Alice is back for the next installment of her mini-series exploring the rise and fall of the YA dystopia. (2/3)
Reminisce with me again, it’s 2016, Trump has just gotten elected, the Brexit results are in, and no one cares about the cancellation of a straight-to-video Divergent finale. The age of YA dystopia is over.
Just like Meyer’s Twilight ignited an obsession with Vampires and other hot, mythical-creature-high-schoolers, which eventually ran its course (remember ‘Vampire Diaries’, ‘Teen Wolf’, ‘Vampire Academy’, ‘Mortal Instruments’?) Dystopia inevitably had to move aside.
But where did it all go wrong? How did we move from ‘Catching Fire’ to burning out? So, Collin’s work had marked a significant change in a genre, and once ‘The Hunger Games’ smashed the box-office, it was clear that this was the new big thing. And it’s possible that, through this, Collin’s inspired the globe. Maybe she’d riled up a new generation of writers into making important, angry art just like hers. Maybe. Or maybe they just hopped on a trend to make a few bucks; either way, it was time for others to tap into this success.
I remember going into school itching to discuss the hot new novel hitting the bookshelves, the soon-to-be sequels, the alleged spin-offs and the rumoured film adaptations. We were desperate to get our hands on anything that reminded us of the Games, whether it was ‘Gone’, or ‘The Host’, ‘Shatter Me’ or ‘Uglies’, ‘The Maze Runner’ or ‘The 5th Wave’, ‘Legend’—
And I could definitely go on, but perhaps the most famous of these copycats was Veronica Roth’s Divergent series which, in my opinion, was the beginning of a very pitiful end.
From the Cookie Cutter
In essence, The Hunger Games and Divergent follow a very similar recipe: the protagonist is a strong, skilled and angry teenage girl who leaves her home and family and ends up leading an underground section of society no one believed was a threat. So why is The Hunger Games revolutionary whilst Divergent falls short?
Is it because Roth loved The Hunger Games and wanted to write something of her own during winter break (yes, she wrote Divergent in three weeks), which then ended up doing well, so she expanded it into two more books despite the lack of substance the concept had to begin with?
Perhaps. But I think it goes deeper.
Previously I argued that hope and speculation were essential to the genre; dystopia works by way of a failed road to perfection, taking reality to an extreme. Yet, where’s the reality in Divergent?
Protagonist Tris lives in a society that teenagers must choose which house—I mean district, no, faction— to spend the rest of their lives in. They are encouraged to choose based on a test that determines which there most dominant trait is. But, surprise, surprise, Tris doesn’t just fit into one faction; she is multi-dimensional (divergent.) She ultimately chooses the brave house, Gryffindor— wait, Dauntless—because she’s tough, strong and angry (read: she’s cool.) Regardless of the retconning later in the series making this core plot irrelevant, what issue in society is this meant to replicate? That we’re often labelled without our consent, forced to conform? Maybe this is a valid interpretation, but this isn’t what Divergent reflects from society today.
Rather, it echoes the misunderstanding of YA Dystopia’s core. Perhaps I’m being too harsh; truth is I loved the Divergent series, and it’s a bit rich to suggest that Veronica Roth destroyed a genre single-handed. I’m just saying the series indicates what went wrong— at the end of the day, she’s the millionaire.
Lost in Translation
In The Hunger Games, Katniss never wanted to lead a rebellion— she just wanted to save Primrose and Peeta. She was manipulated into being the Mockingjay. And ultimately, it isn’t Katniss who saves the day; her plan fails, and the rest of the rebellion takes charge. Collins recognised that it takes much more than one person to make change. This isn’t some ‘chosen one’, ‘I’m special’ narrative, it’s a three-dimensional world that focuses on more than one character and her love-interest(s).
The storyline where Katniss faces a choice between Peeta or Gale isn’t some Edward-Jacob-love-triangle; the choice she must make is about what they represent. Both are a symbol for Katniss and the conflict within her. The fight between wanting her life back in 12 verses who she has become. Peeta and Gale represent two elements of herself that can’t exist together, so she must either go forward and accept her trauma or look back at what she knew. It was never about who you fancied more.
Funnily enough, media and publishing companies didn’t catch this nuance. Instead, The Hunger Games success was reduced to tropes— an average-but-attractive, angry girl from a disadvantaged background pushing back against an unfair system (with a healthy portion of angsty teenage romance mixed in along the way.)
This is where the irony lies— media of the real world followed Capitol’s example, they focussed on a love-story rather than the oppressive regime. This misinterpretation of Collins’ work was ultimately a recipe for disaster, causing the downfall of a thriving genre. And, by the time Roth had done anything new with the series, nobody cared—dystopia was dead.
Running at Full Capacity
So, when the final instalment of ‘Divergent’ got cancelled, it was clear the hype was over. The market had been so oversaturated, stuffing us with every last ounce of angsty teenage drama there was that we were running at full capacity. Burn-out was inevitable.
This simplistic formula had been replicated so many times that it diluted what dystopia really meant. Whilst YA Dystopia began as a commentary on society and government, these newer stories simply didn’t challenge the consumer in meaningful ways. They were just wasted opportunities. In the end, the audience was no longer itching for more; we were bored, disillusioned and ready for something else.