The days of waiting for an owl on your eleventh birthday, revealing that you’re a wizard and inviting you to Harry Potter’s Hogwarts, are over. Instead, children—young adults, or YA, in the publishing parlance, now fantasize about being entered into the Hunger Games’ tribute lottery at twelve.
The fall fascinates me. Harry Potter’s wizarding world belongs to a genre I think of “Secret Worlds,” with predecessors JM Barrie’s Peter Pan, Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz, and CS Lewis’s Narnia, and successors in Neil Gaiman’s Graveyard Book and Lev Grossman’s Magicians. There is our world as we know it—Muggles, or worse, Kansans—deadened by lack of magic real and metaphorical. But then the protagonist, who is somehow both special and ordinary at the same time, discovers, or is invited as part of an initiation or rite of passage into adulthood, into a closet kingdom, via some mundane threshold: a window, a hidden train, a magicked out car, fireplace, or, um, boot, or best yet, an actual closet. There, they discover that the world is full of possibilities, and that they are more special, more integral, to saving it then they had dared dream. The books’ pages function as that wardrobe, opening and taking the young reader into its realm. While danger obviously must ensue, the books begin and remain inherently hopeful that the world will be saved, and that it is worth saving. The status quo is essentially an optimistic one—restoring order is a good thing, even if part of that restoration means sending the satisfied protagonist back home, to apply the valuable lessons of the adventure to what he or she comes to understand as real life. Yes, Harry Potter complicates things, since you can argue that he belongs in the wizarding world and not in the Dursleys’ domestic nightmare. But by the end of the series [600 million books and the highest grossing film series of all time and I have to say spoiler?] Harry too has restored what we understand as the proper pillars of love, family, and society, The Voldemort Years an awful aberration rather than the way the world is or must be.
In Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games series, Patrick Ness’s Knife of Never Letting Go, Michael Grant’s Gone, and Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series, plus other books that I haven’t read yet but plan to—Ashes, Ashes; Bar Code Tattoo; Empty; Maze Runner; Feed, and more—the new YA lit genre is not Secret Worlds but World’s End. Narnia, Harry Potter, Neverland, and Oz were always Utopian, if Utopias in peril. Some of that threat even included a nicely, dramatically apocalyptic sensibility, especially Narnia, with its Christian inflected Last Battle, but also late series Harry Potter, with its sense of an impending End Times.
But the newer books are different. They’re dystopian, not apocalyptic but post-apocalyptic, the filthy children of Orwell and Huxley and Bradbury, as these things always are, but also, for me, more indebted to the pessimism of 1970s and 1980s lit and film: Stephen King’s futuristic, non-supernatural run, Kurt Vonnegut, JG Ballard, Margaret Atwood, Planet of the Apes, Escape from New York, Omega Man, Mad Max. Who would have guessed that the most influential YA published in the 90s would not be Harry Potter but rather Lois Lowry’s The Giver?
But the previous dystopia authors and movies were not aiming for the mall, the ‘burbs, the multiplex, and the tweens. (I apologize for the use of the word “tweens.”) If all fantasy, as Freud suggested, operates on the contrasting yet simultaneous levels of wishes and fears—as I believe—Harry Potter is a lot of wish fulfillment (Magic! Friends! School is awesome! Flying! Etc!) tempered with fears (a powerful dark wizard wants to kill me!). The New Dystopia is awfully heavy on the fear: starving (Hunger Games; Gone’s sequel is called Hunger); loss of self, mind, and identity (Uglies, Knife); a seeming loss of freedom and the end of the current social order. But where is the wish fulfillment? Other than the fact that the post-world world opens up the requisite narrative need for conflict, struggle, and adventure, what is the appeal?
I’m not going to wrap this up now, and the clock is ticking, but I think there are a few possibilities. First, I didn’t mention the one other book that these series remind me of: The Lord of the Flies. It is, or was, a staple of highs school reading, in part because of its ratio of heavy-on-the-cautionary-tale with just enough wish fulfillment. In it, high school students get to understand just what would happen if You Kids Stopped Listening to Us. You want to do what you want? You want freedom? You don’t like rules? OK, smart guys, take a look at this. It may seem as though it would be a blast to live in a world without adults, but it’s all fun and games until Simon loses an eye life.
The nature of adults in the New Dystopia is very different. In Gone, the adults are just, um, gone. And some Lord of the Flies-style mayhem ensues. But mostly—in Hunger Games and Uglies as well—the reader gets to see how fragile, how flimsy, and how arbitrary the veneer of adult society really is. There is the Lord of the Flies-style wish fulfillment of a world without grownups, but not the guilt, because in these worlds—taking place after the end of our world, rather than, like Harry Potter, Narnia and the others, parallel to it—the absence of supervision is generally the adults’ fault or poor decision. No accident, no separation. The adults either chose to do it or screwed it up. And the kids are the only ones left to see the world for what it is, struggle to survive, and—maybe—clean it up. The true fear of the books goes beyond food or even death—it is that these dystopias represent some adult version of utopia. It’s Charlton Heston at the end of Planet of the Apes, not as shock or twist, but simply as the way the world is:
Or Charlton Heston at the end of Soylent Green:
And even for happy, well-adjusted teens, adult utopia=teen dystopia gets enacted and exaggerated. In the end, that’s what the books do: exaggerate and make literal the metaphorical struggles and hungers that teens—and, it seems, plenty of adults—immediately recognize. Isn’t high school a version of the Hunger Games, with each kid competing for limited resources, hoping yet fearing that they’ll be catapulted into the spotlight, going back and forth between fashion show and death match, pushed by a hyper-competitive culture of achievement and selectivity to view their peers as rivals? Any resemblance to free-market capitalism is surely unintentional. Uglies represents the tension between wanting to be yourself and wanting to fit in, that adolescent contradiction that says “Look at me! Look at me! Look at me! WHY ARE YOU LOOKING AT ME?” In the novel, all teens get full body plastic surgery at age 16 to eliminate every flaw, but in doing so, who they really are becomes corrected as well. Again, it’s a sci-fi version of how they feel, with adults, for the most part, absent, behind the scenes of the operations, or adversarial upholders of the crooked status quo. The stakes are, remarkably, even higher than in HP and Narnia, and the books are more radical for it—the teen heroes are not struggling against usurpers but rather against the legitimate machinations of commerce and government themselves, the libertarian flipside to the books’ seeming anti-capitalism.
It’s conventional wisdom that the Harry Potter books began as jolly fun before the series grew up and got dark. But it’s worth remembering the scary three headed dog and two faced evil wizard(s?) who populated Sorcerer’s Stone. Maybe in terms of darkness, The Hunger Games picks up where Harry Potter leaves off. After all, The New York Times, discussing the problems and promises of the Hunger Games movie franchise, suggests as much: “One possibility might have been to follow the “Harry Potter” model, which succeeded as perhaps the first middle-grade novel to bring in adults to both the reading experience and the movie theater. As Harry and his Hogwarts friends made their way into the upper grades, the stories themselves became darker and more sophisticated — decidedly young adult” (see article here).
And this image, condensing every frame of the whole HP series, certainly grows darker and darker.
But as dark as the New Dystopias seem, like the Secret Worlds novels, they suggest, again and again, as Shakespeare once sang, that the children are our future. Adults, not so much. They’re the problem.
There’s your wish fulfillment. And your fear.
Time: 90 minutes! What the hell?