Teen Dystopia: How a Sensational Genre Fizzled Out

In a genre filled with captivating worlds, teen rebellion, and desperate survival, its market success was inevitable. So why isn’t it still as popular today?

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Amidst a sea of literary trends, few have captured the imagination of readers and writers alike as profoundly as the teen dystopia genre. From the gripping trials of survival in The Hunger Games to the social-class commentary of Divergent, the genre surged to prominence, offering young audiences a taste of both thrilling adventures and stark reflections on society’s potential dark paths. However, in recent years, the once-dominant teen dystopia genre has experienced a notable decline in popularity and influence. Let’s explore the rise, peak, and eventual decline of teen dystopia, shedding light on the factors that contributed to its fading allure.

The Beginning of Dystopia

The dystopian genre was already well-known to most book audiences. It emerged at the turn of the 20th century in a time of political unrest and global anxiety, with two world wars on the horizon. Speculative authors had begun publishing works of nearly prophetic fiction that spoke to the public’s growing fears and utter exhaustion.

George Orwell 1984 book cover with red eye that holds cameras in this pupil.

The genre itself was solidified with the publication of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We in 1921. In this science fiction novel, Zamyatin predicted the horrors of Stalinism. Zamyatin would set the standard for other dystopian novels down the line, such as George Orwell’s 1984 and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, among so many others. These stories blended messages of hope and warning that resonated with audiences at the time.

The Rise and Popularity of Teen Dystopia

The dystopian genre had been primarily adult at that point. However, the late 2000s and early 2010s witnessed a boom in teen dystopian fiction. Like her processors, Suzanne Collins set the standard for this subset of dystopian fiction. In 2008, Collins published The Hunger Games, which introduced readers to a dystopian world where the ruling Capitol forces children from each district to participate in a televised death match.

Suzanne Collins Hunger Games cover with mockingjay pin.

At the time, this concept was unique to readers, particularly young adults who were just starting to immerse themselves in Young Adult (YA) literature. Of course, despite the target demographic, this series drew in readers of all ages to come and engage in the tale. Collins did not shy away from exploring complex themes such as government control, class disparity, surveillance, and the consequences of unchecked power. These themes resonated deeply with readers who were grappling with social and political issues.

The series’ strong protagonist will also never be forgotten. It follows Katniss Everdeen, a skilled and resourceful young woman who becomes an emblematic figure of strength and resilience. Her journey from a reluctant participant in the Games to a symbol of rebellion resonated with readers, particularly young girls who found a relatable and inspiring heroine in Katniss. Collins did not hesitate to display the flaws in her heroine, which created a sympathetic and realistic teenage girl just trying to survive.

Why Teen Dystopia Struck a Chord

Veronica Roth’s Divergent and James Dashner’s The Maze Runner captivated readers with their similarly enthralling plots set in bleak and often nightmarish futures. These stories also followed young protagonists navigating oppressive regimes, brutal challenges, and moral dilemmas. Readers, both young and old, gravitated accordingly to these new additions to the dystopian legacy. At the heart of teen dystopia’s appeal was its ability to reflect the anxieties and uncertainties of the real world through a speculative and youthful lens.

Two people wearing gas masks and survival gear

These novels often explored themes of government control, loss of personal freedoms, class disparities, and the consequences of unchecked power. Young readers found themselves drawn to these narratives as they echoed their concerns about the future, identity, and the role of authority in their lives. Seeing these displays of teen rebellion offered a glimmer of hope for young readers who felt like their voices weren’t being heard in a chaotic world. The presence of these young, willful protagonists mirrored the challenges of adolescence, making the genre a powerful platform for introspection and discussion.

The Cinematic Blockbusters and Their Influence

The success of teen dystopian novels translated seamlessly to the silver screen, further amplifying the genre’s popularity. Film adaptations of these series garnered massive box office returns and solidified the genre’s place in mainstream entertainment. The visual portrayal of these dystopian worlds, along with charismatic young actors in the lead roles, helped to maintain the momentum and expand the fan base.

