The Luminary Postgraduate Magazine Lancaster University

Simulation Frames: Young Adult Dystopian Cinema

Alison Tedman

Like the novels on which they are based, Young Adult dystopian films primarily provide a space for heroic adventure. The films repurpose dystopia, de-emphasising the ideological critique associated with canonic dystopic fiction. Young Adult dystopian adaptations retain their source novels’ hybridisation of fast-paced action with codes of teen drama, reformulating these within post-classical cinema targeted at a young teen demographic. This article examines the ways in which Divergent (Burger, US, 2014) reimagines the aesthetics and spatial relations of classic dystopic and science fiction cinema. The film, together with other Young Adult adaptations, constructs a cinematic analogue of Young Adult dystopian novels’ metaphoric treatment of adolescent concerns, and their focus on subjectivity. Visual tropes from dystopian science fiction, war or drama genres abound in these films, but they are modified. Mise-en-scène coded to convey social organisation becomes pleasurable fashion; simulated environments enhance ability and self-knowledge, utopian and dystopian narrative spaces are defined by teenage communities and romances. The run-down city or the warring space-ship take on an educational and game-oriented function. Divergent is one of the first Young Adult films after The Hunger Games (2012) to bring dystopia, heroic adventure and teen development successfully to the screen. Despite the continuing success of The Hunger Games franchise, by 2013 there was speculation in the industry press that this genre was not financially viable. The year had seen the release of the less profitable dystopian science fiction Ender’s Game and The Host, and post-apocalyptic How I Live Now. When Divergent made $54.6 million at its opening weekend in America (Box Office Mojo), double the opening box office of Ender’s Game, it was hailed by industry commentators as having broken ‘the curse that has plagued every other YA film adaptation’ (McClintock). While making only slightly over a third of The Hunger Games’s $152.5 million opening, its opening box office enabled it to be ranked directly below the latter franchise and those of Harry Potter and Twilight (2008-12) in a list of ‘Young-Adult Book Adaptations’ (Box Office Mojo). This success came despite the fact that the series’ concluding book Allegiant (2013) was published to a negative reception from many fans.


Divergent is adapted from the first novel in a best-selling trilogy by Christian author Veronica Roth. The appeal of the novel for its fandom is based partly on its strong-willed heroine, and the central premise of the faction system, both of which are integral to the film’s reworking of dystopia.1 Divergent is set about 150 years in the future in a post-apocalyptic Chicago, sealed off by a guarded wall. Its citizens choose at 16 to join one of five factions based on virtues: ‘Abnegation’ are self-effacing with religious associations and take on caring and political duties; ‘Erudite’ fulfil intellectual roles; ‘Dauntless’ act as armed protectors; ‘Candor’ value honesty; and ‘Amity’ favour peace and harmony. An aptitude test, in the form of a simulation, provides guidance on faction choice. After a symbolic Choosing Ceremony, young people leave family behind to adopt the ideologies and social roles of their chosen faction, following the doctrine of ‘faction before blood’. Beatrice Prior is born into Abnegation, but at her test she is warned that she is ‘divergent’, having traits that fit several factions, and so represents a threat to the system. She chooses Dauntless, renames herself Tris, and we follow her initiation process of physical and mental training, and her relationship with trainer, ‘Four’, whose original name was Tobias. Erudite leader Jeanine then disrupts the status quo by using a simulation to control Dauntless, who attack Abnegation.


As in other Young Adult dystopian fiction such as the book and film of The Maze Runner, Tris finds her identity in an enclosed, youthful community. Young Adult dystopian literature differs from canonical dystopian fiction in a range of ways which affect the novels’ transposition to film. It is a hybrid genre that “draws on...the bildungsroman, the adventure story, and the romance” (Basu, Broad and Hintz 6) in addition to science fiction (9), action films and games. The novels integrate intense love into the narrative (8), and crucially, may conclude with a sense of hope (2). Young Adult heroes develop as individuals in post-apocalyptic scenarios of war, alien invasion, climate change, over-population, disease, and future science. Basu et al suggest that Young Adult dystopian novels centre on ‘thematic threads’ that may include ‘conformity, which is often exaggerated for dramatic effect’ (3), as in Divergent. First-person narration is often found in the novels (1), as in Roth’s. The film’s subjective enunciation positions the audience to share Tris’s experience through voice-over, simulations, and subjective camerawork, including the circling pan that expresses Tris’s desire to join Dauntless, as she watches her peers jump off a train to arrive at school.


