Normally I wouldn’t waste my time writing a blog post about a bad, or series of bad, movies, but for some reason, I feel that maybe I should write something about the idea of the dystopia since I have just wasted about nine hours of my life watching the four Hunger Games movies. Anyway, I won’t actually write about what I thought of the films namely because I have already done so on IMDB, and I will include links to the reviews at the bottom of this post, however, I do wish to explore the idea of the dystopia in general, and have a glance to some of the recent series of movies (which have come out of books mind you) that explore this idea. Mind you, a part of me does want to hold off a bit so that I can watch Brazil again, but I suspect I’ll have plenty to write about that particular movie when I get around to it.
However, before I continue here is Simon Whistler explore some interesting connections between The Hunger Games and China.
A Search for the Perfect Society
The dystopia actually arises from the idea of the utopia, which is Greek for No-place, which was originally coined by Sir Thomas Moore in his book of the same name. However, the concept of a perfect form of government goes back to the writings of Plato. Mind you, everybody points to The Republic as his idea of the perfect government, and while that is true, we also have his writings on Atlantis, and also another book called The Laws, where he looks at how the constitution of a perfect society is created. As for Atlantis, whether the origins of the story are true or not, what we are seeing in Plato’s account is his political ideas being placed into a practical setting, even though the work is incomplete (or lost, though the general consensus is that he basically didn’t finish it).
Now, the interesting thing about Plato is that his Utopias aren’t democratic, nor are they about freedom, they are about every part of society working together to produce a perfect state. In a sense, these utopias are actually totalitarian regimes where people don’t actually have any freedom, and citizens are only taught what is required to make the state-run smoothly. Further, Plato’s societies have strict castes, though movement between the castes is possible – in a way a child’s aptitude is determined as they are being educated, and once they become an adult, their caste is then decided – there is no choice in the matter, and there is no ‘I want to do this and I want to do that’. Further, there is no family unit as the state itself functions like a family.
This might actually come as a shock to us, especially since a lot of us have a different, and rather mistaken view, of what Plato actually wrote. In a way when we hear about Plato and governance, we automatically think that he happens to be this really wise individual, so we assume what he has suggested is probably a good thing. The reality is that Plato’s Republic is more like Orwell’s 1984, or Huxley’s Brave New World, than a bunch of happy people dancing around trees being joyful as to how wonderful life is.
Yet this is not surprising – Plato had a first-hand experience of the failures of democracy. In a way, we all probably know about how the Greeks invented democracy, and how they were the first democratic society to ever flourish. However, what we probably don’t know, and don’t want to know, is that this democratic society ended up collapsing due to its own internal contradictions. The reason I suggest that is that when people vote, they don’t vote with their head, they vote with their heart. Sure, we might argue that the system would work better if we had direct democracy, that is that we voted on every piece of legislation, but the Athenians had that, and it failed – all that was required was for a well-spoken individual to tug at the emotions of the people, and he got what he wanted. Unfortunately for Athens, what they got was a war with Sparta that they eventually lost, and found themselves under a brutal tyranny.
Sure, this tyranny didn’t last all that long, but once again, when democracy was reinstated, all of the supporters of the tyrants, including Socrates, were brought to trial. The verdict in relation to Socrates’ guilt pretty much came down to 49 against, 51 in favour, which basically meant he was guilty and was eventually sentenced to death. Mind you, Socrates could have escaped, in fact, he was expected to escape, but he chose not to, and instead accept the ruling of the court. However, it is noticeable that such serious decisions can be made on such a slim majority, and a decision that was effective made on faulty information (Brexit anybody), that would have a serious effect upon an awful lot of people. At least in our criminal justice system, a finding of guilt has to be beyond reasonable doubt.
Into the Dystopia
Well, shortly after Thomas Moore wrote his Utopia, or a picture of a perfect society where everybody lived in harmony and worked to produce all for the benefit of the state, another author, an Irishman named Jonathon Swift, came up with something that completely contrasted that – Gulliver’s Travels. In a way, both books involved a sea journey to the remote parts of the world where the hero came across an island upon which lived an unknown civilisation. However, unlike Moore, Swift’s vision was much, much darker. Sure, his writings are also somewhat satirical and exist to poke fun at the government of the day, but it also goes a way to explore the darker side of government.
