Terrible Reviews by Josh Botvin
Like all distinct movements in literature, the now petering Young Adult craze can show us a great deal about the value systems of the culture from which they stem. In a similar vein of good works of satire – your 1984s, Fahrenheit 451s, Brave New Worlds – these novels and ensuing film franchises look to highlight and scathe the disgusting practices of our modern society: excess, inequality, failing intellectualism. The satirist holds a mirror to the world and in return the audience is disgusted by what is reflected, only to realize that it is their own selves they are so disgusted by. But this past wave of YA fiction is more the reflection than the actual holder of the mirror. And the movies suuuuuck.
And just to be clear, the last decade and a half has given us two discernable waves of YA fiction. There is adventure fiction sparked of course by Harry Potter (Chronicles of Narnia, Percy Jackson, Bridge to Terabithia, Eragon, The Golden Compass, etc.) which is not my focus. Those movies have their own problems I assume (I’ve only see Percy Jackson and Narnia) but ultimately they’re a collection of hero’s journey rehashes looking to cash in on the success of the Potter series. And that’s fine I suppose because none of them are trying to say anything other than “wouldn’t it be cool if you were a Greek god, or a dragon” and you know, whatever. Kids should be able, and encouraged, to imagine fun stuff.
What I am talking about is the Hunger Games style dystopian fiction stemming from the idea that grown-ups bad/sexy teens good, technology bad/nature good, oppressive authority bad/individual freedom good. And while I could have spent my time watching The Mortal Instruments, I am Number Four, Beautiful Creatures, Vampire Academy, and Ender’s Game, I focused mainly on the big three: The Hunger Games, Divergent, and The Maze Runner. So join me as I dissect how these three series are exactly the problems the series themselves are looking to satirize.
The Hunger Games
We all know the plot of The Hunger Games by this point – districts separated based on resource must annually sacrifice a boy and girl to a battle royal, instilling their fear and ensuring their submission for yet another year. Katniss is a Jennifer Lawrence type that defies the odds and brings down the whole system, the ultimate irony being that she inadvertently just sets up another system to take its place. It’s a story that explores the divide of our current political and socioeconomic system, with pockets of extreme wealth amongst masses of abject poverty.
It is no coincidence that the first book in the series was released in 2008. It is of course a direct response to the same fuel that sparked the Occupy Movement and the Left’s current shift to the extreme. It is also no surprise the first film was released in 2012, a year where the final Twilight film came to theaters (audiences want strong female protagonists now) and defined by a slew of make or break moments for a lot of big money franchises (studios want existing fan bases that are sure things). At it’s onset, this series had all the makings of an underdog story: a loveable main character, a modest budget, a fairly unproven director, but all it was really doing was establishing YA films as the new powers that be.
Besides the fact that the crux of the story makes absolutely no goddamn sense because who the fuck ever sanctioned the first Hunger Games, and even if it was sanctioned the first time, how long did it take for people to be like “yeah, I guess this is just our lives now, remember when we weren’t allowing our kids to massacre one another, because that was only like 27 months ago. Seriously I’m still wearing the socks I wore the day that this became law, why did we normalize it so fast?” it also makes absolutely no sense as a piece of satire.
Remember a satire exists to hold a mirror up to society to expose the problems inherent within. A satire also loses its moral high ground when it itself is the one committing the atrocities. And I am here to tell you now that The Hunger Games the series is in actuality The Hunger Games the games: a practice born in a period of financial and political devastation (whatup 2008 economic recession), designed to keep the wealthy that way ($2.968 billion series gross) and the poor entertained by the idea that you’re special and could become a star (hello “average girl” appeal Jennifer Lawrence and by extension Shailene Woodley). The fact that the series is bold enough to market itself as the disruptor of the system is laughable, because it created the system. Marx is turning over in his grave somewhere.
And all this is ignoring a lot that is wrong with the series – like that it’s seven eighths the hero’s acceptance and immediate rejection of the call, or that it’s a seminal third wave feminist text whose ultimate stance is “be passive and let men decide your fate”, or that the writer was a Gen Xer born in Hartford, CT (the Capitol if ever there was one) who graduated with a double major in Theater and Telecommunications and has never been without a steady paycheck from writing.
This one is starting with full disclosure – I only watched the first of this series. Generous cash payment aside, there is not a chance I will be continuing with it. In The Post-Hunger Games world, this movie is utterly shameless, from its uncanny casting choices (everyone looks like cheaper versions of their Hunger Games counterparts), to their identical world aesthetics, to the fact that the same company distributed it.