The film, Divergent constructs a pleasurable aesthetics of dystopian categorisation. In adult dystopian fiction such as Orwell’s canonical 1984, the categorisation of the individual within society is visualised as part of a totalitarian nightmare. Threatening regimes are often found in Young Adult fiction, mitigated by teenage trust and bonding, but in the novel of Divergent there is no perceptible totalitarian authority. Tris accepts the faction system, although she is aware that ‘Faction customs…supersede individual preference’ (Roth, Divergent 9). Roth has spoken in interviews of her initial pleasure in the “” of the faction system, influenced by personality tests, and by The Giver and the Harry Potter novels:

I thought if I were creating a Utopia, maybe everyone would know where they fitted in and would be responsible for their own actions and focused on being good people. Well no one should put me in charge, because this is not a utopia – it’s a dystopia (qtd in Nicol 32)

The view that Tris’s world is initially pleasurable is shared is by the film’s producers and fans, and deployed in creating the film’s aesthetic, its transmedia marketing, merchandising and fan sites. Like the world-building of other film franchises, Divergent lends itself to ‘spreadable’ and ‘drillable’ transmedia storytelling (Jenkins n.p.) intentionally based on the construct of the faction system. To quote production designer Andy Nicholson, whose work includes The Host and Gravity (2013), “one of the things we definitely tried to do with the creation of the factions was make them each appealing in their own way" (qtd in Egan 70). All faction headquarters use design and building materials to signify faction identity and ethics. White and glass connote the intellectual coolness of Erudite. For Abnegation, square plaster houses appearing as concrete were built in the shadow of Chicago’s Willis or Sears Tower (Egan 72), then digitally cloned and dressed. The floor of Tris’s family home is made of tiny interlocking pieces of wood to convey frugal recycling. The grey interior is given warmth through the use of ash (74) and by DP Alvin Küchler’s use of a small plasma light over the table, creating a painterly chiaroscuro. The glow in which the family are framed amidst darkness metaphorically suggests the spiritual illumination of the prayers described in the original novel (Roth 32), and, intentionally, a stronger sense of family warmth than in the book: “We were going for this warm feel but a certain starkness that went along with being Abnegation” (Burger).


For its designer, “Dauntless is ….an exciting and dangerous, dynamic place to be” (Nicholson qtd in Egan 70). Rather than the natural rock suggested by the novel, the cavernous Pit where Dauntless live and train appears to be constructed from industrial concrete blocks, and was based on a white marble quarry to convey luminosity (Burger). We are shown the initiates being introduced to a communal toilet area which is not in the novel. In Roth’s book, Four has a modest bedsit in the Dauntless underground enclave, with a blue patchwork quilt and “Fear God Alone” on the wall (Roth 282). In the film this becomes a loft apartment, with a “hundred-foot window”, and a secular, salvage-chic interior designed by Nicholson and by Anne Kuljian to “uniquely” reflect his identity (Nicholson qtd in Egan 86).


Divergent makes dystopia both recognisable and appealing to its intended demographic, through its use of style.  Orange is used intentionally to create warmth in the mise-en-scene at the start of initiation, while an added scene of the initiates’ crowd-surfing is both communal and intimate (Burger). By visually connoting the emotional warmth of the groups that share these communal quarters, Young Adult adaptations transform such spaces into a referent for the narrative trope that has been noted in the novels, whereby the teen protagonists adopt new communities rather than leaving home. By the end of Divergent, the viewer is intended to have invested in Tris’s desire to succeed within this faction, and with the characters. The film positions its audience to feel loss rather than freedom as the faction and its defences break down, symbolised spatially by Jeanine’s attack on Abnegation from inside Dauntless headquarters.


In the design of Divergent, faction identity is individualised, and used to market the film. Faction costumes are broadly coded by Roth, but minutely differentiated for the film by costume designer Carlo Poggioli. Unlike the unflattering state uniforms of the 1956 adaptation of 1984, Divergent employs a wide range of looks, not only between factions but within them. Dauntless youth sport industrial jewellery, tattoos and black ‘leather’ (in fact a shiny stretch fabric), with different flashes of colour to denote affiliation. Burger steered Dauntless costume designs away from militarism, towards “something exuberant, youthful, cool, intense” (Egan 104). This tactic succeeded, since Poggioli explains in an interview that he was inundated with requests for the clothes by fans (On Screen Style). Faction jewellery, fake tattoos and Barbies are available for purchase. While an ethos of recycling informs its design, the film connotes sufficiency for those in factions; diversity rather than uniformity.


