Nearly a decade ago, my friends and I spent hours in line at our local movie theater so we could see “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 2” on opening night (because the novel idea of reserving seats did not exist). We stood below umbrellas in the Portland rain until the theater let us wait inside. Then we stood for a little longer, until our feet hurt, and we retired to sitting on the crumb-coated theater floor and played cards to cope with the boredom.
It was 2015: aka peak young adult dystopian books and movies era. Everyone and their mother was wearing Chelsea boots, “Hello” by Adele was played incessantly, we desperately wanted to know what Kim Kardashian and Kanye West would name their second child — and we could not get enough of teen dystopian stories.
Like any massive trend, teen dystopian plots that once dominated pop culture fell out of favor. And eventually, we sort of forgot about them (at least I did).
‘The Hunger Games’ comeback
This weekend I was visited by a blast from the past. Nearly half a dozen of my friends raised discussions about Peeta, Katniss and Gale. Even TikTok was enthralled by these previously-popular characters. Why were we talking about “Hunger Games” again? Were people going to start using the line “I volunteer as tribute” again? (I hope not).
On March 1, Netflix announced that it would release all four of the “Hunger Games” movies to the streaming platform — but only for a month.
“The Hunger Games was released 11 years ago this month, so to celebrate, all four films will be on Netflix for the next 31 days!” Netflix wrote on Twitter. “May the odds be ever in your favor!”
The movies took off. For three consecutive weeks, the dystopian series has lived in Netflix’s top 10 movies list. And fans have less than a week left to binge the four-part series before it leaves the streaming platform.
This “Hunger Games” comeback cracked open the teen dystopian vault — and now we have no choice but to take a look back at the stories that defined millennial and Gen Z adolescence.
What is a young adult dystopia?
Many people credit Lois Lowry’s 1993 novel “The Giver” as being the first young adult dystopian story. Lowry claims her novel was inspired by dystopian stories that came first — but she was the first author to center a dystopian story on teens — and it sparked a movement.
“People in the know say “The Giver’ was the first young adult dystopian novel. I majored in English in college so I read the classic dystopian novels like ‘1984’ and ‘Brave New World.’ But apparently it hadn’t been done for kids before ‘The Giver,’” Lowry told Variety.
Dystopian stories written for young adults are set in tumultuous societies (typically set in the future) where there is great suffering or injustice. Members of these communities are typically under the illusion that they live in a utopia.
The main characters play a role in bringing down the oppressive hierarchy — usually in an adult vs youth battle. Most of the stories begin as written trilogies before making it to the big screen.
What happened to young adult dystopian books?
The popularity of young adult dystopian books peaked circa 2012. A couple years later, dystopian movies had their moment in the spotlight — in 2014, four young adult dystopian movies came to theaters: “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 2,” “The Maze Runner,” “Divergent” and “The Giver.” But the high didn’t last. Just as suddenly as dystopian stories rose to popularity, they nosedived.
While reading dystopian fiction, “teenagers see echoes of a world that they know,” explained Jon Ostenson, who studies young adult dystopian literature at Brigham Young University, per NPR.
“The hallmark of moving from childhood to adulthood is that you start to recognize that things aren’t black and white,” Ostenson explained, per NPR, “and there’s a whole bunch of ethical grey area out there.”
Despite connections between adolescence struggles and YA dystopian fiction, the fad didn’t last. Dystopian stories never evolved. Once the tyrannical leaders were brought down (usually over the span of three novels/movies) the story was over. What happened next never got explored and the audience eventually got bored.
Compared to the rest of their trilogies, “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 2” and “Allegiant” (the third and final movie in the “Divergent” series) raked in the least amount of money at the box office. “Divergent” made $228 million in worldwide box office sales, while “Allegiant” made $179 million.
Bashirat Oladele with Polygon theorized that “the simplicity of stories where one brave young person stops a monster and revolutionizes a society quickly started to feel like simplistic fantasy” because “these dystopian fantasies avoided reality was by avoiding the real and relatable issues that teenagers face.”
No matter the reason, the fad came to a screeching halt and YA dystopian stories are relatively unheard of these days.
A ranking of young adult dystopian movies
Lets take a look at the five most popular dystopian books-turned-movies. Here is a ranking of the five era-defining young adult dystopian stories.
If you have made it this far into the story, I assume you’ve seen these movies or read the books. But if you haven’t, consider this to be your spoiler warning.
1. ‘The Hunger Games’
All hail “The Hunger Games.” It has all the elements necessary for an entertaining story: relatable characters, messy romance, crafty villains and thrilling adventure.
The love triangle between Katniss, Peeta and Gale was captivating enough alone to keep audiences interested in the story. But themes such as poverty, violence, manipulation, reality television and wealth give the story depth beyond its overarching theme of dystopia.
Author: Suzanne Collins.
Trilogy titles: “The Hunger Games,” “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay.”
2. ‘The Giver’
As the original young adult dystopian book, “The Giver” deserves a decent amount of praise. The short 240-page novel sparked the dystopian book mania — and for good reason.
The story centers on Jonas, a 12-year old resident of a utopian who discovers the idyllic society is dystopian and plans his escape. “The Giver” explores themes of agency, memory, individuality and control.
Unlike the rest of the books on this list, Lowry ends “The Giver” on a cliffhanger and doesn’t look to tie up loose ends with further installments — a move that actually makes the story more powerful.
Author: Lois Lowry.
3. ‘The Maze Runner’
The first “Maze Runner” story is a close second to “The Hunger Games.” But the series goes further downhill with each installment. “The Scorch Trial” keeps things interesting, but by “The Death Cure” the story is convoluted and dry.
“Maze Runner’s” high points include: charming characters, shocking twists and adventure that keeps audiences on the edge of their seat.
But the number of unnecessary deaths grew old and felt like a cheap way to add depth to the story. By the final pages (minutes) of the story, the thrill of the first installment was gone and waiting for the characters to reach their safe oasis was frustrating.
Author: James Dashner.
Trilogy titles: “The Maze Runner,” “Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials,” “Maze Runner: The Death Cure.”
“Divergent” is set in a post-apocalyptic dystopian Chicago where characters are divided into five different factions. It was fun, somewhat-unique and explosive. The energy kept up for most of the trilogy, but the ending caused major upset among readers.
But its controversial ending created friction amongst fans. “Here is a golden tip for any aspiring writers: DO NOT KILL THE NARRATING CHARACTER OFF ATT THE VERY END OF A TRILOGY THAT READERS HAVE SPENT AN ENTIRE YEAR OF THEIR LIVES READING” one reader shared on Goodreads.
Author: Veronica Roth.
Trilogy titles: “Divergent,” “Insurgent,” “Allegiant”
5. ‘The 5th Wave’
“The 5th Wave” is set mid-apocalypse — which is interesting at first, until the waves of alien invasion becomes nonsensical and cringeworthy.
The movie did no favors for the book, either. It goes from thrilling to “this isn’t supposed to be funny but I’m laughing at it” due to the over-the-top drama and bad acting.
For what it’s worth, “The 5th Wave” had a lot of potential, but not enough to drag the story on for three books.
Author: Rick Yancey.
Trilogy titles: “The 5th Wave,” “The Infinite Sea,” “The Last Star.”