If you didn’t know much about dystopia, you might think the genre is about oppressive futuristic societies that like to make arbitrary rules and murder teenagers and make them kiss. Today, the genre has been co-opted by these very teen franchises: The Hunger Games, The Maze Runner, Divergent. But it has a long history in the adult world, from 1984 to Fahrenheit 451 to A Clockwork Orange. And although teen franchises are still going strong, recent entries in the genre point to adults taking it back across every medium: in books, Margaret Atwood’s latest novel The Heart Goes Last, in TV, the Leftovers’ latest better-than-ever season, and in film, The Lobster.
All of these dystopias differ in premise and the nature of their societies, but they share the same quality: they are adult dramas. And I don’t only mean that in the way people do when they throw around expressions like “adult film” or “adult entertainment” — though Atwood’s novel handles sex in a way that raises eyebrows among even the most jaded. I don’t mean “adult” in terms of R-rated bloodshed either, although The Lobster has a gory scene or two that isn’t for the faint of heart. I don’t even mean that all the characters are adults — one of The Leftovers’ protagonists is a teenage girl; another is a young twenty-something guy.
To be adult, they have those elements, but they also have nuance and grapple with life’s ambiguities. Teen franchises can do that too, of course — The Hunger Games excels at depicting a world where both sides are pretty fucked up, and the criminally underrated novel Unwind does it even better. But The Hunger Games still has clearly defined heroes and villains. Katniss has her faults, but she and Peeta are unquestionably our heroes while President Snow makes a one-dimensional mustache-twirling villain.
In Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last, the protagonists are far from heroic. Thirty-something couple Stan and Charmaine are down on their luck and living in their car because America never recovered from the 2008 economy crash. Looters and gangs prowl the streets and the couple is in constant danger. Out of sheer desperation, they sign up to be part of a social experiment that involves living in a Pleasantville style gated community that will provide them with housing and jobs, so long as they sign onto it for life.
Of course there’s a catch — many catches, in fact, and neither Stan nor Charmaine are stalwart and true. Charmaine engages in a torrid affair; Stan emotionally cheats on Charmaine, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The rest involves sex robots and a moderate amount of murder, but the book is so delightfully wicked and filled with turns, I won’t give them away. The Heart Goes Last, like all the best dystopias, provides food for thought on many modern ways of life, including capitalism, technology, monogamy, the way we think about sexuality and attraction, bureaucracy and free will. There is a lot of sex in it — the most of Atwood’s books thus far — but that’s not what makes it “adult.” Atwood made herself known for dystopia and speculative fiction with The Handmaid’s Tale and the MaddAddam trilogy but The Heart Goes Last is her triumphant affirmation that yes, teen franchises, it’s cute that you played around in it for a while, but she’s got this.
The characters in The Leftovers are even more morally ambiguous than Stan and Charmaine: protagonist Kevin is philandering and possibly crazy, two other main characters — Tom and Laurie — are in cults. Another character regularly pays prostitutes to shoot her in the chest with a kevlar vest on, even when it makes the prostitutes uncomfortable.
There is no villain, there are only people who haven’t gotten what they thought they wanted and are just trying to get by day-to-day. It’s a more realist take than either Atwood or Yorgos Lanthimos took in The Lobster, but it’s no less effective for lacking their dark whimsy. The Leftovers shows how, even though dystopia frequently takes place after some extreme fictional event — a war, an economic crash, the unexplained disappearance of millions of people — the genre is far from fantasy: sure, we might not have suffered a plague of unexplained disappearances like those in the universe of The Leftovers have, but we’ve suffered tragic events like September 11th and school shootings that rock the fabric of the microcosm of society. Some people move on from them with lightning speed while others linger; is there really a right way to respond to such a thing? That’s one of the many questions it poses but doesn’t quite answer, because dystopia is far more about questions than answers, the what-ifs and the whys.
The Lobster also asks questions, but its “what if?” is the most absurd of the bunch. Colin Farrell’s newly single character checks into a hotel where he must find a mate in a certain amount of time or else he will be transformed into an animal. The rules of the universe are never explained — unlike teen franchises like The Hunger Games’ 12 districts or Divergent’s factions that totally aren’t a copy off The Hunger Games 12 districts mixed with the Harry Potter houses, that would be crazy — but it doesn’t need to be explained.
It makes the commentary it needs to and manages to be bizarre and hilarious without having to outline the exact nature of its universe. It embodies a sentiment that’s been missing from the genre ever since it got co-opted by teen franchises, with their tendency to over-explain: the sentiment that sometimes, less is more.
This isn’t to scorn teen dystopia — Unwind is simply written, but its story and social commentary is up there with the best in the genre, as is Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now — but subtlety and ambiguity, as a whole, are more prevalent in adult dystopias than teens. And with Atwood’s new novel, The Leftovers new season, Lanthimos’s new film, and the Hunger Games on its last legs, get ready for adults to take the genre back in a big way with fresh, funny, and smart new offerings. The crumbling of society as you know it has never been so exciting.