Although dystopia takes many nuanced forms, the label ‘dystopia’ that dominates reviews of Divergent is problematic. In its visual diversity and appeal, the design supports Burger’s aims to create ‘more of a communal utopia’ than in the novel:

In the book, everything is crumbling and you see the cracks in the system from the beginning. But for me it was important — because Tris...wants to be a part of the society — that the initial depiction of the society needed to be a positive one (qtd in Clarke)

Darko Suvin defines eutopia “as having socio-political institutions, norms, and relationships among people organized according to a radically more perfect principle than in the author’s community”, while dystopia is “organized by a radically less perfect principle” (189). We might struggle to apply this definition of dystopia to Divergent’s social organisation, narrative action or mise-en-scene. The faction system remains closer to Suvin’s “anti-utopia”, a flawed society masquerading as eutopia, than to an oppressive “simple dystopia” (189). Chicago’s inhabitants believe that the factions were designed to maintain peace, an explanation that is given believability by Tris’s voice-over at the film’s start. Although the film is coded as ‘dystopian’ and depicts a society rigidly organised for the greater good, Tris never critiques the system as Suvin’s identification figure in an anti-utopia might be expected to do (Ibid). Dauntless training enables Tris to reach her potential and she gains the physical skills to fight Jeanine’s threat to the status quo rather than the system itself. 


Applying modes developed by Rob McAlear to Roth’s novel, Balaka Basu concludes that Divergent’s society was originally an “Anti-Dystopia of complacency” that has developed into “an Anti-Utopia”, a resistance to other societies, without having been a “true utopia” or “true dystopia”. Since the novel does not critique the assumed benefits of classification it fails to offer social transformation (Basu 29). Basu argues that Roth’s rhetoric supports the pleasure of knowing one’s identity through nostalgia for a valorised earlier period when the faction system worked properly: “the novel tacitly promotes the ideals of classification that have shaped its society, suggesting that its dystopia is the result of correctable corruption, not the product of a fundamentally misconceived idea” (20). The corruption of earlier faction ideals is less clear in the film, which avoids any concomitant nostalgia for a period when the faction system worked. The notion that Dauntless initiation practices have worsened is conveyed sporadically through dialogue but audiences are likely to relate this to hints of a threat to the status quo. The film exacerbates Tris’s pleasure in joining the faction, inviting us to share this through subjective enunciation. This perspective is enhanced by choices made in adapting the source material. In Roth’s novel, the corruption of Dauntless’ ideals is conveyed through her naturalistic descriptions of Tris’s pain and bruises and the witnessed tragedies of failed initiation that haunt her. Burger leaves out a death when an initiate misjudges the jump from train to rooftop, while a vicious eye stabbing in the dormitory was filmed but edited out. In interview he explains that after witnessing brutality, the audience would not understand or share Tris’s positive reaction (Clarke). Mark Fisher argues that The Hunger Games’ “political charge depends upon the surprising intensity of its brutality” (27). Burger constructs a less graphically violent scenario, making the Dauntless HQ a challenging yet appealing place. This extends to the possession of the dystopian cityscape by Dauntless members as Tris joins in with initiation activities.


Divergent partly draws on tropes from the class of dystopian films set in post-apocalyptic known cities. Janet Staiger (1999) describes cities in future noir films as characterised by a postmodern combination of old and new architecture, darkness, ‘labyrinthine’ chaos and entropy, tropes that contribute to ideological critique (100).  We can see this partly in City of Ember’s (2008) failing underground city, which offers a useful point of comparison with Divergent. The city has outlived its forgotten function, one of protecting residents from a post-apocalyptic earth. The film which is also a Young Adult adaptation, similarly offers a system in which social roles are prescribed but in which the heroine is proud to take her place as a city messenger. As in Divergent, corruption and violence stem from an official, the duplicitous Mayor who undermines the collective good by hoarding food. With its tangle of cables, plaster that drops on civic ceremonies, and exploding overhead lights, City of Ember also visually suggests Halper and Muzzio’s “retro” dystopian city (386) and their “city as chaos”, the first of “two opposing categories” of urban dystopia in American cinema, the other being “the city as under rigid, comprehensive control” (381). Although it resembles the “retro” city, however, Divergent‘s Chicago is presented as functional rather than shadowy, disordered or entropic.


