What Is Utopian Fiction in Film and TV? Definition and Examples

'Utopia'Credit: Channel 4
A utopia seems like a great place to live. What could go wrong? 

As the famous maxim goes, "There are no stories in the village of the happy people." Still, we have seen utopian fiction in film and television flourish since the dawn of time. Maybe that's because something always goes wrong inside the utopia—but we'll get to that later. 

Right now, I want you to think about a TV show or movie whose world you'd want to live in. Now take a moment to realize if you picked Jurassic Park, you'll probably be eaten, and if you picked Titanic, you might only have a week to spend with the people you love. 

If you were strategizing which world you wanted to live in, it might be best to pick a utopia. 

In fiction, we see people striving to create these perfect worlds, where things are fair for everyone. Utopia is a powerful world. Today we want to cover its definition, some examples in film and television, the specific tropes within the genre, and look at the characters that inhabit these worlds. 

Get ready to experience pure joy... right before it all falls apart. 

'Things to Come' (1936)Credit: United Artists

What Is Utopian Fiction in Film and TV? 

We have an entire post cover to dystopia, I thought we should spend some time with the opposite. The truth is, there are lots of genres that choose to try to show utopias and lots of ways they can inspire and add to your writing. 

Let's figure out the word and then go from there. 

Utopian Fiction Definition 

Utopian fiction portrays a setting that is idyllic or a society that strives for perfection. At the center is an imagined community that possesses nearly perfect qualities for its citizens. 

The term "utopia" was coined by Sir Thomas More for his 1516 book Utopia, describing a fictional island society. The opposite of a utopia is a dystopia, which dominates most of film and TV. Still, utopias are present, and writing about one can set you apart from the crowd. 

'Rollerball' (1975)Credit: 20th Century Fox

Utopian Fiction Tropes

Work in this kind of writing talks about the ideal state of society. It can focus on equality, destiny, love, and higher callings. In these societies, we see no division of races, sexes, or genders.

These kinds of stories almost always include a downfall. Either the society fails, or some of the mechanisms holding up the society are perverted by human nature. 

"There is nothing like a dream to create the future. Utopia to-day, flesh and blood tomorrow." — Victor Hugo

Utopian Fiction Characters 

So who lives in a utopia? We have our list of character archetypes, and as you'd expect, you need philosophers and intellectuals. You need healers and maybe a few people who seem to have otherworldly powers, especially if you are blending in the fantasy genre. You also need warriors, not just to protect the place, but also to make sure everyone stays in line.

'Demolition Man' (1993)Credit: Warner Bros.

Utopian Fiction Worldbuilding 

When you're working on a utopia, you need to think about how it exists and what other genres you're bringing into play. Is it like Rivendell in The Lord of the Rings or is it more like Washington, D.C., in Minority Report

The worldbuilding here can mean constructing a place or an entire globe. 

Things you should keep in mind are whether or not you're following a government system, a business, or a secret enclave. Also, think about the plot you want. Are you tearing this utopia down or setting it up?  

"A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realisation of Utopias." — Oscar Wilde

Feminist Utopias in Film and TV 

One of the largest subcategories in utopian fiction is that of the feminist utopia. Feminist utopia imagines a society without gender oppression, envisioning a future or an alternate reality where men and women are not stuck in traditional roles of inequality but equal. Or even a society without men at all. Look at Themyscira in Wonder Woman. It's an island habitat populated only by Amazonian warrior women. 

Or what about a TV show like The Bold Type, that shows women working together at a magazine and supporting one another? Another twist would be the upcoming Y: The Last Man TV show on FX. This is a world where all the men are dead except one and women work to fix the world. 

And you don't have to build a show like this around women only. Theoretically, in a utopia, everyone should be equals anyway. 

Let's look at some more examples of utopia fiction in film and TV. 

'Wonder Woman' (2017)Credit: Warner Bros.

Utopian Fiction Examples in Film 

Let's start with a masterpiece. Peter Weir's The Truman Show is about a guy living inside the perfect town. Outside, billions of people watch his life unfold on TV. But this utopia is about to crack, as the person at the center of it begins to see the flaws. 

At the end of that movie, Truman's choice comes between living in perfection or being in a flawed world where anything can happen. 

Another movie I wanted to highlight is the overlooked film, The Circle. It takes a more grounded look at a tech utopia. In it, we follow someone who accepts their dream job. In this twist, we see someone working to build a personal utopia by stepping into someone else's. 

Again, the twist is the world falling apart when the notion of perfection is challenged, but you can see how this also applies to a grounded version of a world. 

Lastly, let's step into classical Hollywood, and visit Metropolis, Fritz Lang's science fiction masterpiece. We see a futuristic city where someone says a savior will come to unite them. This is a utopia without a twist. It's a story about societal preservation, where the drama is in the build, not the collapse. 

A lot of times we see these tropes more in TV than in cinema. But this one stands the test of time.  

'Metropolis' (1927)Credit: Paramount Pictures

Utopian Fiction Examples in TV 

Television is the prime place to see the building and destruction of utopias. You have multiple episodes to steep people in the world. First, let's take a look at a show whose title is literally the topic we're on. 

Utopia is about a group of young adults who are battling the deep state to save the world. While this seems like a dystopia, I think we are classifying it in the category where people are trying to build a much better world after they know what's going on under the surface. (Also, watch the original British version of this show if you can. It's amazing.)

Another one of my favorite shows of all time is The Good Place. For those who have not seen it, the pilot takes place in a utopia where it feels like heaven. It's the perfect place... but we're following a gal who thinks she's not supposed to be there... 

It's one of the more hilarious conceits in TV history, and the show builds on the real idea of what a "Good Place" should look like and also questions what kinds of humans should go there. It's a really great way to subvert the expected tropes. 

Lastly, I wanted to look at multi-camera sitcoms. See, in the world of network TV, most of these characters live in relative utopias. The Friends apartment is huge, the gang from Seinfeld doesn't really see consequences for their actions until the finale, and the stakes are rarely life and death. 

While there are some exceptions to the rule, I find that if you're writing a multi-cam sitcom, people want to see an idyllic life with superficial problems. 

So keep that in mind! 

'The Good Place' (2016)Credit: NBC

Summing Up Utopian Fiction in Film and Television

Hopefully, we learned a lot today about storytelling and the idea of perfection in society. As you can see, the utopian story is actually really malleable, just a "perfect society." You can use it to examine human flaws, existence, and even the way we structure our governments.

The idea of perfection and utopia might seem far-fetched, but the best writers know how to make them feel prescient in our society.

I want to hear about your favorite utopian fiction in film and TV. What are the lessons you've learned and the characters you've loved? 

Let me know in the comments. 

And then get back to writing. 

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