Originally written as a novella by Orson Scott Card in 1977, Ender’s Game hit the big screen this weekend. Card’s novel depicts a world in which humanity is at war with mysterious aliens known as “buggers” but maintains tenuous peace among Earth’s nations. Children are monitored by the government at a young age to see if they are fit for military training; the strongest, smartest children go on to Battle School, where they play “games” that teach them to be cunning strategists and fighters.
Orwellian in nature, Ender’s Game is the latest entry in the canon of dystopian novels translated into blockbuster movies, but the trend is showing no signs of stopping in the near future.
The concept of dystopias in speculative fiction is rooted in utopias. First conceived by Sir Thomas More in his 1516 novel of the same name, a utopia is an ideal, perfect society that humanity should strive to emulate. Dystopias, then, are “inverted utopias”: societies that either possess a fatal flaw, making them not as perfect as they initially appear, or are completely flawed in every way.
Though there is some dispute as to which work can be called the first dystopian novel, early dystopian fiction first appeared in the late 1800s, penned by authors such as Jules Verne and Jack London. Early dystopias followed technological developments, warning against potential abuses and perhaps permanently tying the genre to science fiction.
Utopian literature was very popular around the early 20th century, but after the widespread disillusionment caused by World War I, more dystopian fiction began to crop up. Rather than merely contrasting or critiquing utopian fiction, dystopian fiction began to function as a social and political criticism, exaggerating certain elements of society to shed light on their hidden dangers. For this reason, dystopias spiked in popularity around times of great turmoil in the West; more dystopian books were published around the times of both world wars and the Cold War than other times in history, according to an analysis by Goodreads.com.
Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, published in 1932, is seen as one of the seminal works for establishing modern dystopias. Huxley’s world features a genetically engineered caste system where jobs are determined by preselected breeding and condition, and intimate and familial relationships have been replaced with hedonistic pleasure.
A contrasting society was created in George Orwell’s famous work 1984, which has colored much of our modern political discourse. Orwell’s vision of the future from 1949 contained constant surveillance and mind control by the all-knowing Party. Orwell’s bleak prose added several new words and concepts into the English lexicon; recent events regarding the National Security Administration have echoed the book’s famous phrase: “Big Brother is watching you.”
Many dystopias have followed in the footsteps of these works, including Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, which addresses censorship; Margaret Atwood’sThe Handmaid’s Tale, an exploration of women’s body politics; and The Giver, a 1993 children’s young adult novel by Lois Lowry that, for many, serves as an introduction to the concept of dystopias.
As potent as they are in literature, dystopias are becoming even more successful as films. A Clockwork Orange has reached a new level of immortality thanks to director Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 film adaptation, which blended the violent imagery with a classical musical score. Blade Runner has overshadowed its textual counterpart, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick. Alan Moore has shunned the 2005 movie adaptation of his graphic novel V For Vendetta, but the movie has taken on a new life with Internet activist group Anonymous, whose members don replicas of the Guy Fawkes mask worn in the movie.
Why do dystopian books translate so well to the big screen? Perhaps it is because dystopian worlds are very detailed, giving away to spectacular visuals and intense action sequences. Dystopian prose enables intense visuals of rugged post-apocalyptic landscapes, intense brutality and fascinating new technology, in which Ender’s Game shines. The overarching themes of dystopian novels that make them so popular also translate well onto the big screen, drawing in audiences of curious moviegoers as well as book fans.
The spike in dystopias in recent decades, credited to 9/11 tensions and the wars in the Middle East, has been targeted at young adult readers, Goodreads notes. Many of these teen novels are being prepped for the cinema. The Hunger Games, one of the most popular dystopian novels in recent years, was highly successful at the box office, and its sequel, Catching Fire, is poised to generate plenty of revenue when it comes out later this month. Young adult novel dystopia Divergent up filming in July and will be released next year.
Whether our society is actually becoming like the dystopias about which these authors are warning us, dystopian stories still make for great reads and fascinating movies that will be captivating audiences for years to come.