or lifestyle. In her free time, Megan loves hanging out with her family and of course, her two dogs.
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