The plot is a rip off of The Giver – there comes a time in life where you are divided into factions based on your one strength, and that just kind of becomes your job. Beatrice (sounds kind of like Katniss, doesn’t it?) is a Jennifer Lawrence type that is good at more than one thing and becomes a divergent, which in this world means you’re good at more than one thing. I’m not going to dive too deeply into this, because I think I’m already treading into the territory of caring more about this work than the actual creator did, but it’s an allegory for the pressures associated with selecting a college major, and she eventually becomes Liberal Arts which allows her freedom (hahaha what kind of an idiot would be a Liberal Arts major).
This movie series is a cynical cash grab. Think of it as the 40th Hunger Games in our world: we have become leery to it, yet we are complacent, unable to take a stand and enact meaningful change. There may be seeds of revolution, cracks in the veneer, but the flawed system is still functioning just fine ($765 million series gross).
This is a film series dedicated to the message that we are all unique and individual, yet it is an exact carbon copy of its predecessor. Shailene Woodley is the Katniss pulled from relative obscurity, dolled up to look like a star. Unlike what the movie is attempting to convey, there are no options, there is no freedom. We are given a finite set of possible outcomes, dictated to us by boardroom execs and marketing strategists, and they are telling us that we love love-triangles. We need to feel that we have the upper hand over greedy, all knowing corporations. We are all the chosen one that will rise from the drudges of everyday life and will defeat the system. But the system has become a propaganda echo chamber distilling an already dismal message through an infinite series of blurry lenses. Oh god make it stop.
The Maze Runner
So the Maze Runner Series is pretty good. It’s in no way great, but it’s tolerable, which is more than I could say for either of the preceding series. And I know exactly why – it knows its time has come. It understands its own shelf life, and its happily walking into the embrace of death. Rather than trying to be up its own ass with messages, it just hits the nostalgia formula and copies a bunch of enjoyable shit we’ve seen in other movies.
The entire series is predicated on Lord of the Flies meets the Minotaur, a fun concept by anyone’s approximations, and the first installment actually presents an engaging, unanswered mystery (by the third movie the mystery is totally destroyed though, and the only reveal is that, surprise, this is just The Hunger Games society where adults are bad, you idiot, how could you not guess that?). It could probably be further explored as navigating the mazes of pubescence, saying goodbye to childhood friends in order to embrace the great unknown of adulthood, but honestly the movie is too stupid to lend itself to such a reading. Instead, with such an absence of subtext, it almost forces us to just take it at face value and enjoy what’s being put on the screen: some dumb cathartic action sequences.
In The Hunger Games of real life, we’ve reached the Capitol collapsing in on itself. This is excess for the sake of excess ($844 total gross). We’ve reached a tipping point, and rather than new innovations, we’ll just mindlessly rest on our laurels and try to make something stick. Throw some giant fucking bugs in there. Get a love triangle. Post apocalypse the shit out of New York. Call the bad guy’s company Wicked and then pretend like there’s a moral gray area. Despite previous notions, the main character actually is the chosen one.
By the third installment you’re so numb to the whole system, you ignore the fact that the producers didn’t even bother to change the working title “The Death Cure” and pay for a ticket anyway. The opening chase reminds you of Fury Road, the labs where they study the zombies of George Romero, running through the cramped cities Mission Impossible, the bus scene Speed, the bus falling scene Jurassic Park, and soon you’re swept so high in the movie’s wave of nostalgia that you couldn’t care less that the main character of a movie called The Death Cure uses his death cure to cure exactly zero people.
And here’s where I believe this brand of YA fiction dies. We’ve toppled the Hunger Games, not through a collective effort to boycott these movies and instead watch innovative and intelligent films with much smaller marketing budgets, but because general interested has just sort of cooled off. Despite incredible return on investment, margins are just not high enough for studios to keep pumping them out. Sure we’ll get a new wave in the next year or two, and there may even be some residuals that are going to creep in with similar subject matter. But the new focus is going to take the form of a more defined anti-technology approach, and a broad demo-friendly Black Mirror/Stranger Things hybrid will begin. The millennial mentality of us versus the big corporations is going to fade, because the big corporations green light the scripts, and I’m being told by Jeff Goldblum, Danny McBride, Thor, David Harbour, Rebel Wilson, and Morgan Freeman that it’s not cool to hate on the big corporations anymore.