His first two journeys have him travel to Lilliput and Brogdignab, where we an island of little people and an island of big people. In a way, we are viewing society from two different points – one from above and one from below. In both Swift is different, namely because he is of a different size, however, in the first he is powerful, though the Lilliputians seek to use him as a weapon against their enemies. In the second story, he is a mere curiosity, who ends up in a circus and performing acts for the royal family. However, being so small he is able to see everybody for what they are, warts and all.
Yet, Swift goes beyond that to a point where we have another voyage to a floating island that dominates its neighbours by flying over and bombarding them. Sure, they are a technologically advanced society, one that is ruled by scientists and technologists, but they also use their technology to dominate those who are much less advanced than they are, and hold authority over them. In a way it is similar to the Europeans of the day, who used the horse and gunpowder, to oppress the non-European races. Finally, we have the Honynums, a race of intelligent horses who have gained enlightenment, but what enlightenment means is that they are much better that those around them, and instead of sharing it, instead treat them as children that must be guided and nurtured for they know not what they do.
The Brave New World of 1984
These are probably the two most famous Dystopian Novels, though interestingly enough neither of these novels actually has the dystopian government being overthrown. Mind you, H.G. Wells also wrote his own dystopian theories, including the story of a man who went to sleep and woke up years in the future to discover that he owned all of the wealth in the world. Okay, in Well’s book, the dystopian government is overthrown, but only to be replaced by something that is pretty much similar – they replace the leader but keep the system. In a way, it seems that it is not so much the leader, but the system itself.
Yet let us consider these worlds that have been created. In Orwell’s work, we have three superpowers in constant war with each other, the people living in a world where truth is dictated by the government and thought is controlled through the use of language. If somebody steps out of line they are disappeared and tortured. History simply does not exist as the government controls all information, and everybody is focused on an endless war. While things may change, nothing actually changes because when there is a change, it never was a change but always was.
Huxley’s world is somewhat different – there is no war because the government is a worldwide government. The population is divided into castes, and the castes go about their business. Everybody has to work, but the work they do is busy work. When they are not working the are given drugs, and other forms of entertainment to keep them distracted. Once again information and literature is tightly controlled, namely because the government controls the thoughts of the people. Sure, somebody does actually come into the system from the outside, and at first, he is seen as a curiosity, however, he ends up killing himself simply because as an outsider he cannot adapt, and the system cannot accept him as he is.
The New Dystopias
In the past few years, a number of books have appeared set in a futuristic world where society has collapsed after a war only to be remade in a different image. This isn’t necessarily the first books (or films) in this genre, but it is one that has produced at least three series so far: The Hunger Games, Divergent, and The Maze Runner; and each of these series have their own unique characteristics. However, there is one common theme that runs through them – we have a young adolescent, usually female, who rises up against the system and seeks to overthrow it, despite this system being established to prevent the world from returning to chaos. In a sense we also have a similar idea with The Demolition Man, however, I’ll hold off commenting on that film for another time because, like Brazil, it probably deserves an entire post of its own (yeah, who’d think that from a Sylvester Stallone film).
I think I’ll leave off the Maze Runner, namely because the idea of that film is a little different – basically, the world has been overrun with zombies, and the heroes of the film are being conditioned to being warriors to go out and fight against these zombies. While they do start off in the maze and begin The Scorch Trials in another base, they eventually leave that world behind. The world has already been destroyed, and unlike Divergent and The Hunger Games, the world has yet to be rebuilt.
However, with the other two series, we have the theme of the world emerging from a period of chaos, and to prevent that chaos from returning a system is established where everybody is kept under control. In The Hunger Games we have a system where there are twelve districts and each of those districts, once a year, produce two people to go into an arena to fight to become the victor of The Hunger Games. In a way, it is the ultimate distraction, and it is a world where people live in abject poverty unless of course you are in the capital and are members of the upper class, then you live a life of luxury. However, the people of Panem are kept from rising up against the central authority namely by being competitive against each other and also only having the information that the capital wants them to have been filtered to them.
Divergent is a little different in that we have a number of castes, and at a certain age, the children are divided into their various castes. However, the children are only supposed to have one skill, and if it turns out that they have more than one – they are divergent – and they are a threat and must be terminated. In one sense the system is established where the faction that is the most unlikely one, that is the helpers and the carers, are the ones that rule, while the scientists and the lawyers don’t. However, the whole issue with the Divergent universe is that there is a power struggle within the system, and the lawyers move in to take control – as it turned out, this system didn’t seem to work all that well.