Gaps in our understanding of the city’s historical context in Divergent prevent the insight that is necessary for a critical dystopia. No detail is conveyed of the war mentioned at the start of the film. In pre-production the organisation of Chicago’s economy was teased out by Burger, who also questioned Roth about the city’s past in order to gauge the physical decline in the buildings, and to visualize its century-long lack of technology. He decided on external wind turbines on the buildings as a source of power (Egan 32-3), and shows the distribution of resources. As Roth admits in interviews (Ibid.), she had not focused on details of setting nor given much thought to the world beyond the fence. In Roth’s novel Tris comments on derelict areas with open sewers where factionless labourers have to live (25), but onscreen the factionless are presented as apparently jobless and homeless. Suvin argues of classical dystopias that a critique is enunciated through the point of view of the “discontented social class” (189). A scene in Roth’s novel in which a factionless male talks to Tris about her forthcoming aptitude test is replaced with Tris’s point of view of a dispossessed factionless woman, and an exchange of troubled looks (Roth Divergent 25-6). For Burger, this switch was to suggest a subjective “taste of the fear and the jeopardy of not fitting in anywhere” Burger). Threatening males feature in Tris’s simulations in the book, reminding readers of her earlier encounter with the factionless man, but are omitted from the film. The factionless are foregrounded in Roth’s second novel, but in the adaptation of Divergent they exist to highlight the selflessness of Abnegation, and the consequences of failure on Tris’s part, lacking their own voice. The decision deflects attention from the systemic causes and problem of a factionless class.


Building on Roth’s affectionate use of her home city, Chicago is given a role that is both nostalgic and transformed.2 Both novel and film use Chicago’s El railway, the Sears or Willis Tower and other landmarks. Helicopter shots and plates of Chicago locations are supplemented by practical and visual effects including external wind turbines, cables, rust and weeds, while Lake Michigan becomes a swamp (Method Studios). As Theo James who plays Four puts it, the settings are “dystopianised” (Wikia Fangirl). Local press picked up on the pleasures of seeing a recognisable but altered Chicago, including the Mansuetto Library at the University of Chicago for Erudite, or the Navy Pier Grand Ballroom for the final simulations. Fan sites discuss the locations, while Divergent-Lovers Guide to Chicago offers visitors suggestions for an “authentic Divergent experience” (Sandoval). In Divergent we have, as producer Douglas Wick, puts it, “Chicago repurposed. You get the logic of the city and understand the trains that go through” (Mob Scene).


In Divergent, the dystopian cityscape is gamified, transforming the skyline. Contemporary cinema has incorporated a variety of tropes from games including camera movement and angle, editing, narrative structure and mise en scene. Divergent differs from other films that gamify the city, including Run Lola Run (1998) which uses the streets of 1990s Berlin as narrative space for differing plot outcomes (Grieb; Kallay), and Gamer (2009), in which cityscapes are designed for human avatars. Although there are scenes that connote computer games in Divergent there is a naturalistic physicality about Dauntless‘s activities that returns these to earlier adventure literature or cinema. The derelict Ferris Wheel at Navy Pier is reinvented as a climbing frame which Tris uses to win a war game in a night sequence of red light and smoke flares. The John Hancock building becomes the starting point for ziplining and the train supports and other buildings are a focus for jumping and climbing – including Tris’s leap off a roof into the Dauntless HQ. The use of space such as the Ferris wheel reframes the association of height and depth with class or aspiration that film theorists such as Desser (1999) or Sobchak (1999) found in the earlier science fiction city. Here, the city is remade as an adventure playground. This emphasis on play distinguishes the film from the deadlier arena of The Hunger Games, while Ender’s Game includes war games in the form of gravity free play-offs. In its set design, The Maze Runner shares Divergent’s use of an industrialised landscape for physical adventure, and its enclosed, collective living space. The Maze Runner is discussed further below, together with The Host


