The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins consists of The Hunger Games (2008), Catching Fire (2009), and Mockingjay (2010). The first two books in the series were both New York Times best sellers, and Mockingjay topped all U.S. bestseller lists upon its release.
The popularity of these young adult science fiction adventure novels has created a corresponding surge in interest in dystopian literature.
What is dystopian literature?
Dystopian literature is a genre of fictional writing used to explore social and political structures in “a dark, nightmare world.” The term dystopia is defined as a society characterized by poverty, squalor or oppression and the theme is most commonly used in science fiction and speculative fiction genres.
The most popular definition of dystopian literature is that it is anti-Utopian. The genre challenges utopia’s fundamental assumption of human perfectibility, arguing humanity’s inherent flaws negate the possibility of constructing perfect societies. Dystopian literature is deliberately written to frighten the reader.
Works of dystopian literature must walk a fine line between evoking the sensations of fear and inducing a sense of futility. By proving a completely perfect society is not possible – showing the awful results of what happens if the goal is social perfection rather than incremental social improvement – dystopia shocks the reader into accepting humanity’s flaws as ineradicable and thereby working toward a better society rather than an ideal one.
British philosopher John Stuart Mill first used the term “dystopia” as early as 1868. However, the concept did not become popular until J. Max Patrick used it in 1952 to categorize Joseph Hall’s book Mundus Alter et Idem. Dystopian literature began to evolve as a separate literary genre late in the 19th century as writers published anti-utopian letters attacking utopian works but did not turn decidedly dystopian until the 20th century. Notable works in this period included Edward Bellamy’s highly popular socialistic utopia Looking Backward (1888) and Looking Further Forward (1890), by Richard Michaelis.
Literary critic Erika Gottlieb explores the genre in her book Dystopian Fiction East and West, Universe of Terror and Trial (2001). She claims the success of dystopian literature is hinged “on the protagonist’s trial as an emblem of injustices.” It also involves a “nightmarish system” set up by the state, which is designed to destroy individual integrity.
How dystopian literature is used
Dystopian literature is often used as a literary tool to extrapolate elements of contemporary society and function as a warning against a modern trend, often the threat of oppressive regimes. Although dystopian literature is fictional, presenting grim, oppressive societies they serve a moralistic goal of preventing the horrors they illustrate. The fact it is fictitious offers scant comfort, because it is equally possible.
Professor in the Department of English at the University of Arkansas, Keith Booker explained this theory in his book The Dystopian Impulse in Modern Literature: Fiction as Social Criticism (1994). He viewed “defamiliarization” as central to dystopian works, explaining “by focusing their critiques of society on spatially or temporally distant settings, dystopian fictions provide fresh perspectives on problematic social and political practices that might otherwise be taken for granted or considered natural and inevitable.”
20th century developments
In dystopian literature, the novelist uses the text to interrogate the idyllic posture of the pre-20th century utopianism. This is due to certain events in the contemporary world, including both cold and violent wars; revolutions or totalitarianism, like Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia. This called for strong dystopian features in the literary texts produced in that period. The most famous works of dystopian 20th century fiction are Aldous Huxley’s novel Brave New World (1932) and George Orwell’s 1984 (1948).
Professor Booker believes, “In many ways, dystopian fiction has become a paradigmatic expression of the Western imagination in the 20th century.” Since the 1970’s, three interrelated trends have dominated dystopian fiction. The first is concern over technological advances progressing beyond human ability to manage them effectively, if at all.
Philip Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), which was made into the film Blade Runner in 1982. The second is an interest in post-apocalyptic dystopia, which allows the writer to sweep away the complexities of civilization and concentrate instead on small groups of survivors. This often portrays them struggling to re-create the very circumstances originally brought on apocalypse. An example of this is Alan Moore’s and David Lloyd’s V for Vendetta (1998), which presents an Orwellian post-apocalyptic England in graphic novel format.
Lastly and perhaps the most intriguing development in dystopian literature since the 1970s has been the proliferation of dystopian novels exploring gender issues. An example of this is Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1986), which focused on a patriarchal dystopia where fertile women are reduced to breeder-slaves. With the advent of the 21st century and the spectacle of disaster resonating in a society that in recent years has come to relish dystopian literature, the genre has never been more relevant.
This explains the popularity of The Hunger Games, the 2012 science fiction adventure film, which is based on Collins’ dystopian novel of the same name. It also explains the popularity of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, the 2013 film based on the second installment in the trilogy. With the upcoming releases of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 in November 21, 2014, and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 on November 20, 2015, interest in dystopian literature should continue for the foreseeable future.
What do you like most about dystopian literature, primarily The Hunger Games trilogy? Share your thoughts with us in the comments.