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October 31, 2014



To judge by recent Hollywood trends, among the most prominent characteristics of the post-apocalyptic world is that it will be saved by a teenage rebel. The YA sub-genre has experienced a meteoric rise with the popularity of The Hunger Games of which the first installment of the final chapter of the trilogy, directed by Francis Lawrence, will open over Thanksgiving. That series is adapted from Suzanne Collins’s trilogy. Indeed, YA multi-volume fictions have proven a fertile source for similar enterprises. Into the shadow of The Hunger Games come Neil Burger’s Divergent, based on Veronica Roth’s first 2011 novel of a trilogy, and Philip Noyce’s The Giver, based on Lois Lowry’s 1994 Newberry Medal winning book that is one part of a loose quartet of novels.

Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games
All are coming of age tales in which young people are cathartic catalysts for the general community whereby social harmony might be maintained. But where the tragic figures of Greek drama are laid low by their hubris, the teen hero saves humanity from the thrall of disengagement. In each case an anomalous individual unexpectedly rises from the throng as an incendiary rebel whose passion cannot be suppressed.

Society in The Hunger Games is divided into twelve districts from each of which an annual lottery (hints of Shirley Jackson’s 1948 chilling short story) determines which boy and which girl age 12-18 will fight to the death in an elaborately controlled, futuristic coliseum. Society in Divergent is segmented into five factions based on personality traits determined at age 16. A “divergent” is one whose personality tests are inconclusive, indicating an aptitude for more than a single clear-cut trait. All pain, violence, and angst have been eliminated from society in The Giver, with the exception of one Receiver of Memory, the position Jonas is assigned on his twelfth birthday and for which he spends the course of the year until his thirteenth apprenticing. In each, the hero’s quest involves overcoming the systems remote powers have put into place to maintain strict mind control.

Shailene Woodley in Divergent
The good news about the popularity of these multi-volume sagas is that the two most prominent feature strong heroines. Part of the success of The Hunger Games surely derives from the sheer force of nature Jennifer Lawrence is on screen. Divergent’s star, Shailene Woodley, a young actress who is rapidly earning my admiration, has an uncanny ability to subtlety navigate a wide emotional range. The guys are good but don’t hold a candle to the young women. Dylan O’Brien does respectable work as the maze runner, but poor Brenton Thwaites has such weak material to work with as the acolyte of The Giver that it seems unfair to judge.
Jeff Bridges and Brenton Thwaites in The Giver
We may be seeing more strong young women, but, with the exception of Donald Sutherland’s evil President Coriolanus and his henchman Stanley Tucci’s reality show host Caesar Flickerman in The Hunger Games, the bureaucratic orders controlling these unnatural worlds are dominated by women. Kate Winslet is Divergent’s Eurudite leader Jeanine who enforces the protocols that keep society in check. Meryl Streep plays the cold Chief Elder of The Giver who has had to rein in the Receiver of Memory, played by a sagacious Jeff Bridges, before. The Maze Runner’s denouement finds Patricia Clarkson’s Ava Paige at the controls with a team of nefarious scientists who defend their actions on the grounds of the greater good. So perhaps we should hesitate before passing the feminist mantle to Hollywood.
Meryl Streep in The Giver
Wes Ball’s The Maze Runner, based on James Dasher’s 2009 novel for which the first of the next two installments of a planned trilogy is scheduled for publication in 2015, owes more to William Golding’s classic 1954 tale The Lord of the Flies than to Jackson’s “The Lottery,” while shying away from Golding’s darker implications. Thomas is mysteriously delivered into a community of boys trapped in a semi-wilderness known as The Glade and surrounded by a circuit of mazes. Thomas, fleet of foot, becomes one of the boys who run the mazes by day to map them. For tension we have a rival faction as well as a multiplying stream of CGI, mechanical/biological looking things of which Hollywood is so fond. The things guard the maze by night standing in for Golding’s paranoia-inducing imagined beast. 
The Maze Runner
What remains constant in all of these tales is the premise that the “solutions” adults have devised to manage the dystopian worlds they have wrought deprive their children of individuality and choice. Our salvation rests in the solitary, misunderstood teen brave enough to break out of the mold and confront authority. Sound familiar?

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