Film adaptations of Young Adult dystopian literature make cinematic references to contemporary youth culture and visually remediate prior cultural influences on the literature. As Hintz comments, ‘all utopias are hybrid genres’ (254). Laura Miller (2010) for example, notes the game influences and “hand-to-hand combat” in Young Adult dystopian novels that include Dashner’s The Maze Runner. Divergent’s reconfiguration of the organised city for ziplining, climbing and jumping offers parallels with Schweizer’s (2013) analysis of computer games that incorporate skateboarding and other urban sports. Schweizer refers to the urban sport of parkour, in which the city landscape is used for climbing or jumping. He notes the progressive connotations of parkour when it is depicted in video game narratives that depict “climbing buildings and moving along the rooftops as a form of defiance” (n.p.) in ‘Orwellian’ or repressive game worlds. The physical appropriation of the city heights by Dauntless fails to symbolise resistance to the faction system, however. The connotations of their traversal of heights in the film are closer to parkour’s original cultural meanings of “athleticism, balance, and control of the body” than to resistance (Ibid.). Such exuberant activities are an extension of Dauntless’s prescribed peacekeeping role, as work or leisure, and despite their visual anarchy they are recuperated. These skills also enable Tris to fight the antagonist’s threat to the system in the final segments of the film.


Dystopian mise-en-scene in Divergent has to be understood as Suvin suggests of any dystopia, “within the historical space-time of the text’s inception” (189), but also as a product of the complex demands of translating Young Adult novels into a Hollywood text aimed at a young demographic. Applying the concept of the critical dystopia to sci fi, Peter Fitting suggests that a dystopian setting may function as “foreground”, intrinsic to the narrative or less progressively it may become background due to its “narrative advantages”, drawing on social fears without analysis or “collective solutions” (156). Fitting’s division more readily applies to films such as Metropolis (1927)or Elysium (2013) where dystopian poverty and lack of human rights is designed to contrast ideologically with the utopian world above, but as Annette Kuhn notes, “the [sci fi city as] backdrop is never entirely neutral” (76).  As a setting, the city in Divergent operates in a more complex manner than “background”, in Fitting’s terms. In the film of Divergent, dystopia is realigned, visualizing the ways in which, as authors and theorists have noted, apocalypse make real teenage life choices and tests redundant and opens up exciting and heroic opportunities (Westerfeld; Basu, Broad, Hintz 5-6). The dystopian city offers a combination of excitement, danger and familiarity, aimed particularly at a youth audience.


Although some dystopian films present the eventual desire to escape from the system through the protagonist’s “alienation and resistance” as in the dystopian narrative structure given by Baccolini and Moylan (5), this is not the case in Divergent. The city is more pleasurable while it is organised. Reading British dystopian cinema, Aidan Power draws on Telotte and Sobchak to assess the ways in which the pleasure in post-apocalyptic fiction lies in the new but familiar, answering our desires for change, but also creating anxieties because it threatens what is close to us. In analysing Young Adult dystopian adaptations, it is apposite to draw on Freud’s work on the uncanny, which he defines as “that class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar” (340). This illuminates the ways in which dystopia is reconfigured in relation to the familiar. 


The arena in which Beatrice is reborn as Tris is initially womb-like, leading to her development as a fearless, self-directed individual. To enter Dauntless headquarters, Tris leaps off a moving El train onto a roof seven storeys up, before being the first initiate to jump into a jagged hole over an unseen net below, an action defined by Burger as the belly of the whale in Tris’s classic hero journey (Clarke). In Dauntless, “she feels like she’s home, or…where she belongs” (Burger). Yet as initiation progresses, the director portrays Dauntless headquarters as fraught with threat. Tris trains to rise up the ranks and remain in her new home, but its appeal is a more unsettling, unheimlich one (Freud 363-4) entailing greater reserves of determination from her. This return to what was once familiar is underlined by Tris’s later discovery that her mother was Dauntless, making Tris’s sense of belonging explicable.


This combination of the homely and the uncanny is also conveyed by the visual design of other Young Adult dystopian films such as The Host and The Maze Runner. In the former film, alien ‘Souls’ have colonised human minds, and the beleaguered survivors live in a sanctuary of caverns under a desert tor. A disguised moveable roof allows crops to grow and be harvested underground, in a surreal image reminiscent of the impossible exterior shot at the end of Tarkovsky’s Nostalgia (1983). These caverns offer hope yet bring threat from within the community, for both the heroine and the female ‘Soul’ inside her. Similarly, The Maze Runner’s amnesiac protagonist joins a community of boys in a walled glade at the centre of a maze, after a rite of passage entrance from a subterranean elevator. The setting conveys communal warmth, reinvisaging the novel’s kitchen and dining areas as a tribal campfire where the boys eat, drink, dance and fight. A wall where names of Gladers are added or erased creates a tangible expression of the fragile community. Like the Pit, the Glade is an unheimlich space, riven with threat from the nightmarish cyborg creatures known as Grievers. It is also a place in which Thomas, like Tris, prepares for a new identity. 


