COMMENTARY: Why have we become the United States of Dystopia?

August 12

This Friday (Aug. 15), a movie version of the classic novel “The Giver” opens in theaters with an impressive cast, including Oscar winners Meryl Streep and Jeff Bridges. “The Giver,” originally written by Lois Lowry, explores a seemingly perfect world where all conflicts have been resolved and annoyances — such as bad weather and adolescent “stirrings” — have been eradicated, allowing this culture to achieve a beautiful state of “sameness.”

As you can imagine, this utopian society is not so utopian. “The Giver” focuses on young Jonas, who has been selected for a daunting task: to serve as society’s sole proprietor of memory and emotion. Jonas learns about pain and sadness, but also experiences beautiful colors, a thrilling sleigh ride and ultimately learns to feel love. In other words, Jonas learns what it means to be human — and that his world may not be so perfect after all.

“The Giver” is the latest in a wave of dystopian stories that have washed over America in recent years. From this summer’s “Purge” sequel and “Under the Dome” to the latest “Hunger Games” movie (due out in November), people can’t get enough of these apocalyptic fantasies, in which seemingly perfect worlds turn horrific.

Why such an appetite for dystopian stories now?

One answer is that these imaginary worlds reflect our own. From Gaza to Ukraine, from droughts to global warming, 2014 often feels apocalyptic. Today’s dystopian stories manipulate and exploit very real fears.

The “Hunger Games” took reality TV to its logical extreme. The movie “Divergent” (based on Veronica Roth’s novel) played with our insecurities about where we should fit in the world. And anyone who was in Lower Manhattan in September 2001, or New Jersey post-Hurricane Sandy, probably shuddered while watching the bleak “The Road” (based on Cormac McCarthy’s novel).

It must also be added that authors have expertly lured teens into the dystopian genre, thus allowing younger, more attractive actors to play roles in dystopian movie adaptations, with faster chases, bigger budgets and more explosions. Fittingly, not only has the main character in “The Giver” been featured from age 12 to 16, but the actor playing Jonas is actually 25. It’s safe to say teen enthusiasm for dystopian standards such as “Brave New World” or “Fahrenheit 451&?8243; was milder, even with the prodding of generations of high school English teachers.

But there’s another, more complicated — even political — reason for this dystopian popularity. Stories such as “The Giver” do what even our most powerful elected representatives can’t: They bring Republicans and Democrats together.

Like many dystopian classics — Orwell’s “1984,” even Sir Thomas More’s “Utopia” from the early 16th century — “The Giver” has a message. What’s interesting is the way people from different sides of the political aisle perceive that message. Conservatives such as Fox News’ Cal Thomas see “The Giver” as a warning against liberalism, which, he believes, pushes an agenda of relativism.

“As we have thrown off all restraint, individualized morality and considered every idea as having equal value,” Thomas wrote last month,’’’The Giver’ shows where this could ultimately lead.”

“The Giver” may also have some right-leaning statements on big government, abortion and euthanasia. Lowry, in a 2007 interview, said her book “challenges the tendencies in any society to allow an invasive government to legislate lives.”

But wait. Don’t just as many liberals believe that conservatives — say, Joseph McCarthy or Richard Nixon — are “invasive”? Don’t liberals believe conservatives are obsessed with “sameness,” that right-wingers are conformist and narrow-minded in their attitudes toward race, religion and culture?

Conservative groups such as Focus on the Family play right into this view when they criticize Lowry’s novel and align themselves with movements to ban “The Giver,” which is traditionally among the most banned books in U.S. schools.

In short, the brilliance of a well-told dystopian tale is not only that it appeals to liberals and conservatives. It also shows both that they have similar fears and, alas, may not be so different.

There’s one more frightening lesson dystopian stories such as “The Giver” teach us: that perhaps government gridlock isn’t so bad.

There is much shouting these days that President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner should cast differences aside and find common ground. Having achieved such harmony — or “sameness” — Washington would then become a true utopia.

What could possibly go wrong?

(Tom Deignan, a writer and teacher in Woodbridge, N.J., is a regular contributor to The Star-Ledger in Newark.)

Copyright: For copyright information, please check with the distributor of this item, Religion News Service LLC.

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