Teens, Dystopia, and the Art of Rebellion

By Georgia Davis | April 20, 2021

When thinking of teenagers, connotations of rebellion are synonymous. Stuck in the period between childhood and adulthood, these young people are desperate to discover a place of belonging and independence, however, are often held back by those around them who try to control and restrict them. So, it seems only natural for teens to disobey The Man once in a while and take their needs and wants into their own hands – both in real life and on screen. In Booksmart (2019), bookworms Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein) rebel against their own stereotypes to engage in a wild night of fun before their graduation, whilst Heathers (1989) sees Veronica (Winona Ryder) rebel against the very clique she’s a part of, and later, her own boyfriend after a series of murders goes too far. However, although teenagers are notoriously rebellious, none are more so than the protagonists in dystopian fiction.

Dystopian fiction acts as a critical mirror against the pitfalls of modern society. These texts each take a moral stance, heightening these issues in a dystopian – or seemingly utopian – setting to show what could happen in these often frighteningly real scenarios. According to Alex Gendler, these cautionary tales warn against “the very idea that humanity can be moulded into an ideal shape,” and the damning consequences that the quest for utopia could expose. And given the historical impact of the past hundred years alone, these anxieties are perfectly justified.

However, more contemporary takes on this genre, such as Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy and Veronica Roth’s Divergent series, have begun to appear more hopeful. Especially in the realm of Young Adult fiction, these protagonists refuse to conform to the system that oppresses them and as a result, become heroes. This is a far cry from novels such as George Orwell’s 1984, which sees its central protagonist, Winston, finally conform to the totalitarian system that he grew so wary of or Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which leaves Ofred’s future uncertain as she is taken by authorities after suspecting she is pregnant. Instead, characters such as The Hunger Games’ Katniss and Divergent’s Tris are used as beacons of unlikely hope, striving forward to demonstrate that a better world can be achieved, if it is fought for.

It is by no means ironic that these heroes are younger than some of their predecessors. Dystopia is a world full of binaries, and often good and evil can be easily defined. This is usually through the ‘good’ central protagonist and the ‘evil’ organisation, with the antagonist often boiling down to a single representative. In The Hunger Games, this happens to be President Snow (Donald Sutherland), who acts as a figurehead for the crimes of the Capitol and is protagonist Katniss’ (Jennifer Lawrence) target in the series’ closing instalments whilst in Divergent, it is Jeanine (Kate Winslet) – the leader of the Erudite faction – who becomes the foil for the divergent Tris (Shailene Woodley). Both Jeanine and President Snow are figures that are significantly older than their enemies, both of whom are portrayed as teenagers, thus adding new binary layers to the dystopian mix: the battle between old and young.

teen dystopia body image
Easy A (2010) sees Olive (Emma Stone) rebel against the culture of slut-shaming in her high-school.” Sony.

Stereotypically, if teenagers rebel, it is often against an older authority, whether it be their parents, their teachers or society itself. Easy A (2010) sees Olive (Emma Stone) rebel against the culture of slut-shaming in her high-school, whilst Lady Bird (2017) sees the titular Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) persistently rebel against the wishes of her mother (Laurie Metcalfe) as a fierce grab for independence. So, transferring this generational battle of power to the realm of dystopia – where these establishments reign supreme – only seems natural. Except in a dystopian context, this struggle between old and young is far more than just a fight of misunderstanding, but instead a battle of life and death. 

In the second instalment of The Maze Runner trilogy – The Scorch Trials (2015) – this is joked about by Janson (Aiden Gillen), who asks the younger Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) and his friends “Do you ever get the feeling the whole world is against you?” in an attempt to undermine the concerns of the teens, which in reality, are fully justified. They soon discover that Janson and his WCKD colleagues have been farming their teenage peers for a cure that only they possess, stringing up their lifeless bodies to harvest their blood for “the greater good”, prompting them to escape the facility, hoping that they would not succumb to the same fate. Whilst in the Divergent series, Tris’ inability to be categorised by her factionised society places a firm target on her back, leading her to forge her own path in life – without the carefully structured pre-planning of this futuristic imagining of Chicago – and rebelling against the society that places such intense pressure on conforming. 

teen dystopia body image 2
The Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials (2014). 20th Century Fox.