To succeed in her initiation and remain in Dauntless, Tris must undergo mental training involving simulations. Dauntless are injected with a serum which together with nano/brain technology creates a virtual scenario symbolising their worst fears, through which they must calm their heart rate and control the action. Roth was influenced partly by exposure therapy as a means of self-improvement (2011), and partly by 1984 and The Matrix (1999)(Charaipotra). The film simplifies the novel’s training stages, conflating simulations with fear landscapes in which narratives have been generated from previously identified anxieties (Roth 296). As a divergent, Tris is aware that simulations including entrapment in a water tank are unreal, as her reflection tells her in the adaptation, and she manipulates virtual reality, breaking the glass with a touch as in Inception (2010).


In the film but not in the novel, Tris’s aptitude test begins with a simulated hall of mirrors. In Roth’s novel, mirrors are used naturalistically to illustrate selflessness or personal alteration, since Abnegation’s rules specify that Tris may look at herself only when her hair is cut. Reflections are deliberately used throughout the film as a motif of identity and to create identification. The mirror sim intentionally furthers Burger’s experimentation on the 2011 film Limitless, with “psychotropic visual effects, using mirrors and infinity reflections” to convey mental states (Burger).  In this visual effects sequence by Method Studio, Tris circles herself as the camera moves 360 degrees, while she is replicated into infinity, then addressed by a simulacrum that asks her to choose. The visual effects supervisor for Method Studios, Matt Dessero, explains that:

This was accomplished by setting up six Alexa cameras on a greenscreen stage and tiling the resulting imagery onto cards reflected into the scene. Full CG rotomation of Tris was required for the distant reflections (Method Studios). The resulting multiplication of Tris conveys her indecision about faction choice, and foreshadows the tester’s revelation of her divergence. Here and elsewhere, simulations are part of the film’s subjective enunciation, rather than functioning metaphorically as social critique as in dystopian science fiction.

It is useful in thinking about the fear simulations to draw on Bolter and Grusin’s work on remediation (2000) and its application to immersive cinema by Tryon (2009, 71) and others. The simulations are intentionally distinguished by an anamorphic lens, “languid” shots, and “seamless” transitions (Burger; Egan). Burger aimed for 80% of the film to be “real”, rather than simulated (Burger), and apart from the notable mirror sequence, visual effects are often used invisibly. The fear simulations fail to recreate immersion, for example by remediating immersive new technology, such as the Oculus Rift, which would create hypermediacy. Rather, transparent immediacy is conveyed. The simulations are realistic, yet in their use of darkness and unclear narrative space, at times reminiscent of psychodramas and dream films by Maya Deren or Jean Cocteau, as with the water tank against blackness. This makes narrative sense: they are intended as hallucinations, and while the mirror sequence is an attraction in trailers the plot is predicated on resistance to immersion as the mark of heroic difference. Unlike their peers, neither Tris nor Four are duped into mass killing through the use of virtual reality.


These fear landscapes function differently from the simulation of The Hunger Games’ arena, which Vivienne Muller argues, depersonalises violence and death since it “encourages the tributes to function as avatars….rather than subjects” (55). It is only when Jeanine appropriates simulation technology as a means of control that Dauntless become avatars, and the monitors showing the attack humanise their Abnegation victims, naming them with onscreen text. The fear simulations in Divergent uphold the good of the individual at narrative level, since they strengthen resistance to specific terrors. At the same time, they operate as part of the film’s subjective enunciation by conveying Tris’s awareness that she is in a simulation.
In canonic dystopian cinema, experimental techniques convey subjective shifts in the perception of reality and growing social awareness, as in the nightmare sequence in Fahrenheit 451 (1966). In Young Adult dystopian novels and their adaptations, alternate realities, simulations or visions convey self-awareness and a mystical communication with others. Such visions are part of a journey towards confidence and physical action that may have wider social implications. In the film adaptation of The Maze Runner, the maze is frightening and unknown, yet uncanny flashes of memory suggest that Thomas was involved in constructing it. These fragmented flashbacks are visually coded as science fiction, and depict his past as less appealing than the glade, despite his amnesia. In the novel and film of The Giver, the hero gains personal and social awareness when he is chosen to receive memories of a past that once included natural and global diversity, a perspective that is emphasised by the use of montages in the screen adaptation. These social memories have been repressed in a diegetic world drained of choice, desire and colour. As in the novel, the house at the end of the hero’s journey is a place of sanctity in the film. Hanson draws on Bloch to analyse the longing that this creates for the novel’s hero when it is prefigured in his dreams: “a product of memory but also beyond memory, a something yet-to-be experienced, a future/past of utopian longing” (Hanson 53). In the film, tangible visual imagery takes the final image of this snowbound home further from the fantastic than in the novel. Although Jonas defines the house as “real” in a voice-over, however, its status as reality remains tenuous.


