This week Publisher’s Weekly did some nice coverage on all the dystopian novels out there for teens. In their search for “why now?” they throw down the following:
Newspaper headlines about swine flu, terrorism, global warming, and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are inspiring authors—and making kids feel uneasy. Some publishers also point to publicity surrounding December 21, 2012, the end of the 5,126-year Mayan calendar—supposedly an apocalyptic sign.
Still, most editors and authors credit lingering unease from the World Trade Center attacks. “After 9/11, it seemed people started thinking about the destruction of the world,” says Karen Grove, who edited Susan Beth Pfeffer’s This World We Live In, the April 2010 release that will end the trilogy that started in 2006 with Life As We Knew It. “Then we got hit with New Orleans and earthquakes.”
Uncertainty plays a role, too. “There’s so much mystery about what the future will hold,” says Lauri Hornik, president and publisher of Dial Books for Young Readers and Dutton Children’s Books…
Well, that’s some interesting thinking. But this isn’t the first wave of dystopia we’ve seen hit popular culture. I am reminded of the dystopian future that was predicted in those backward yesteryears of long ago, when the year 2001 seemed an unimaginable date and the lingering promise of a 1950s utopian vision of robots still seemed plausible.
When I was a teen I watched more movies than I read books. There are plenty of reasons and no shame in this choice. Back in the ancient days of the 1970s, when books targeted for YA weren’t even a glimmer in the eye of marketing departments, we were often left to forage in the wilds of culture on our own, wandering the adult sections of libraries and watching movies aimed at an adult audience before Hollywood figured out that their true cash cow was a much younger demographic.
As many a teen who grew up in Southern California I harbored a hope of working in Hollywood. I went to college with that goal in mind but… well, life has funny ways of suggesting alternate paths. Before all that I would stake out the repertory theatres, art houses, and film festivals trying to absorb as much as I could about film and the movie world. It was a glorious education, occasionally about film, but more often about the horrible days that awaited my future according to the movies.
And I ate it up with a spoon, just like kids do now with dystopian fiction.
So I’m going off-book today to work up a sort of fantasy film festival of dystopian movies that I think still have enough appeal for end-of-the-world-hungry teens today. If I were running a film festival like the one I grew up with, Filmex, I would actually make the following list the basis of a larger 50 hour movie marathon that included the great dystopian movies of the last 30 years. But what I like about this list is how they address issues that are still with us today, that are still concerns we have for the future: overpopulation, health epidemics, technology gone wrong, climate problems, and energy crises. Everything old and horrible is new again.
Omega Man (1971)
The second version of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, this is Charlton Heston as the last man standing in the future of 1975 when biological warfare (in the book it’s plague) has turned society into homicidal mutants. None of the terror of the recent Will Smith version, and at times looking like nothing more than a TV movie shot on rundown back lot sets, it still retains some of its creepiness factor.
recommended movie snack: ham (for Heston) and eggs (for the omegas!)
Planet of the Apes (1968)
Based on the 1963 book by Pierre Boulle (who also wrote Bridge on the River Kwai) Astronauts from Earth crash land on a distant planet that is a lot like their home, except that it’s run by Apes and the humans are little more than animals. This is the Darwinian question of evolution turned on its ear and contains some classic lines and images. Charlton Heston’s (again?) best, surliest 1970s performance (yes, I realize it’s late 60s, and I actually read the MAD magazine parody before I actually saw the movie… so this is an honorary title on the list).
recommended movie snack: grilled meat (or meat substitute) on a stick, maybe some bananas. freeze dried astronaut ice cream if you have it.
Soylent Green (1973)
A totally ruined adaptation of Harry Harrison’s Make Room! Make Room! mashes up a typical police procedural story with overpopulation, food shortages and climate changes for a film with a closing line that is the ultimate movie spoiler. The problem is, once you’ve heard Chuck Heston (again!) rail against humanity it’s impossible for teens to not run around repeating him, especially at meals in the cafeteria when Mystery Meat is served.
recommended movie snack: an assortment of flavored rice cakes (you’ll forever think of them as soylent products)
Death Race 2000 (1975)
Forget that modern piece of junk, the original is a campy, low-budget horror-humor-dsytopian hybrid full of odd characters racing around the US (circa the year 2000, obviously) trying to rack up points by getting across the country first and by mowing people down. As cynical as it may sound, it’s a guilty pleasure of a movie. My kids can’t believe there was once a video game made from this, back in the old monochrome screen arcade days. Based on a short story by Ib Melchior
recommended movie snack: corn dogs
Silent Running (1972)
A giant hot house floats through space, a veritable ark of flora and fauna looking for a new home now that Earth can no longer sustain life. Then word comes that the freighter ships are needed and the greenhouses are to be dumped and Bruce Dern decides to save the rainforest on his own by escaping through Saturn’s rings. Ultimately this is the dullest film of the bunch, but was apparently one of the films that influenced the makers of WALL-E and the recent movie Moon.
recommended movie snack: green salad
A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Anthony Burgess’s dystopian British future saw the old Empire swallowed by a fascist republic full of apathetic citizens and ultra-violent teen gangs. Kubrick’s adaptation takes this meditation on violence and politics and shows us as ugly a future as ever existed without space ships. Burgess has dismissed the film as misrepresenting his intentions, but both are equally bleak. You’ll have to be careful if exposing this one to teens: the original version (banned in Britain until recent times) included a sped up sex scene that is far from titillating but nonetheless there. In the movie business they would call this a “hard R rating” more for the violence than anything else.
recommended movie snack: flavored milk (turn your home into a drug-free milk bar!)
