Sometimes when the world is crumbling around us, we take comfort hiding away in a genre that's okay with blowing things up and starting over. The world of dystopian fiction is one of the souped-up cars, mohawks, hungry populations, and evil dictators.
Inside these creations lies a greater metaphor about what it takes to survive. I love any opportunity we have to strip away the niceties on the surface and really get down to what it means to be human, so dystopian fiction is near and dear to my heart.
Today I want to dissect this common genre in all its guzzoline-hoarding glory. We'll look at why it's so popular, define it, check out tropes and characteristics, and even look at some popular examples from some of our most memorable films and TV shows.
Along the way, we'll escape cannibals, learn about the value of life, and take ourselves back to our basal instincts.
Seem intense? Good. Only the strong will survive this one.
Let's dive in.
'The Hunger Games'Credit: Lionsgate
What Is Dystopian Fiction in Film and TV?
There are lots of genres out there, but most people can pick out dystopian fiction just by looking at it. There's a heightened sense in the world, brutal cinematography, and a personal connection to the characters and their apparent suffering.
This is a future you may not want to survive to see.
The idea of dystopian fiction comes from the two-pronged genre tree of dystopian versus utopian.
Dystopian Fiction Definition
Dystopian writing for film and television is a form of fiction where an imagined community or society is defined by what is dehumanizing and frightening within it. A dystopia is an antonym of a utopia, which is a perfect society.
We'll cover that one in another post soon.
'Blade Runner 2049'Credit: Warner Bros.
Dystopian Fiction Tropes
An overreaching government, a society amidst a collapse, catastrophes from weather, aliens, or excessive authoritarian control are just some of the tropes of this genre. Others include a loss of humanity, individualism, survival stories, technological control, and nihilism.
These are prime places for revolutions, coming-of-age stories, class warfare, love triangles, morality plays, and race relations.
Dystopia is malleable—you can mash it up with other genres to create interesting worlds and showcase a variety of characters.
Dystopian Fiction Characters
We usually see characters who have trouble coping with their current climates. Whether that's farmers whose crops have dried up or people forced to fight in the Hunger Games, this is a genre about survival. It's not all warlords and people fighting in the Thunderdome though.
Look at people living in worlds with oppressive regimes, like Neo was in TheMatrix. One of the most common characters in these stories is the unifier, the person who is there to lead the charge against the oppression or danger facing the world.
In the antagonist realm, we usually meet the big bad person on the other side. Though in a dystopia, sometimes it's hard to trust anyone on either side of the fight.
Since this is a genre about human nature, you can expect people to do unsettling things to ensure their own survival.
'The Purge'Credit: Blumhouse
Dystopian Fiction Worldbuilding
Because of the nature of dystopia, you need to spend a lot of time worldbuilding. These movies and TV shows might have longer first acts. You really need to understand how society works and why they got here. The best way to do this is to ground it in a character dealing with the oppression or situation at hand as well.
Think about the rules of your regime. It's not just how the world looks and feels, but you need to make sure the audience knows what's happening and who is pulling the strings.
If you have a game where people fight for food, explain it. If your characters wear cloaks and bonnets because of a religious cult, explain it.
There are artful ways to do this stuff, so try to hide your exposition in plain sight or start with a scroll, like Star Wars or Blade Runner (or voiceover!) to set the scene and show people the new world they'll be in for the remainder of the story.
'Handmaid's Tale'Credit: Hulu
Dystopian Fiction Examples in Film
One of the best things about the word "dystopia" is that it covers a whole lot of traumatic worlds. For that very reason, I wanted to pick some examples of dystopian fiction that felt varied and nuanced.
Let's start out with a criminally underseen movie in Seeking a Friend for the End of the World. The premise is that the world is going to end soon, and the whole place has descended into madness. We follow two neighbors as they drive across the country to be with their family and to just be with someone as it all ends. What I love about this movie is that it leans into the cliches and tropes and subverts them.
It also shows that you don't have to light the world on fire to have a dystopia. It can be fun.
The Hunger Games fulfills a lot of the boxes in terms of worldbuilding. We get a broken society, a cruel dictator, and a coming-of-age story. It also shows this genre's ability to break out. This was a worldwide phenomenon that crossed multiple movies and that's getting a prequel.
Finally, let's look at one of the more traditional entries into the world, The Road. This movie has cannibals, dangers, and a father and son trying to survive the apocalypse. It's one of those movies that sticks with you for a long time. It's bleak, it's heavy... it's a dystopia!
'Seeking a Friend for the End of the World'Credit: Universal
Dystopian Fiction Examples in TV
Dystopias take extensive worldbuilding and thus make a ton of sense in television. They have legs and can expand and build season to season. Look at something like The Walking Dead. Not only did that inspire spinoffs, but it's going over 10 seasons strong. It's a great mashup with horror and fits perfectly into an expanding universe.
I also love the TV adaptation of Snowpiercer. It really shows how you can take the film and build on the world within it. I love the expansion of science fiction and the explanation of the world. The show works in a police procedural element as well.
Again, this is indicative of what dystopia can do—mold itself into any situation or timeline, as long as you have key elements.
Finally, I want to look at a more polished dystopia.
The Handmaid's Tale presents a horrific future. We have an oppressive government, people trying to overthrow a regime, and lots of violence. This is a brutal look at how you don't need to just be a gross world with mohawks and mothers' milk to be a traditional dystopia.
'The Walking Dead'Credit: AMC
Summing Up Dystopian Fiction in Film and Television
Well, I hope you made it through that with all your fingers and toes. Dystopian fiction is one of those genres that allows people across all mediums to reinvent how society works and show humanity at its worst. Still, I think it's a hopeful look at how the world is built and how the best of us always try to find the light of day.
It's also one of those genres that just makes you think about your own life and how you can make it better.
Hopefully, you learned something today. At least how to build a fire and roast a human on a spit.
I'd love to get a discussion going in the comments regarding the books people should read before embarking on dystopian fiction and other tips, pointers, and worldbuilding techniques that might help people get their stories across.