Kaya Scodelario as Teresa and Dylan O'Brien as Thomas in Maze Runner film

These film adaptations also had the power to visually transport audiences into the often bleak and oppressive worlds depicted in dystopian novels. The visual medium allows for a more immersive experience, where viewers can see the architecture, clothing, technology, and societal structures of these fictional futures. This visual representation enhances the impact of the dystopian setting and helps audiences engage more deeply with the story’s themes. The visual cues from movies often find their way into the descriptions within novels, creating a symbiotic relationship between the two mediums.

In this day and age, films have a broader reach and can introduce dystopian concepts to a wider audience. People who might not normally pick up a dystopian novel might be drawn to the genre through these visually stimulating films. This has helped bring dystopian themes and discussions to the forefront of popular culture.

Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen in Mockingjay film

There is often a degree of reinterpretation involved as well. Filmmakers make choices about which elements of the book to emphasize, which themes to highlight, and how to present the dystopian world visually. These adaptations can sometimes introduce new perspectives on the source material, adding layers to the overall understanding of the genre.

The Decline of Teen Dystopia

With commercial success comes the inevitable rise in imitations. The enormous success of early teen dystopian novels led to publishers and writers attempting to capitalize on the trend. As a result, many authors felt pressure to create stories that followed similar formulas and themes. Many of these novels would follow a formulaic structure: a young protagonist discovers the flaws of a dystopian society, becomes involved in a rebellion, and takes on a leadership role.

Theo James as Four and Shailene Woodley as Tris in the Divergent film.

This lack of fresh perspectives also included a lack of diversity, with most novels centering around white protagonists in predominantly white societies. While people of color may appear within the pages of these stories, they are still limited to being side characters who serve their purpose as mere plot progression. A critic from Vulture wrote on this phenomenon of the limited viewpoints present in a genre that prides itself on offering an opposing perspective to social norms. These teen rebellions were being led by the same faces, which made the fight for justice appear limited. Ultimately, teen dystopia has glazed over the topic of race, a pivotal aspect of the topic of social revolution.

Readers have also addressed their disdain for the romances in dystopian novels. Quite a few will place significant emphasis on romantic subplots, which is usually to their own detriment. While romance can enhance a story, an excessive focus on it at the expense of other themes and character development contributed to the genre’s repetitive nature. Romances would fall flat, typically because one or both characters were far too bland for readers to resonate with their love story. The Hunger Games had received its fair share of criticism for the love triangle that persisted through all three novels. With the genre reaching its peak and fall (and unnecessary romances staying strong), readers were bound to grow frustrated.

Chloe Grace Moretz as Cassie and Alex Roe as Evan in The 5th Wave film

Additionally, societal shifts played a role in the genre’s decline. As the world grappled with new challenges and uncertainties, such as global pandemics, environmental concerns, and rapid technological changes, the dystopian settings of these novels began to feel less distant from reality. This blurring of lines between fiction and reality diminished the escapism that had initially attracted readers to the genre.

The Legacy of Teen Dystopia

While the peak of teen dystopia may have passed, its impact on literature and pop culture remains undeniable. The genre sparked conversations about societal issues, encouraged critical thinking, and inspired young readers to engage with complex themes. It served as a mirror to the anxieties and aspirations of its time, leaving an indelible mark on the literary landscape.

As the literary world continues to evolve, the rise and fall of teen dystopia serves as a reminder of the cyclical nature of trends. Just as the genre emerged during a specific cultural moment, its decline illustrates the need for innovation and adaptability to meet changing tastes and capture the imaginations of new generations. Teen dystopia may have fizzled out, but its legacy endures, urging us to explore new frontiers of storytelling that resonate with the concerns of today’s youth.

For a closer look at the impact of The Hunger Games and its dystopian ideology, click here!