Sunday, March 16, 2014

'Divergent' and other teen dystopias

At the end of Farnsworth video meme, I promised "No zombies tonight.  Instead, I have something planned for the opening of "Divergent" this Friday."

First, since I like to lead with things that move, here is the most recent official theatrical trailer.

Cool, although I've seen some of this before.  The whole idea of factions reminds me of Vonnegut's "Slapstick," in which everyone in the U.S. is randomly assigned numbers for middle names.  That gave everyone an immediate social group to belong to, like a giant club.  Of course, that was played for laughs, not for the high stakes that are being played for here.  Also, the assigning teens into factions is much more deliberate, like a high-tech version of the Sorting Hat in Hogwarts.  That last might be part of the appeal of the books--a familiar element to the readers.  Finally, there are all the similarities to "The Hunger Games."

Enough analysis of corporate PR.  Follow over the jump for some analysis of "Divergent" and other teen dystopias from Illinois State University and The New Yorker.

First, Rachel Hatch of Illinois State University interviews an expert in Professor: Divergent movie hits dystopian nerve with teens.
The first installment of Veronica Roth’s young-adult Divergent book series is set to hit theaters March 21. It is another in a wave of Hunger Games-style themes that explore a dark future for adolescent heroines.

In this latest edition of STATEside’s Office Hours series, Illinois State University English Professor Jan Susina, who studies children’s literature, offers some insight into the popularity of dystopian young adult novels, and the excitement that the Chicago-based Divergent is creating.

Divergent is one in a string of adaptations of young adult novels set in dystopian societies. Why are they so popular now?

Laura Miller wrote a provocative essay in The New Yorker exploring the rise in popularity of dystopian fiction for young adults. Miller suggested that novels and film adaptations like Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games reflect a sort of allegory of the highly competitive social experience of high school where there is a ruthless struggle for popularity in an environment of seemingly arbitrary rules where teens assume that their every move is constantly observed by others. That makes sense to me and is clear that these dystopian novels and films hit a nerve with teens and Millennials who imagine their futures in rather grim terms.
The Miller preview of "Mockingjay" from four years ago was something I hadn't heard of before.  Here are the relevant excerpts from Fresh Hell: What’s behind the boom in dystopian fiction for young readers? where Susina got his point from Miller.“
“The Hunger Games” could be taken as an indictment of reality TV, but only someone insensitive to the emotional tenor of the story could regard social criticism as the real point of Collins’s novel. “The Hunger Games” is not an argument. It operates like a fable or a myth, a story in which outlandish and extravagant figures and events serve as conduits for universal experiences. Dystopian fiction may be the only genre written for children that’s routinely less didactic than its adult counterpart. It’s not about persuading the reader to stop something terrible from happening—it’s about what’s happening, right this minute, in the stormy psyche of the adolescent reader. “The success of ‘Uglies,’ ” Westerfeld once wrote in his blog, “is partly thanks to high school being a dystopia.”

Take the Hunger Games themselves. In the first book of Collins’s trilogy, Katniss explains that the games are a “punishment” for a failed uprising against the Capitol many years earlier, and they’re meant to be “humiliating as well as torturous.”
As a tool of practical propaganda, the games don’t make much sense. They lack that essential quality of the totalitarian spectacle: ideological coherence. You don’t demoralize and dehumanize a subject people by turning them into celebrities and coaching them on how to craft an appealing persona for a mass audience. (“Think of yourself among friends,” Katniss’s media handler urges.) Are the games a disciplinary measure or an extreme sporting event? A beauty pageant or an exercise in despotic terror? Given that the winning tribute’s district is “showered with prizes, largely consisting of food,” why isn’t it the poorer, hungrier districts that pool their resources to train Career Tributes, instead of the wealthier ones? And the practice of carrying off a population’s innocent children and commanding their parents to watch them be slaughtered for entertainment—wouldn’t that do more to provoke a rebellion than to head one off?

If, on the other hand, you consider the games as a fever-dream allegory of the adolescent social experience, they become perfectly intelligible.  Adults dump teen-agers into the viper pit of high school, spouting a lot of sentimental drivel about what a wonderful stage of life it’s supposed to be. The rules are arbitrary, unfathomable, and subject to sudden change. A brutal social hierarchy prevails, with the rich, the good-looking, and the athletic lording their advantages over everyone else. To survive you have to be totally fake. Adults don’t seem to understand how high the stakes are; your whole life could be over, and they act like it’s just some “phase”! Everyone’s always watching you, scrutinizing your clothes or your friends and obsessing over whether you’re having sex or taking drugs or getting good enough grades, but no one cares who you really are or how you really feel about anything.
Now, that's an interpretation of "The Hunger Games" and similar tales that I hadn't considered, but remembering what high school was like and remembering what it was like for my students when I taught high school, it makes perfect sense.  It certainly beats the interpretation that the books are a critique of reality TV.  It also explains why the books are so paradoxically hopeful.  As Miller also wrote, "Yes, our errors and delusions may lead to catastrophe, but if—as usually happens in dystopian novels for children—a new, better way of life can be assembled from the ruins would the apocalypse really be such a bad thing?"  That's a good question to ask, and one that fueled the analysis of Peak Oil bloggers by escapefromWisconsin that I quoted in Blog Recommendation: The Hipcrime Vocab; a lot of them have the same hope--that the apocalypse might not be such a bad thing.

I should stop there, but ISU's Hatch and Susina beckon.
There have been complaints that these types of books are too violent. Why is that?

While adults may find these books shocking and overtly violent, young adults are less troubled by those elements and see these texts as a reflections of their world. I think these books reveal that many young adults have a rather bleak outlook toward the future. While the future may look bleak, adolescent readers tend to identify with Tris Prior and Katniss Everdeen, characters who manage to survive.
This is probably why, as I've mentioned again and again, that Hollywood believes that worrying about collapse is good business.
Movies like Divergent, The Hunger Games, and Mortal Instruments feature tough female heroines. Why the trend toward young women?

Many adolescents—female and male—enjoy action adventure novels and films and want to see themselves as the protagonists. It makes sense and money to create novels and films that feature strong female protagonists. Females want to see themselves as the key characters in the story and not simply as a romantic love interest, or a sidekick to a male protagonist.

How has the female heroine evolved over the years?

Just as the opportunities for women and girls have increased in American culture, adolescent novels and films have begun to reflect that diversity of female roles. Female readers are looking for strong assertive female characters, and writers, especially female writers, have taken up that request. So there is a wider range of female characters in contemporary adolescent literature. But for every Tris Prior or Katniss Everdeen, there are still characters like Bella Swan from Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight who is a classic damsel in distress.
As I've also observed, "these works of fiction aren't swimming against the stream on gender equality.  They're sending the message that's one ideal doesn't have to die with collapse."

One last item.
Divergent is set in a bleak future in Chicago. Are there any locations we might recognize?

There is certainly a lot of excitement concerning the forthcoming film. Veronica Roth’s Divergent series is currently the top-selling series, according The New York Times Book Review. Roth lives in Chicago and knows the city well. She was raised in Barrington and attended Northwestern University. She wrote the first book in the Divergent series while she was on winter break as a college senior and sold the movie rights before she graduated from Northwestern. We know how grim Chicago can look and feel in the winter. The film was shot in around Chicago. I’ve seen a preview for Divergent and I think I spotted the Wrigley Building plaza, but I would expect to see a lot of familiar sites of downtown Chicago in the film.
My wife is from Chicago, and being able to see her old home town on film will be a selling point.  Here's to remembering that when the film comes to cable/satellite TV.

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