What “adult” coloring books are to 2015, dystopian fiction aimed at young adults is to the last half-decade: an entire pop cultural phenomenon that sprang up in the shadow of a single breakout success.
Which is to say that what Johanna Basford’s Enchanted Forest, Secret Garden, and Lost Ocean are to coloring, of course, Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games and the massively profitable movies they inspired are to the renewed popularity of dystopias aimed at, but by no means limited to, a teenage audience. (Though both, of course, follow in the tradition of the post-Harry Potter “kid wizards!” and post-Twilight “sensitive monsters!” boom times.) In honor of the final installment of the Hunger Games film franchise, out this Friday, we tracked publishing and Hollywood’s attempts to replicate the series’ success. Here’s a comprehensive guide to what Katniss Everdeen hath wrought as her era symbolically comes to an end.
Let’s kick off with the most obvious, and most successful, beneficiary of the sudden vogue for largely female-centered YA dystopias: Veronica Roth’s Divergent, a series with its own massively successful film adaptation — and a fan base rabid enough to stage an Amazon flame war over a controversial ending. Its mythology is part Hunger Games (just swap out post-apocalyptic Appalachia for post-apocalyptic Chicago) and part The Giver (categories bad! Freedom of choice good!). The spliced DNA of two mega-hits unsurprisingly led to yet another mega-hit, and that’s how Shailene Woodley wound up headlining a blockbuster or three.
The Maze Runner
Then there’s the Maze Runner series from James Dashner, which walks back on the whole “feminist empowerment” angle of The Hunger Games — but don’t worry, there’s still a token lady, and she’s also Effie from Skins! — and doubles down on the “elaborate rituals that can’t possibly be the most efficient way to fix this broken society, though they do make for some compelling action” thing. Kids trapped in mazes: the trippiest scene from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, now an entire series!
Hollywood moves slowly, so Divergent and Maze Runner are the only post-Hunger Games projects to graduate to the “multi-film franchise” level of success story. But that still leaves plenty of books, of which Ally Condie’s Matched trilogy is one of the most popular. Like Maze Runner, Matched is also pretty Giver-esque, though in Condie’s universe, teenagers are assigned life partners instead of professions. Add a dash of Divergent-style lingo (those who don’t fit in are known as Aberrations) and a governing body that’s literally known as Society, and you’ve got a romantic twist on a classic allegory on your hands!
Once again, the United States has undergone a severe trauma and restructured enough to be an interesting premise for a dystopic novel, but also stayed intact enough to be relatable to contemporary teens. Once again, said restructuring has made life awfully tough for high school-age kids, who must undergo extensive testing to determine whether they’re fit to enter the army. Marie Lu’s trilogy — Legend, Prodigy, and Champion — pairs two 15-year-olds in Los Angeles who earned a perfect score on said tests: a 1500, perfectly combining the target demo’s SAT anxiety with its demand for action-packed stories set in places with names like The Republic.
What Wither lacks in the elaborate rites of passage that characterize most Hunger Games follow-ups, it makes up for in the theme that arguably made Collins’ series resonate so well in post-recession America: income inequality. Set in a world where genetic experimentation gone awry has doomed most men to die by 25 and most women by 20, Wither sees its teenage heroine abducted and forced into marriage with the scion of a fabulously wealthy family at the age of 16. Starting from there, Lauren DeStefano’s Chemical Garden series only gets darker, another reflection of Collins’ impact on just how dystopian teen narratives, particularly feminist ones, are allowed to get.
Combining the stigmatized teen love (nothing gets teenagers on an author’s side by making their perceived oppression literal!) of Matched with the environmental concerns of The Maze Runner and — what else? — The Giver, Lauren Oliver’s series follows Lena Halloway, who’s grown up in a world where love is a disease for which the government mandates vaccinations and people are forbidden from leaving strictly border-controlled cities for the surrounding, bombed-out wasteland. Obviously, Lena falls in love with a boy from said wasteland. Multiple novels’ worth of chaos ensues.
The 5th Wave
Sixteen-year-old female protagonist? Check. Younger sibling put in danger as inciting incident? Check. Imminent film adaptation starring buzzy, young actress? Check. Rick Yancey’s novel and upcoming movie starring Chloë Grace Moretz (gotta subsidize those Olivier Assayas supporting roles somehow!) features an alien invasion, rather than war or environmental implosion, as the catalyst for its dystopian state, but its influences are clear.
“The Group Hopper”
SNL’s “adaptation” of a novel “written entirely in the comments section of a Hunger Games trailer,” however, might capture the spirit of both the franchise and the ensuing phenomenon best. The never-ending slang! The tacked-on love story! The generic individualism! Oh, and the gear bags. So many gear bags.