Dystopia in literature and movies for your research paper

For your sociology, literature or politics and government class, consider discussing the use of dystopian societies as an allegory for social change. With the popularity of young adult films like The Hunger Games, Divergent, The Giver and The Maze Runner, dystopia has never been in such vogue.

'The Giver' is a great example of dystopia in films and literature. (Credit: YouTube)

‘The Giver’ is a great example of dystopia in films and literature. (Credit: YouTube)

These films show a society with rigid rules of conduct and an oppressive government controlling their lives. Good research paper topics could be to define dystopia and show how they relate to society and government.

What is dystopia?

In literature, dystopia (meaning “bad place” in Greek) is a fictional device used to explore social and political structures in a dark, nightmare world, usually a society characterized by poverty, war, squalor or oppression. This exploration exposes humanity’s inherent flaws, which impede the construction of a perfect society. Fiction allows the writer to issue a warning against a modern trend of contemporary society.

The movie The Giver presents an idyllic society in which everyone wears white, young people are assigned their life’s career, people are drugged into passivity and everyone must speak with precision of language (no poetic license allowed). With all emotion, curiosity and dissidence removed, the people have become so ignorant that do not even realize that their euthanasia of infants and the old means they are actually killing people. Unlike the blissfully ignorant society in The Giver, the boys of The Maze Runner know that their lives are being manipulated. The members of the Glade struggle between staying where they know they are safe, and risking injury or death to run the Maze and find a way to freedom. The working class citizens of The Hunger Games are fully aware of their oppression by the few decadent rich, and a brave few engage in revolution.

Dystopia: a common literary device

Dystopian societies in literature have been around for quite a while. British philosopher John Stuart Mill first used the term “dystopia” as early as 1868, Edward Bellamy wrote about a socialistic “utopia” in Looking Backward in 1888, and Jules Verne wrote the technological dystopian, The Begum’s Fortune, in 1879.

From Literary Terms and Definitions on the Dr. Wheeler’s Website, the professor of literature at Carson-Newman University stated: “While a utopia presents readers with a place where all the citizens are happy and ruled by a virtuous, efficient, rational government, a dystopia presents readers with a world where all citizens are universally unhappy, manipulated, and repressed by a sinister, sadistic totalitarian state. This government exists at best to further its own power and at worst seeks actively to destroy its own citizens’ creativity, health, and happiness. Examples of fictional dystopias include Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, George Orwell’s 1984, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed.”

Why dystopia and young adults?

Why is the combination of young adult fiction and dystopian societies so closely linked? Patricia Kennon explained in “‘Belonging’ in Young Adult Dystopian Fiction: New Communities Created by Children,” in Papers: Explorations into Children’s Literature, September 2005: “Carrie Hintz [associate professor of English and teacher of Children’s and Young Adult Literature at Queens College in New York] argues that because of the romanticized views of Western childhood which persist in writing for young children, utopias tend to predominate in children’s literature, while a more troubling and darker atmosphere is far more common in young adult literature, where dystopian young adult fiction provides a promising vehicle to depict adolescents’ political and social awakening and their mediation with the authority of adults and inherited institutions, explore ‘the way individuals position themselves in reference to a wider collective.’”

Actress Shailene Woodley in Divergent explains her take on the role of the young adult in society: “What makes you diverge in modern-day society? How are you going to diverge from mediocrity? How can you go out of your way to change something… [Tris] diverges from mediocrity and commits herself to something she believes in,” said Woodley in the article, “Is Lionsgate’s Latest YA Pic ‘Divergent’ Enough?,” published in Variety, February 25, 2014.

For more information on dystopian societies, check out Questia’s library on Dystopia, Sociology and Politics and Government

What’s your favorite dystopian movie or book? Do you think society could eventually end up like that?

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