These heroic endeavours captured the hearts of teenagers and young adults around the world, and in turn, captured the attention of Hollywood, sparking a YA adaptation revolution, particularly in the sci-fi and dystopian genres. However, with the exception of box-office hits such as The Hunger Games (2012-2015), the majority of these films flew under the radar and were slammed by critics and audiences alike. This wasn’t just limited to the dystopian genre, but many YA page to screen adaptations were missing the mark with eager fans. Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief (2010) is arguably one of the most famous of these as the film’s story diverted significantly from the original plotline, whilst also losing the original spark that many readers loved from Rick Riordan’s books. Other films such as The Golden Compass (2007), an adaptation of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series, toned down dark themes to create an overall more family friendly and less controversial film. Though a later television adaptation of the series, HBO’s His Dark Materials (2019-), would attempt to rectify the film’s mistakes, it would instead take things too far in the other direction by focusing too much on the politics of the world rather than the coming of age of its teen protagonist. As a result, both adaptations fail to capture the essence of Pullman’s original and miss the mark on what is fundamentally explored in the books.

Ironically, this censorship in adapting the source material played right into the hands of these fictional antagonists, who aimed to control and manipulate their subordinates. Though certainly not to the extent that is displayed in these films, studio executives have taken these stories and moulded it to their own will. As a result, they shaped these iconic stories to their own liking rather than that of its original audience. For example, the 2012 film adaptation of The Hunger Games omits the backstory of the infamous Mockingjay pin, which would eventually become a symbol of the Districts’ revolution against the Capitol. In the books, we learn of how the Mockingjay is “something of a slap in the face” for those in the Capitol, who had attempted to use genetically engineered birds known as jabberjays to spy on insurgent Districts through the birds’ ability to speak. However, the Districts learned to use these birds to their own advantage and feed false information to the Capitol. After the Uprising was quashed, the jabberjays – now released into the wild – would go on to mate with mockingbirds, thus creating mockingjays who although cannot speak, can repeat melodies and be used to send signals. By removing this backstory from the film, this symbolic gesture between Katniss and Madge (the daughter of District 12’s mayor who is absent from all four films) is lost in translation, consequently leaving an important history of rebellion behind with it. 

However, now as the media landscape is encouraging audiences to take a more active approach to the media they consume through the ever growing popularity of social media, teens and young people are rebelling against the stories they are presented in favour of their own takes. For example, there are currently over 12,000 different works logged under ‘The Hunger Games’ on fan fiction site Archive of Our Own, alongside over two million original fan-written stories related to the prolific Harry Potter series. Some of these works exist to rewrite the ‘canon’, shaping the original stories to mould their ideals, whilst others reject this completely and choose to write ‘canon-divergent’ works that are only limited by imagination. Though irrespective of which route these authors choose to take, many of these works often act as a form of mass protest against a narrow-minded and controlling media landscape that still prioritises hegemonic ideology. Fanworks aim to showcase representation that was either touched upon or was poorly explored in these texts in an attempt to diversify a landscape that does not reflect its consumers, or does so poorly, especially in the realms of LGBTQ+ and POC representation.

But even outside of the context of film and television, teens have taken it upon themselves to use the power of social media to incite change for themselves against worldwide authorities. Swedish teen Greta Thunberg started a global conversation about the urgency of climate change through her School Strike For Climate campaign; Joshua Wong and his peers created activist group Scholarism to defend Hong Kongese education from the influence of Beijing, later going on to form new political party Demosistō to further challenge China’s oppressive policies against Hong Kong; and students in America, following a shooting in their high school, created March For Our Lives as a demonstration in support of stricter gun control measures and which would become one of the largest protests in American history. Though each of these campaigns have faced resistance and still have a long way to go to achieving their respective goals, they are proof that age is no barrier when it comes to demanding change from those of a higher authority.

As stated by Gendler, “The best known dystopias aren’t fictional at all” and his statement certainly still holds weight. The 2010s has seen a rise in support for right-wing politics worldwide and as we are now a year into a global pandemic, things seem bleak. But if there’s anything we can learn from this boom of interest in teen dystopian protagonists – and perhaps teenagers in general – it is that we all have a rebellious side to us, and that being a rebel is sometimes the best way to change the world. 

Georgia Davis is a freelance writer from Nottingham, UK who loves to write about all things film and television. When she’s not writing, you can find her working as the Editor in Chief of Flip Screen and spending time with her dog, Terry. You can find her online @thegndavis.

%d bloggers like this: