Ever since George Orwell penned Nineteen Eighty-Four — his none-too-cheerful response to Stalinist communism — his name has forever been linked with a certain style of narrative. A corrupt police state, invasive cameras, perpetual war — all part of his dark imagining of the near future. But not everyone may realise that these spine-chilling visions have a name; not only that, but they’re a recognised cinematic genre.
A dystopia (“bad place” if you know your Ancient Greek) is a fictional society in which life has taken a turn for the worse — the opposite of a utopia, or “good place”. In contrast to a utopia, which celebrates individual freedom and wellbeing, a dystopia is poverty-stricken, subjugated and dehumanised. This sorry state of affairs is usually the botched result of mankind trying and failing to create the perfect society. Global warming, nuclear holocaust, religious fanaticism, animal testing and rampant technological advancements have all been responsible for one dystopia or another. But the question is: why are they so popular?
Dystopia is a genre on the rise. The Orwellian dystopia was being mimicked within decades of its publication — think Logan’s Run, Alphaville and Sleeper. But the genre has developed at an extraordinary rate since the seventies. The cultural preoccupations of the left have been reflected repeatedly in cinema over the last century, playing on our fears of greed, of capitalism, of violent imperialism. The Iraq War alone spawned two foreboding visions of Britain: The Children of Men, and of course, Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta. The latter, a graphic novel-turned-film, has become so engrained in popular culture that the mask worn by its anti-hero has become one of the most ordered items on Amazon. These smirking masks are still being worn at the Occupy London demonstrations today.
So where does dystopia stand today? With Contagion having passed, we’re already hurtling towards our next dose of doom-and-gloom: In Time, the dystopia in which the average man (if you can call J. T. ‘the average man”) has a daily fight for life on his hands. And next year — the year the Mayan calendar stops for good — will see The Hunger Games brought to the silver screen. If you haven’t already hopped on the bandwagon, the Hunger Games trilogy is a vision of a post-apocalyptic North America where kids are chosen by lottery to slaughter each other on live TV. Sounds grim, doesn’t it? But following the phenomenal success of the book series, Lionsgate were quick to snap up the screenplay. Alli Shearmur, President for Motion Picture Production at Lionsgate, commented: “This is exactly the kind of movie I came to Lionsgate to make: youthful, exciting, smart and edgy. We are looking forward to working with Nina [Jacobson, producer] and Suzanne [Collins, author] to create a movie that satisfies audience’s hunger for high-quality entertainment”.
But as much as I’m looking forward to The Hunger Games, there is something deeply troubling about Shearmur’s choice of words. Why is it that child murder, a subject which ought to repel us, is constituted as “high-quality entertainment” in a dystopian setting? Why do we “hunger” for violence, poverty and terror? Is it a symptom of societal sadism, or appreciation for a gritty screenplay? Don’t get me wrong — as the author of a half-finished dystopian novel, I’m as guilty as anyone of enjoying a bit of international misery. Let’s face it: there is something addictive about the struggle for integrity and survival that comes with a well-acted dystopia. You feel for the characters because some small part of you believes that one day, this could actually be you. That is, if we don’t start recycling and respecting one another, and don’t stop testing our lipstick on rabbits and monkeys.
“There is, of course, every reason to view the next century with fear,” a New York Times reviewer wrote in 1976. And as the rare visions of utopia we see on the big screen nowadays are all rather like Avatar — pretty but intolerably brainless — I think they were absolutely right.