The Stepford Wives (1975)
Again, the original, not the remake. Ira Levin’s book provides the fodder for a story that is either a commentary about submissive housewives (and the men who prefer them) or a reaction to the then-growing feminist movement. In the town of Stepford all the women seem to be… robots. Are the women of Stepford being replaced by their husbands, or is Katherine Ross losing her mind?
recommended movie snack: comfort foods
You might get some pretty strange looks from the kids on this one, and you might pull a few faces yourself once you’ve seen Sean Connery running around in an outfit he stole from Barbarella. Then there’s the convoluted plot, which is about a post-apocalyptic group of humans who have become immortal and in their eternal boredom set about to kill off the mortal humans? I think? I remember this being laughable even when I was a teen so, really, this might only work for kids who want to see the first James Bond embarrass himself in a red diaper and ponytail.
recommended movie snack: grilled cheese (for Connery’s performance)
Two words: Yul Brynner. Two more words: fantasy vacation. Three words: murderous robot rampage. Picking up on the idea that robots would help us lead a life of leisure, humans come to an amusement park of fantasy worlds – the Roman Empire, Medieval times, the American Frontier – where they can live out adventures amid a community of life-like robots. But one bad-ass robot gunslinger goes haywire and is out for revenge and the humans are no longer safe. In a future where “nothing can go wrong” it’s interesting to see robots essentially infected with a computer virus long before such a thing really existed.
recommended movie snack: nachos, turkey leg, pasta (depending on which world you prefer)
It’s the future of 2018 and the world is run by a large corporation. Hmm. For entertainment, teams from various cities participate in a game called Rollerball, a cross between hockey, roller derby, and hand-to-hand combat. The point of the game was to show the failure of individualism – keep the people at bay by showing them a “sport” that has no heroes – but the rise of Jimmy Caan as the ultimate rollerballer has changed that and now the corporation wants him dead. Dystopian blood sport; Hunger Games, anyone? Not exactly the same, but in the family.
recommended movie snack: fried calamari rings, seared skate, or maybe meatballs
Logan’s Run (1976)
Logan’s a carefree chap who spends his days chasing down folks who are running from their duty at Carousel – that moment when they turn 30 and are vaporized for the entertainment of others, all part of enforced euthanasia. When Logan’s number is up, well, that’s a different story, and with some help manages to escape to a land full of old people and cats. Okay, glibness aside, the idea of an enforced population control echos Soylent Green‘s concerns about resources and a sort of unspoken idea of a post-apocalyptic world. It’s good to a point but has a fairly anticlimactic ending – there are no real bad guys to root against.
recommended movie snack: a massive appetizer plate, but no more than 30 pieces.
Mad Max (1979)
It’s a post-nuclear world, and gas is the most precious commodity around. Gangs of apocalypi-punks terrorize folks in their hopped up cars. Former policeman Mel Gibson (his first starring role) is on the road as a rogue warrior against the marauders. It’s a film that shouldn’t be as entertaining as it is because, honestly, it’s about the glory of petroleum products, but it’s just so much goofy fun. In a dystopian-without-a-heavy-message way, of course. I don’t know if the dubbed and subtitled versions are still out there – people initially worried American’s wouldn’t respond well to the thick Ausie accents – but I didn’t have any problems as a teen with the original.
recommended movie snack: anything that gives you gas
The Andromeda Strain (1971)
This adaptation of Michael Crichton’s book expands on one of the fears from the early days of space exploration: what if a returning space ship brought home a deadly orgnaism? So basically a germ (or something) from space that has the potential to wipe out the planet is contained in a facility deep underground in the desert. While it’s being studied and analyzed it mutates and escapes, taking out the scientists one-by-one and evading containment as it spreads closer and closer to the outside world. You can read a lot into this – zenophobia, biological adaptation, plague allegories – but it’s quiet, leisurely-paced creepiness wins out.
recommended movie snack: stuffed mushroom caps
You may have noticed that many of these were based on novels, most of which are still available and are quite readable for teens today. They would make perfectly acceptable follow-ups for most YA dystopian fiction for what is apparently a very hungry market.
Any two or three of these movies would also make for an awesome mini-marathon, and all of them would fill an entire weekend. If I’m missing anything (from the 1970s mind you) please feel free to let me know in the comments.
Finally, a lot of these tend to take place in deserts or otherwise water-deprived locations. Have plenty of liquids on hand and stay hydrated!
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