What Happened to the Dystopian Movie Genre?

The dystopian movie genre, though once culture-defining, has all but faded out. Why don’t movies and adaptations like “Divergent” exist anymore?

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It’s been 9 years since the movie adaptation of Veronica Roth’s Divergent came out in 2014. By the end of that year, three other dystopian classics broke the box office, including The Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part 1, The Maze Runner, and The Giver. Yet in recent years, the production of dystopian movies has slowed tremendously.

What used to be a culture-defining genre has all but faded out. Why does it barely exist anymore?

Dystopian films are characterized by imagined states or societies plagued by suffering and injustice. This can include environmental disasters, totalitarian governments, corrupted mega-corporations, and other abysmal futures. Though typically bleak, rife with censorship, and even dehumanizing, these fictional societies aren’t so far out of the realm of possibility.

In the world of Divergent, compulsion serums are used to control rogue civilians.

There’s no shortage of dystopian classics, like Blade Runner, The Matrix, A Clockwork Orange, or Mad Max—many of which are now considered cult films—but the dystopian genre undeniably peaked with the rise of dystopian young adult literature in the 2010s. However, within the next decade, the dystopian movie genre suddenly went silent. Here are a few reasons why.

1. Oversaturation

The sheer number of dystopian films released in the 2010s alone might be the most obvious cause. Each film—most based on books—shared common tropes and character types that led made them feel predictable and repetitive. For example, The Hunger Games, Divergent, and Maze Runner series can all be summarized as a group of pretty teens rebelling against a totalitarian government whilst simultaneously navigating love triangles. Other common tropes, like “the Chosen One” character,” missing or dead parents, fan-favorite character deaths, and lack of ethnic representation also led these films to feel like inverted images of each other.

The cast of the Maze Runner stands in a group, watching for threats.

2. Too small target audiences

Dystopian films aren’t meant for mainstream audiences. By depicting bleak not-too-far-off futures, they can be disheartening, depressing, or simply too cerebral for anyone looking for a lighthearted action adventure. For a while, young adult book adaptations provided built-in target audiences who had read the books and desperately wanted to see them in live action. However, when dystopian literature began to die out, so did the potential for wide-reaching dystopian movies.

3. Catastrophic expenses

To recreate Veronica Roth’s fictional universe, the film budget for Divergent was $85 million, which comes in at just over the average movie budget of $75 million. Despite being costly, Divergent ultimately reported an impressive $288 million at the box office. However, the third installation in the film series, Allegiant, had an estimated budget of $110 million and barely broke even with box office sales of only $179 million. As technology and set design have improved, the cost to make immersive dystopian worlds has only grown. In comparison, superhero and adventure films typically cost less to make and attract larger audiences; understandably, movie executives feel less compelled to pour millions into dystopian feature films.

A group of rebels from the Divergent series.

4. They feel dated

In our current world of constant turmoil, teenage rebellion against fictional foes feels outdated and hollow. Most young adult dystopian books and films focus on the hero model, where a single teenage character (often the “chosen one”) single-handedly sparks a rebellion and overthrows global oppressors. This model, while intended to be empowering for young adults, fails to fit our social understanding of change—it discredits the real groups of young adults engaging in collective action for social change. Furthermore, in reality, inequality and oppression are driven by mass institutions, not single villains who can easily be brought down by a well-aimed arrow or quickly arranged rebellion.

Katniss Everdeen stands among a crowd of children in the dystopian city-state of District 12.

While these factors have greatly reduced the prominence of dystopian films in contemporary culture, the genre is not wiped out entirely. In order for dystopian media or literature to find success in the modern age, it has to adapt to fit our modern understanding of political oppression, technical and environmental threats, and social injustice.

One successful example was the 2021 adaptation of Dune. Based on the 1965 sci-fi epic novel by Frank Herbert, the recent adaptation highlights relevant threats to our own world. In Dune‘s fictional universe, water shortages, overpopulation, and mining of non-renewable “spice” affect and shape both the land and social order. These environmentalist themes relate to real-life issues of scarcity of finite resources like water, petroleum, and electricity. Furthermore, the 2021 adaptation only covered half of the original novel, allowing for a more in-depth depiction of the fantasy world, cast of characters, and central plight.

Paul, the protagonist of Dune, stands amid a dystopian world of sand and rock.

Black Mirror, the Netflix series initially launched in 2011, is one of the most successful dystopian shows of recent years. Unlike most dystopian narratives, Black Mirror casts hostile and invasive technological advancements as the main character. Since the evolution of technology is a looming threat in the near future, Black Mirror resonates with contemporary audiences while simultaneously providing entertainment. Each episode is independent and unique and delves into each theoretical world much further than the shallow scope of teenage love triangles.

While the overdone formula of rebellious teenagers, unrequited love, and tyrannical governments may never regain its popularity, there is a future for dystopian films. For more dystopian book recommendations, click here.