Our Dystopic Present
It would be really easy to look at Donald Trump and his administration’s ‘alternative facts’ and start claiming that we are looking at the beginning of a move towards an authoritarian regime, however, the interesting thing is that I don’t actually think Trump is that sort of figure – there is so much going on that it appears that the United States is more likely descending into chaos than drifting into an authoritarian regime. The thing with the establishment of an authoritarian regime is that they generally come about through the will of the people to bring an end to a period of chaos – this is what happened in Ancient Rome, and also what happened in Nazi Germany. The thing is that Trump isn’t this father figure that has come to unite a divided nation, by no means. Rather, he is doing more to divide the nation than anything else – Hitler’s rise to power didn’t trigger riots in the streets, nor did Caesar Augustus’.
Yet there are some glimpses as to some dystopic elements in our society, and this is the distractions and the manipulation of truth. To be honest, Sean Spicer’s comments about ‘alternate facts’ was actually a pretty clumsy statement, and a statement that basically most people understood as being an alternate interpretation of a fact, or just simply an unwillingness to actually see the truth. The thing is can a statement be a lie if the person making the statement sincerely believes it to be true? However, that doesn’t change the reality that history is actually being distorted, and public events being misrepresented.
For instance, in my home town, there was a beggar camp outside the central railway station, up until the police came and moved them along. The official statement was that they needed to start renovation work on the station, however, there were also suggestions that complaints had been increasing over their aggressive behaviour, drug-taking, and basically being an eyesore. Honestly, I suspect that their aggressive behaviour actually boiled down to them being there – while seeing the homeless lining the streets of Melbourne makes me feel uncomfortable that is me, not them, and I suspect that is what was meant by their aggressive behaviour. As for drugs – yeah, they were smoking marijuana, a ‘drug’ that is becoming more and more accepted as time moves on. However, as I mentioned, the police moved them on, but in reality, we don’t know where – we were told to emergency houses, but there are rumours that this simply wasn’t the case – the thing is we have no idea what happened to them beyond what was said in the media and whispered through the rumour mill.
As for distractions, all I can say is that our society is an expert at distractions. For instance, we have professional sport, which becomes more and more of a spectacle as time goes on. The thing about professional sport is that it creates a rivalry, and this rivalry actually works to keep us fighting each other so we don’t actually wake up, realise that these sporting heroes get paid a ridiculous amount of money and actually don’t contribute squat to society, and despite their fitness, whether they could actually survive a trek through some of the most inhospitable and dangerous places in the world. The other distraction is the movie industry – sure, we are entertained, but like the sportspeople, actors are also grossly overpaid and add little, if any, value to society.
Yet it is not just entertainment, it is also materialism – we shop, we get access to credit, and we get into debt. Once we are in debt we are slaves to the system. All of the sudden we find ourselves caught up in the daily grind, working just so that we can get enough to pay down our debt, only finding ourselves going back into debt to help us survive through to the next week. In reality that is what the systems wants – they want us living a hand to mouth existence, because if that is the way in which we are living, then we aren’t going to be in a position to rise up and overthrow the system. In a way that is how capitalism works – put a price on everything, including the essentials, so as to keep the bulk of the population under control.
Dreaming of Utopia
So, I guess the question is where is that Utopia. Sure, we have been exposed to these dystopic worlds, but there have been philosophers and politicians throughout the ages tugging those strings that make us long for the perfect world. The problem is that the Utopia we want is a contradiction in and of itself – Utopias exist in the sense that people work together to create them, and then work together to maintain them – there was never any concept of individualism in a Utopia. The thing is that in our systems we want things to be done our way, and if people get in the way then they are discarded – this is why marriages and families are forever breaking up – the more we want to go our own way, the more we push others away.
Yet, there is a Utopia just around the corner, it is a Utopia promised in the Bible. The thing is that we see a world that was and a world that collapsed because we wanted to do things our own way. The Bible is simply just one story about how we forever want to go our own way, and the more we want to go our own way, the more we destroy the world around us. However, going beyond the redemptive work of Christ, there is no room for individual desires and goals in the Christian community and beyond. Like the utopias of Plato and More, the utopia offered in the Bible is not one of freedom, but one of submission to a benevolent God, but it is not a submission of evil and cruelty, but one that promises freedom from the horrors that the world constantly throws up against us.
For those who are interested in my film reviews of the various recent dystopian films that I have mentioned, you can find them here: The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, Mockingjay Pt 1, Mockingjay Pt 2, Divergent, Insurgent, Allegiant, The Maze Runner, The Scorch Trials.
Dystopian Dreams by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images or videos that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me