One of the biggest box office flops this year was Allegiant, the third installment of a franchise based on an extremely popular young adult novel. It will likely earn less than half than the previous movies in ticket sales and has been almost unanimously shunned by the critics at Rotten Tomatoes. It is not the only recent YA novel-based movie to tank. The Host, 5th Wave and many others also failed with the critics and movie-goers. These two movies are part of a growing pattern of young adult dystopias utterly failing at theaters, which begs the question: are we seeing the end of young adult dystopias?
These movies have a few things in common. First, they are almost exclusively based on novels as opposed to original screenplays or adapted from TV shows or comic books. Second, the movies usually have moderate budgets and do not sport a big time Hollywood mega-star as the lead. More often than not, there is a female protagonist and the inclusion of a sappy teenage love story. Third, they possess almost no social commentary of value, unlike most traditional dystopian stories. So why was Hollywood convinced this formula would work?
The answer is usually the same for any fad Hollywood latches onto: some movie hit it big, and all the other studios simply implemented the exact same formula. It began with the worldwide success of The Hunger Games in 2012. The low budget film about a girl trying to survive a gladiatorial style deathmatch, earned over $400 million in the US alone. Hollywood studios took notice. Soon thereafter we had the Divergent Series, The Host, 5th Wave, and a few others not worthy of mention. Most failed miserably, while the few that managed some modest success, fell far short of the film that started it all.
Speculative fiction in general has not been particularly friendly territory for YA movies. For every Twilight there are numerous Mortal Instruments and Hosts. The vast graveyard of flops suggests the “based on the best selling YA novel” fad was never really a fad. There is one wildly successful franchise in each group but most would agree it takes more than one of something in order to be a trend. It may just be that the successful movies were just great movies, and do not owe their success to a formula.
The Hunger Games succeeded because it had all the important elements of a great movie: greet writing, great cast, and great director. On one point in particular, they hit the jackpot: casting Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen. Lawrence is the most talented young actress of our generation, and was a perfect fit as Katniss. Throw in strong performances by Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, and a terrifying Donald Sutherland and you have a hit. The dialogue and special effects were solid as well, although would not have carried the day by themselves. The source material, Suzanne Collins’ dystopian trilogy, provided a truly compelling premise that has captivated millions.
Most of its peers were found lacking in these vital categories. Producers must’ve thought that as long as the source novel was popular, the movie would succeed. Clearly, that is not the case. The Hunger Games was simply a great movie, regardless of where they got the idea. While it is true that it borrows some from 1984 and Battle Royale, the society and story itself are well-developed and compelling. The others movies mentioned above suffer from horrible world-building. The dystopian settings are under-developed, implausible, or clearly contrived to fit whatever plot the writers wanted. Most of them lack any compelling social commentary or relevance to world events today. In short, they were just bad movies.
So, to answer the question: yes we are seeing the end of YA dystopias in theaters. Surely Hollywood is convinced by now the YA dystopian formula isn’t the key. However, it is still enjoying some success at bookstores. They are part of a broader trend of incredibly successful YA speculative fiction franchises. From vampires, to post-apocalyptic survival, to dystopias, there is a strong demand for stories with young, attractive, strong heroes in exotic situations.
A few things have fed this trend over the past decade or two. One stems from the emergence of the “strong female character,” which is extremely common among YA spec fiction. In the good old days, women were cast to be the love interest of the hero, or the femme fatale, hooker with a heart of gold, or some other secondary stereotypical role, all subordinate to the leading man. They were seldom warriors or heroic protagonists. Somewhere along the line, that began to change. For younger audiences, the first hugely successful, strong and heroic female character was Buffy the Vampire Slayer. There were others before her, as well as a few contemporaries, but Buffy seems to hold a special status among fans. Buffy was soon followed by Charmed, Vampire Diaries, TrueBlood, and Twilight. They exposed an enormous hunger for strong, heroic female characters in fantasy and science fiction (we would argue that Bella Swan is not a strong female character at all, but we’ll table that argument for now). This previously under-served market demonstrated their power by catapulting YA speculative fiction series onto the best seller lists, as well as pushing up TV ratings. Throw in the fact that women read a lot more fiction than men, and it is no wonder many of these successful franchises began as novels.
These new female roles filled the cultural role for women that action stars filled for men. Granted, there is plenty of gender cross-over appeal for big action movies and paranormal romance/action. However, movies starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Bruce Willis were clearly marketed more towards men than women. And vice versa for the shows and movies mentioned above. In short, Buffy and the others were the first modern heroines. YA Dystopian novels and TV shows is just one of many species that spawned from the rapidly growing market for strong, heroic, female protagonists.
Of course, not all YA shows and novels are heroine’s journeys. Some are simply romance novels with fantasy or sci-fi settings. In particular, dystopian settings seem to take the place of the old, stuffy patriarchal structures and traditional social norms that used to frustrate the romantic desires of young characters. The star-crossed lovers came from rival aristocratic families, or live on different sides of town. In many stories, the family and the community did not approve of a young girl’s boyfriend because of his criminal or rebellious nature. In all these stories, outside forces intervened and acted as the antagonists.
As we make our way deeper into the 21st century, the old oppressive patriarchal power structures are fading. Contemporary romance is probably having a hard time using these tropes as most young women grow up with far more autonomy then their mothers and grandmothers. The same goes for those rebellious boyfriends. Some men don’t bother obtaining their prospective father-in-law’s blessing anymore as it implies he has some sort of control over his adult daughter. Writers have found new ways to create outside antagonists, one of which is building an oppressive dystopian society that will actively seek to frustrate the desires of the young characters.
It isn’t all about the ladies, but the gender balance favors them by far in this particular area. One exception is Pierce Brown’s Red Rising, which features a young widow desperate for revenge against the society that killed his beloved wife. It’s success suggests we could see a new wave of YA dystopias with male leads… or it may simply be just a great book.
So why are YA speculative fiction failing at theaters but thriving in bookstores? We really aren’t sure. It may be a simple numbers game. Hundreds of YA novels are published for every film release. The marketplace has a much larger selection and thus provides a better opportunity for quality work to rise to the top. It could also be that the general movie audience is a larger and much broader demographic compared to the loyal readers of the novels. Most of them do not have appeal beyond their niche market.
YA speculative fiction may continue to thrive on various medias but we could be seeing a gradual decline in YA dystopias. The dystopian settings are often no more than flimsy plot devices that create some sort of outside oppressor for the star-crossed lovers. In non-romantic stories, there are usually silly, implausible societies that utterly fail to maintain the suspension of disbelief. Dystopias are bad places that we visit to gain perspective about our own society and ourselves. They provide unique, hypothetical situations that have deeply impacted political discourse, even coining new terms like “newspeak.” Since young adults, especially in America, are generally disengaged from political discourse, YA dystopias tend to be superficial, robbing them of their literary purpose. A few great books may transcend the genre but most titles are forgettable.
Perhaps one day publishers will publish dystopian books that fulfill their intended purpose, leaning more towards the “adult” part of the YA genre instead of the “young” part. We aren’t going to hold our breath.
Jacob Foxx is the Editor of Prescientcifi.com and author of two novels: The Fifth World and the sequel The Fifth World: The Times That Try Men’s Souls. When he is not reading or writing science fiction, he works as a regulatory affairs consultant for small biotech companies in Raleigh, North Carolina.