Dystopia. It’s a chilling word, one that conjures up dreadful imagery. The chilling worlds we see in novels such as Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale or Orwell’s 1984 are effective because they remind us of the dangerous future that awaits us, if we are not careful. Dystopian novels are also unafraid of becoming dark beasts themselves, with many novels listed having miserable endings.
In this blog post, I’ll list the six key ingredients that ensure an effective dystopian novel or film.
This blog post does not contain spoilers.
Ingredient One: Dystopia is born out of a universal, timeless fear that is present in the pages of history.
The Novel: The Road by Cormac McCarthy
Often, people trace dystopia back to ‘present-day’ fears. For example, 1984 exists because of Orwell’s thoughts at an increasingly-totalitarian world, particularly seen in countries like the Soviet Union. And that’s true! 1984 can be interpreted as a response to the political horrors seen in communist states.
Yet that’s not the only fear present. A vast majority of dystopian novels hint at a greater, more universal fear, that can never be tamed or controlled. Which brings us to The Road, Cormac McCarthy’s seminal novel. In it, McCarthy addresses the monster of loneliness.
The characters in The Road are no strangers to loneliness. When the novel starts, both the father and the son have suffered from it, and it’s the threat of more pain that drives a significant part of the story. It’s tragic, and makes The Road a difficult read. Yet it also reminds us of isolation in our own lives.
That adds to the melancholy of the genre, and makes for effective literature.
Ingredient Two: The Ability To Twist Positives To Negatives
The Novel: We by Yevgeny Zamyatin
Dystopia is opposite to utopia. And that’s crucial to remember, as the perfect futures we dream of may have a horrific underbelly, waiting to devour. That is certainly true in the Russian classic, We.
The novel that inspired Brave New World and 1984 depicts a world where concepts such as reason and happiness have been distorted. This is reminiscent of actual dictatorships and desolate lands, who attempt to convince themselves, their people and the rest of the world that they are ‘happy’ and ‘prosperous.’
By twisting positives into negatives, you are grabbing the interest of the reader, who are now paying close attention. It’s unsettling when something that should be positive isn’t.
Dystopia that twists beauty around will gain intrigue and cause people to think.
Ingredient Three: An Understanding Of Human Nature
The Novel: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
Dystopia is a fantastic genre to explore human nature. Because it often features characters who are degraded, it’s a brilliant opportunity to explore the strengths and flaws in the human spirit.
I recommend Never Let Me Go, a novel by Nobel-winner Kazuo Ishiguro. In it, we follow three friends, and their attempt to make sense of their childhood. The less I give away, the better- because this is a character-driven novel, that is less concerned with the plausibility to the dystopia, and more focused on the reality of human nature. And it works.
It’s not a read you’ll be excited to reread, but it will stick with you. The best dystopia incorporates aspects of human nature, and lets them shine, but when necessarily, also fade away.
Ingredient Four: Explore childhood as a theme
The Book: Lord Of The Flies by William Golding
When the future is bleak, the hardest face to look at is that of a child. The great works of dystopia, from Brave New World to Children of Men, acknowledge the tragedy of childhood when the world has gone to chaos. Although not essential, dystopia that incorporates the theme of childhood, or children, is ripe for effective storytelling.
A creative interpretation is Lord Of The Flies, where the children aren’t the traditional embodiment of innocence. Instead, they are drivers of the plot, and the reason why there is a dystopia in the first place.
Films that deal with childhood in a dystopian framework include Snowpiercer, The Hunger Games, A Clockwork Orange and Battle Royale.
Ingredient Five: Compelling History (i.e backstory)
The Novel: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Dystopians weren’t necessarily always dystopias. Yet over time, the societies that were once worth living in managed to slip. And that is ripe material for authors to explore. A vast number of readers are interested in how dystopias are made, and what factors caused them to exist.
Although Bradbury’s masterpiece is an obvious choice, it’s for a reason. He outlines the reason why book burning happened in the first place, and what attracts individuals to set pages ablaze. Because he does that, F451 feels even more relevant and timely, whilst also tying into universal traits of laziness and control.
Ingredient Six: A Reason To Mourn Humanity
The Film: Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
Dystopia, like all other literature, must make us care about the events that unfold. Although the genre is bleak and nasty, it should show little, almost hopeful, glimmers of humanity. A movie that does this exceptionally well is the recent Blade Runner 2049.
In it, the characters are utterly detached from their humanity. Instead of forming healthy relationships, people opt for A.I girlfriends and boyfriends. This is both revolting yet sympathetic. Repulse, because humans are denying themselves of connection with each other in order to have their selfish needs met.
Yet, on the other hand, it calls for compassion. The human characters require robots for lovers because they are that miserable and lonely. Also, a robot may be the only person who can tolerate them. Because of that, we mourn humanity when Officer K engages with Joi. It’s not real, but the human misery behind it is.
I also recommend the film Brazil, as it is similar.
These are six key ingredients of effective dystopia. Overall, an effective dystopia speaks to both the present and the past, and is intelligent enough to predict the anxieties of the future.
Comment below with your thoughts, and share any recommendations!