Zombies and Plagues and Hunger Games, Oh My! Hollywood’s Obsession With Dystopia

'Allegiant,' the latest dystopian tale from Hollywood opens today.

‘Allegiant,’ the latest dystopian tale from Hollywood opens today.

In the beginning, there was the Garden of Eden, a utopia. Thinks went south pretty quickly after that. Since then, humanity has searched for another heaven on earth with little success. What they have been finding is the opposite, dystopias, especially in literature and in film. From Gulliver’s Travels though the latest installment of Katniss Eberdeen’s straight arrow search for justice, dystopian societies have shown our increasing unease with the world around us.

Scores of books and now lots of Hollywood movies take place in these worlds where people struggle against plagues, zombies, lack of food, lack of water, political upheavals and any other form of cultural corruption. Over 300 films have been released since 1940 that can be defined as dystopian. Survival is not a daily rat race or erroneously making a butt call. It is a day-to0day struggle simply to eat and avoid death. While the films we see in the theaters are dystopias, but there are not your father’s dystopias.

'Mad Max:Fury Road'

‘Mad Max:Fury Road’

The earliest dystopian worlds were political and metaphorical commentaries. Gulliver’s Travels or Metropolis, Brave New World or 1984 were insightful and disturbing looks at what our world may actually become. Sure “Lord of the Flies,” ‘Children of Men,’ “Brazil” and others carry that meaningful tradition on, but dystopias we see today are mere plot devices designed to appeal to a young demographic, especially young women and men.

“The Hunger Games” feature a young woman in a class segmented society. The “Divergent” series has a young woman whose differences makes her a hero. “Mad Max Fury Road” centers around a woman looking for her home. The worlds they inhabit are certainly dystopian, but these films have more in common with Joseph Campbell’s “heroes journey” than “1984’s” totalitarian oppression. In the course of these films, the hero grows and blossoms. It is more hopeful than a traditional dystopia. In essence, they empower the viewer to imagine themselves in that role. Positive as it may be, it is not a commentary on what is wrong with our societies.

Jennifer Lawrence in 'The Hunger Games' series

Jennifer Lawrence in ‘The Hunger Games’ series

Let’s look more closely at these places. Films like The “Divergent” Series make the pretense of being without prejudice. They may even have a few featured actors of color, but these stories are mostly about white people and white society dealing with hard times. In the book, Katniss Eberdeen is ‘olive skinned’, not a star of Jennifer Lawrence’s beauty. As one wag put it, in “The Hunger Games” things are so bad that Liam Hemsworth, you know that incredibly good looking guy from Australia, has even bottomed out. These dystopias are about white people who are subjugated not about brown or yellow people.

Why is this? Simple, because Hollywood’s utopia is green, as in dollars. Distributor Lionsgate made a fortune with “The Hunger Games.” The first installment alone grossed over $650 million. Add in the other installments and the total is in the billions. There is money to be made in making dystopias, but only if they star beautiful white people. So Hollywood does what Hollywood does best. It copies itself. Now we have an apocalyptic fantasies abounding.

A zombie from 'The Walking Dead.'

A zombie from ‘The Walking Dead.’

Granted the success of these films does tap into our zeitgeist of fear. Zombies are a metaphor for the breakdown in community and family as well as a fear of viral infections. “Hunger Games” plugs into the increasing stratification of our society. “Mad Max” tackles nuclear destruction, and so on. Some will argue these are surface fears since we are already in a dystopia. Really? Yep, they will point out that we have global warming, unending wars, pandemics, starvation, pollution and class warfare. Oh yeah, how many of your co-workers could be described as zombies? So maybe we are already in a wonderland of misery.

So this weekend, when you go see the opening of the latest thriller taking place in a world where things are all mucked up, remember this. We’re no where near a utopia. We’re in a dystopia. Need more proof? Just watch the presidential candidates.

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