A commentary by Jessica Dunn
The surge of attention surrounding Veronica Roth’s dystopian Divergent series in correlation with the popularity of Suzanne Collins’ dystopian Hunger Games series makes me question if female protagonist dystopian novels are simply trending, or if there’s a deeper reason for their rise to film-adaptation status.
*Please note this post contains a moderate spoiler regarding the recently available Allegiant, the third book in the Divergent series.
The past fifteen years have shown a young-adult fascination with stories in which fictional teens must deal with circumstances that are far beyond the reality of the majority of those reading. Although Harry Potter did not reach dystopian circumstances until the end of the series, his head-to-head struggle with the most formidable dark wizard captured an entire generation and beyond. In The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen’s battle for survival against all odds in her opposition to an extreme force of political power has garnered supporters of all ages. Divergent series protagonist Beatrice (Tris) Prior is faced with the knowledge that her entire life is an experiment, and the Divergent fan base is growing fast enough to be labeled the next big thing. None of these characters’ situations are common to readers of the novels, and are therefore only relatable in the most extreme of realistic circumstances. How are young adult readers drawn to these types of stories if they do not have similar life experiences?
Over the summer Roth made a panel appearance in the dauntingly large Hall H at Comic Con 2013, along with the cast and director of the 2014 film adaptation of Divergent. The conversation revolved around bravery, and rightly so. The main character Tris, and the other initiates of the Dauntless faction, must overcome their fears to fully embrace the bravery-centric ideology of their new social group. The actor Theo James, who plays the mysterious and brooding Four, confessed that his interest in the character stemmed from seeing Four’s reactions in the face of fear and when he is called upon to be courageous. James admires Four’s ability to admit his fears and commit to his decisions, and perhaps admiration of these characters is a reason extreme situations contain such intrigue to young adults.
Reading books and watching movies gives people the opportunity to explore situations that they wouldn’t otherwise encounter. Maybe young adults need extreme examples of bravery in fictional characters to better understand what bravery means in their own lives. During the Comic Con panel, actress Shailene Woodley made an insightful comment regarding bravery: “I think all of us are extremely brave and extremely courageous, but I don’t think that we’re necessarily put in situations where we’re forced to call on our bravery.” Woodley stated she loves that Tris rises to the challenge of realizing her own bravery to help the community around her, as well as having the courage to stick up for herself.
These stories illustrate values in real life that hardly ever get challenged to the same extent as they do in fiction, and audiences are always curious to know how a character will react. The understanding that none of our favorite characters are perfect really helps to make their stories stay with us. Books like Harry Potter and Divergent clearly do more than just provide readers with an escape from reality or provide authors with the opportunity to profit from a film-agreement, they reach into peoples’ lives and show what our values look like in the big picture.