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Why we need dystopian stories like ‘The Hunger Games’


"Hope. It is the only thing stronger than fear. A little hope is effective. A lot of hope is dangerous." 
~President Snow, The Hunger Games

Last weekend, the big screen adaptation of the first novel in The Hunger Games series hit theaters. It pulled in $155 million, making it the third largest debut of a film in North America—and the largest non-sequel debut. It’s no wonder—the story has a built in fan base of the original best-selling novels. And Hunger Games isn’t the only dystopian fiction that’s popular with children, teens and adults. From classics like Fahrenheit 451, 1984 and Brave New World to Children of Men, The Giver, The Handmaid’s Tale, and Divergent, these kinds of novels and films have captured our attention for years. So, why are these dystopian stories so popular? What about them attracts us?

Reasons are many fold. Often, they are adventurous and thrilling page-turners that capture our attention. Moira Young, author of the dystopian young-adult novel Blood Red Road, points out that these stories often tell a hero’s journey, with someone thrust into dark and dangerous journey that leads them into the unknown. “I think it coincides with young people’s anxieties about the future, in that it’s about a heroic figure triumphing over the odds,” says Young. They also appeal to us because, while they present dark versions of our world, they also “embed a certain amount of escapism in it,” says author Tobias Buckell. “Both the sort of ‘things are still okay now’ sort of comparisons that we can make as readers, and sometimes a sort of ‘if everything fell to pieces, what sort of crazy adventures would transpire’ type of narrative.”

But stories also draw us because they say something about the world we live in now. “Dystopias represent the most exaggerated versions of the world we currently inhabit,” says Sarah Langan. “They make us see the obvious more clearly.” Saci Lloyd, author of The Carbon Diaries, says, Dystopias look at our world from two degrees sideways. It’s not squids in outer space, as Margaret Atwood put it, but just slightly removed from today’s reality, so you look at it with fresh eyes.”

I resonate with this because it points to one of the things I love about the genre: Dystopian fiction confronts us with the basic truth that the world we live in—and we ourselves—are deeply and horrifically broken.  Dystopian fiction strips from us the illusion of insulation that wealth creates. It moves us away from our cloistered and separated neighborhoods and confronts us with the reality of suffering, evil and brokenness. Dystopian fiction challenges to examine this brokenness and deal with the issues that result from it.

Contrary to dystopian fiction are utopian stories and philosophies. Dystopian fiction reminds us that utopias are impossible to achieve. “If just one person in a utopia is discontent, it’s not a utopia,” says author Heather Lindsley. Or, if we look at in terms of our own Story, it only takes one flawed individual to ruin a utopia—and according to our Story, that could be any one of us. There will always be a snake in the garden because we carry it in our own hearts. On the darker side, dystopian fiction illustrates that human attempts at utopias are downright dangerous and destructive when they focus on getting rid of whatever is thought to be wrong with society: the wrong religion or politics (or religion and politics themselves), the wrong morality, the wrong ideas, the wrong people. Dystopian fiction takes those ideas and runs with them, showing where those kinds of philosophies could lead.  

But the best of dystopian fiction (or, at least, what I would label the best) doesn’t leave us in the darkness. The best of it gives us hope. “We create harsh, violent worlds,” says Young. “These are dark, sometimes bleak stories, but that doesn’t mean they are hopeless. We always leave a candle burning in the darkness.”

The theme of hope runs throughout The Hunger Games series, but it develops most poignantly at the end of the trilogy. Katniss has suffered greatly and lost much. At the end of Mockingjay, she reflects on what helps her get beyond it.
… what I need to survive is not Gale’s fire, kindled with rage and hatred. I have plenty of fire myself. What I need is the dandelion in the spring. The bright yellow that means rebirth instead of destruction. The promise that life can go on, no matter how bad our losses. That it can be good again. And only Peeta can give me that. 
So after, when he whispers, “You love me. Real or not real?” 
I tell him, “Real.”
What gives Katniss hope—and what gives us hope—is love. In the midst of the damage, destruction, loss, brokenness and darkness, that is the candle burning.

We need dystopian stories because in the darkest stories we rediscover the true power of hope and the Love from which it flows. It is in our own Story’s darkest moment that we watch Love conquer death itself. And this Love now enables and invites us to return to the wide, open spaces of grace and glory for which we were made. In one of my favorite quotes from Henry Nouwen, he says, “Jesus' central message is that God loves us with an unconditional love and desires our love, free from all fear, in return.” As we walk with and in that Love, we begin to transform into the kind of people we were meant to be from the beginning—those who love God and love others.

If we love like that, our communities transform—not with a focus on an eliminating of something but on a filling of something: Love itself. A fierce Love of right-ness, just-ness, renewal and redemption. A Love that does not suppress or separate itself from the rest of the world, but one that frees and engages the darkness and brokenness. A Love that changes us and the people around us. A Love that changes the world. A Love that changes everything.

And this kind of Love gives hope—a sure and secure knowledge that life will indeed be good again.

The best of dystopian stories remind us of the brokenness and darkness of the world we live in but also the reality of Love, hope and life. We need stories like that, stories that bring God-talk into open spaces.