Young Adult dystopian cinema’s emphasis on subjectivity and shared visions of other environments can offset hostile dystopian narrative spaces in which the hero is forced back onto her or his own resources. In Divergent, simulated environments forward the romance narrative as they enable Tris to share Four’s fear landscape. In How I Live Now, a film that Jonathan Romney aptly places in a tradition of “Apocalyptic British Ruralism”, American teenager Daisy falls in love with her English cousin Eddie before war separates them. In the novel, Daisy has a telepathic sense of Eddie’s presence if she is in “a certain state of mind” (Rosoff 96). The film puts this into visual terms, first in an utopian, idyllic vision of Eddie in the garden in which he tells Daisy ‘I’m home’ before the image fades to white, and later in an abject vision of Eddie buried in the earth, and calling ‘Help me!’. These visions give powerful impetus to her desire to return home to him.


Like Divergent, the critically dystopian film adaptation of Enders Game foregrounds the hero’s awareness of the virtual. Ender is a potential military genius chosen to lead a fight against alien Formics who once tried to colonise earth. Here, again, militaristic adults blur the distinction between virtual and actual combat scenarios. The adaptation situates tropes of military training narratives, such as communal living and testing, on a space station school with divisions into ‘houses’. The narrative culminates in a crucial withholding of reality that leads Ender to question ideologies of war and difference. The hero’s gaming ability also enables him to begin to make reparation, since a game enables the Formic to communicate telepathically with him. At the conclusion, he journeys to find them a new world. The potential for hope that distinguishes Young Adult dystopian fiction is expressed cinematically in Divergent, as in Ender’s Game and The Maze Runner by shots of the hero travelling toward a personal and communal future.


Divergent is successful in remediating dystopia for a young demographic. There is a dynamic tension in the novel between the heroine, the valorisation of classification, the psychological motif of divergence, self-development, and dystopian location. This tension is visualised through a reworking of conventional dystopian cinematic space. Divergents youth-oriented production design, extending to related transmedia and the commercial intertext is part of its appeal, supporting the key portrayal of Tris and her journey. The film shares motifs with other Young Adult dystopian films, including selection and game-oriented adventure. These are central to The Hunger Games, but Young Adult dystopian cinema may organise such motifs to more play-oriented effect than in the latter franchise. Divergent’s rendering of dystopia, like that of other Young Adult dystopian adaptations, is separate from the source novels and from canonic dystopian and science fiction cinema, yet it draws on all of these. This is not a simulated dystopia, but a repurposed one, with its own heroic configuration.






1 I analysed Tris as a Young Adult dystopian heroine in a paper that was presented at the SF/F Now conference at Warwick University, 22 August 2014.

2 A dissimilar dystopian aesthetic is established in the film’s sequel, Insurgent (2015). In this film, Chicago is coded as the city of post-apocalyptic science fiction. I discussed Insurgent with The Maze Runner in the paper, “Moving Mazes: Genre, Hero and Place in Young Adult Dystopian Cinema”. This was given at the conference Brave New Worlds: The Dystopic In Modern & Contemporary Culture at Newcastle University, 30th April 2015.


Works Cited

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Basu, Balaka. “'What Faction Are You In?' The Pleasure of Being Sorted in Veronica Roth's Divergent.” Contemporary Dystopian Fiction for Young Adults: Brave New Teenagers. Ed. Balaka Basu, Katherine R. Broad and Carrie Hintz. New York and Abingdon: Routledge, 2013. 19-33.

Basu, Balaka, Katherine R. Broad and Carrie Hintz. Introduction. Contemporary Dystopian Fiction for Young Adults: Brave New Teenagers. Ed. Balaka Basu, Katherine R. Broad and Carrie Hintz. New York & Abingdon: Routledge, 2013. 1-15.

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