The word utopia was coined by St. Thomas More in his book of that name — an important and enigmatic work of fiction and political philosophy generally understood as some sort of satire.
The term seems to be a Latin pun: It is used in the sense of eu-topia, a “good place” or “ideal society,” which More claimed was his intended sense — but the spelling of u-topia means “nowhere” and is often taken to suggest that eutopia is impossible as well as nonexistent.
Even in fiction true utopias are rare (since eu-topia obviously doesn’t lend itself to conflict). But More’s term eventually suggested a more practical word, dystopia, which describes a far more fruitful style of fiction — particularly at the moment, with the whole genre benefiting from the smash success of The Hunger Games. (The penultimate installment in the film series, Mockingjay, Part 1, opens in theaters November 22.)
Though formally antithetical, utopia and dystopia are related in various ways. Dystopian fiction often involves misguided attempts to engineer utopias; dystopias may include utopian elements, perhaps enjoyed by only by a privileged few, or purchased at too great a cost.
Utopian and dystopian fiction often ask the same big questions: What makes for human happiness and well-being? What does it mean to be human? What kind of world should we aspire to? What obstacles must we avoid?
The Hunger Games franchise is set in a nation called Panem. Panem is governed by a wealthy, decadent city called the Capitol, whose citizens lead fabulously ostentatious, frivolous lives devoted to fashion, parties, and entertainment, highlighted by the monstrous televised bloodsport of the Games.
“Panem” — one of a number of classical references peppering the series — alludes to the Latin phrase panem et circenses, meaning “bread and circuses” (or “bread and games”). The term was coined by the Roman satirist Juvenal, who critiqued the frivolity of decadent Romans who no longer cared for duty, virtue, or achievement so long as they were fed and amused, notably in the form of gladiator games.
Likewise The Hunger Games’ targets include the dominance of voyeuristic entertainment, particularly reality TV and the callous attitude toward human life that St. John Paul II dubbed the culture of death. This term is widely understood to refer to abortion and euthanasia, but it also includes other issues, such as unjust economic disparity and war — both important themes in The Hunger Games.
Reality TV may not involve contestants killing one another, but it makes a spectacle of real suffering in various forms. Meanwhile, studies suggest that empathy has been in decline for decades. The Hunger Games highlights the ongoing relevance of Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, written nearly 30 years ago.
Pro-life themes are also notable in The Giver by Lois Lowry, the film version of which flopped this fall. A much more utopian dystopia than many, The Giver depicts a seemingly idyllic community in which peace, equality, and comfort have been purchased at the expense of freedom, passion, creativity, and even the pleasures of color and music. The community operates on eugenic principles, with babies born to career birth mothers but raised by designated families, and even slightly less-fit babies euphemistically “released” along with the elderly.
Despite these important themes, The Giver (at least in cinematic form) suffers from a number of conceptual and structural problems, including a common pitfall for the genre: how to end the story. Intriguing dystopian premises are more common than satisfying dystopian stories; movies like Andrew Niccol’s In Time and Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium offer socially conscious sci-fi worlds, but neither quite works as a story in the end.
Cautionary dystopian cinema goes back to the silent era, at least to Fritz Lang’s 1926 masterpiece Metropolis (one of the 45 films on the 1995 Vatican film list). Like The Hunger Games, Metropolis depicts a highly stratified sci-fi world, with an elite privileged class living in paradisiacal conditions while drone-like masses slave away at the machines that drive the city. In the end, it proposes that class conflict between capital and labor can only be alleviated by empathy and justice: “The mediator between head and hands must be the heart.”
Dystopian fiction isn’t necessarily cautionary or socially aware. The Matrix is many things, but a critique of social or cultural problems isn’t one of them. The first installment in the rebooted Planet of the Apes franchise offered very little thematic heft, unless it was a misanthropic celebration of the beginning of mankind’s doom.
But the sequel, this summer’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, went in a different direction, offering a jeremiad for the efforts of the world’s peacemakers, so often undone by the world’s bridge-burners. Sometimes a dystopian story can point the way to a better world — not by depicting the realization of such a world, but by depicting its doom.
Notes on age appropriateness: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes: teens and up. The Hunger Games films: perhaps mature teens. The Giver, Metropolis: tweens and up. Other films mentioned are not necessarily recommended.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.