The Hunger Games novels and films have fascinated me for more than seven years.
And I’m not alone.
The popular books by Suzanne Collins are the most visible example of a genre of stories today’s teens are reading voraciously: young adult dystopian fiction.
Dystopian fiction is set in a world where people lead dehumanized and often fearful lives. Typically, these worlds are environmentally degraded or governed by totalitarian regimes.
My favorite example is George Orwell’s 1984, a hugely ambitious novel that deals with themes of both personal threat and universal oppression. Orwell’s vision is expressed in phrases like Big Brother, doublethink and Thought Police that are now part of everyday speech.
Even though they may have read 1984 as kids, some of today’s parents worry their teens' obsession with dark fiction means they’ll grow up and overthrow the government – like Katniss Everdeen in Hunger Games or Tris Prior in Divergent.
How real is this concern?
Why is dystopian fiction popular?
My colleagues and I have found that the extent to which a reader loses herself in a story is a major cause of the extent to which her attitudes change.
Losing oneself in a story is also known as narrative transportation.
Narratologists have uncovered three consequences of narrative transportation that explain the current popularity of young adult dystopian fiction.
- Narrative transportation feels good. People like to empathize with story characters and to suspend reality.
- Narrative transportation teaches people about story themes, such as poverty. In turn, this knowledge intensifies the narrative transportation experience and makes people care about these themes.
- Narrative transportation teaches people about story symbols. For instance, the fictional mockingjay bird represents defiance in the Hunger Games. In turn, this knowledge makes it easier to follow the story, allows people to brag about being in the know, and strengthens in-group identity.
Dystopian themes are egalitarian
There is no doubt that storytelling is powerful, and can have an effect on readers.
Young adult dystopian fiction tends to include at least one key learning point or moral. When teens absorb the moral, it can change their attitudes and durably weave the story into teens' life choices. Narratologists call this the cultivation effect.
The cultivation effect of Harry Potter is reported to have played an important role in galvanizing Millennials' political opinions. As Anthony Gierzynski and Kathryn Eddy note:
Harry Potter fans are more open to diversity and are more politically tolerant than nonfans; fans are also less authoritarian, less likely to support the use of deadly force or torture, more politically active, and more likely to have had a negative view of the Bush administration.A similar effect could occur with teens and dystopian fiction. Many young adult dystopian stories tackle themes such as oppression, poverty, starvation, and war, among others. Relating to the story characters allows teens to explore and learn to care about these issues. Attitudes towards justice and responsibility can be changed when teens empathize with Tris or Katniss.
But that doesn’t mean dystopian-loving teens will act out the story plots when they grow up – say, by starting a revolution.
Rather, the cultivation effect predicts that today’s teens will grow up with less acceptance of oppression, poverty, starvation, and war. If government officials do not take these concerns seriously though, who knows what might happen?
Nothing is less innocent than a story – except maybe a teen who has taken its message to heart.
About Today's Contributor
Tom van Laer, Senior Lecturer in Marketing, City University London
This article was originally published on The Conversation.