What Occupy can learn from the Hunger Games [and other dystopian works]
“YOU CAN’T EVICT AN IDEA,” proclaim the banners fronting an otherwise dull building in east London, owned by banking giant UBS but inhabited and decorated by squatters from the Occupy movement. They’ve adapted the phrase from Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s graphic novel “V for Vendetta,” in which the titular terrorist explains his seeming immortality to a detective who has just shot him: “Ideas are bulletproof.” A poster of V’s trademark Guy Fawkes mask smiles eerily at all who walk into the foyer of 8 Sun Street, now dubbed “The Bank of Ideas” and used as a community center. The caption underneath reads, “We are the 99%, and so are you.”
It’s fitting that the Occupy movement should have drawn inspiration from dystopian fiction, an increasingly popular genre for teenagers and young adults in particular. If, as Time magazine suggests, the person of the year was the Protester, the publishing phenomenon was the Dystopia — the story of the dissenter in a repressive society who becomes a revolutionary. The new wave was led by two trilogies, both published from 2008-10: Suzanne Collins’ “Hunger Games” (whose big-budget Hollywood adaptation kicks off in March) and Patrick Ness’ “Chaos Walking” (now being adapted by Lionsgate). Scores of other books and series are now rising in their wake. “V for Vendetta,” from 1988, is an important antecedent, telling the tale of Evey, an adolescent girl in a run-down future London who, indoctrinated by the self-styled freedom fighter V, becomes a thorn in the side of a fascist state. Toward the end of the 2006 film adaptation, hordes of the working class – the 99 percent, if you will – don the Fawkes masks themselves and, led by Evey, stand firm against their oppressors.
Since the film’s release, replicas of these masks have been manufactured widely, and Occupy protesters in the U.S. and the U.K. have often worn them (as have members of the hackers collective Anonymous), both to disguise their faces and show solidarity. But the film is an odd, Hollywood-ized work that the iconoclastic Moore has typically dismissed. In contrast, his book is philosophically more complex than is often acknowledged. Unlike propaganda, literature is difficult to adopt as a template by movements of any stripe, and such is the case with “V for Vendetta.” V is, despite his protestations, is more than just an embodied idea: He’s an ideology, and this makes him dangerous to both the ruling elite and his own followers. And if there’s anything we can learn from dystopian literature, including the work of Collins and Ness, it’s that ideologies can, and should, be evicted.
There’s no necessary cause-and-effect relationship between world events and publishing phenomena, but there can certainly be a resonance. Suzanne Collins has said that “The Hunger Games” was inspired in part by coverage of the war in Iraq — and yet it raises issues of economic inequality, misinformation and corporate greed that are even more relevant now. Collins’ heroine, Katniss Everdeen, is an independent and even ornery 16-year-old who saves her younger sister by volunteering for, and then winning, a telecasted fight-to-the-death competition. Though her feats of derring-do have elements of escapist fantasy, her ultimate goal isn’t to win the Games, but to avoid exploitation: She wants to circumvent the rules and figure out a way to shut down the games for good. Just as Collins and other writers of young-adult dystopias cleave to the Romantic nostalgia for childhood freedom, they’re raising the stakes of the coming-of-age novel’s traditional struggles with the pressures of growing up and the need to integrate with society. In these dystopias, integration means the death of freedom and imagination, and subjugation to a way of thinking that curbs creativity and stresses survival of the least scrupulous.
The societies depicted in these novels generally fall into one of two broad categories. In the first, as in “Hunger Games,” Ally Condie’s “Matched” (2010-12) and Veronica Roth’s “Divergent” (2011), they’re dystopias masquerading as utopias, where everyone is supposedly provided for through work assignments that keep the plebs docile and benefit the ruling elite. In the second, as in “Chaos Walking” and Jeff Hirsch’s Collins-blurbed “The Eleventh Plague” (2011), they’re post-apocalyptic settlements where the physically strongest and best-organized have taken power and bent all to their will.
All of these books feature adolescent protagonists of generally unimposing physical stature who, at a crucial point in their lives (usually an adult-initiation process of some kind), reject the limited choices they’re offered and learn self-sufficiency instead. They pull together support from other outsider teens and some adults (especially lapsed countercultural hippie-types who remember pre-dystopian life), and make difficult decisions that open the door to a new and better way of life. Thus, they avert catastrophe and avoid the trap of the minimum-wage, dead-end job – or its near-future equivalent.
The formula for self-sufficiency is a familiar one: The protagonists need to rough it, to live for a time off the land as early colonists did, escaping the dystopias’ infantilizing control and surveillance. This connects them with nature both literally and symbolically, putting them in touch with their inner noble savages. From the start of “The Hunger Games,” Katniss hunts with a bow and arrow in the forbidden wild; later, she becomes known as the Mockingjay, after a species of bird who lives there. In “Crossed,” the sequel to Ally Condie’s “Matched,” the protagonist, having lived all her life in suburbia so sanitized it makes Disneyland look like Bangkok, bolts to a Grand Canyon-like back country to join her dark, brooding outsider boyfriend (the opposite of her society’s chosen match for her, who is of course blonde – even in the future, love triangles will keep young hearts aflutter). There, she learns personal independence through physical effort.
But they’re not quite noble savages, because they’re self-aware. In the wild, they find misfits who safeguard learning, hoarding the books and lore that the dystopias have repressed. The Occupy movement often casts itself in a similar light, as its members “rough it” in parks in the middle of cities as if keeping alive a more earthy, simple, honest way of living; their library tents symbolize their devotion to learning from the past as they forge a better way for the future. Indeed, the library is a synecdoche for the movement itself: in Toronto, protesters chained themselves to theirs as it was about to be removed as part of the camp’s eviction; at Occupy Wall Street, the demolishing of the library has been viewed as a repressive dystopian act.
In the wilderness, the dystopian protagonists also encounter rebels – and not necessarily the same people who read books. Unlike in escapist fantasies such as “Star Wars,” where the rebels unambiguously deserve our support as they fight an evil empire with the light side of the force, the rebels in YA dystopias can be as dangerous as those in power. Often the two are mirror images of one another, led by charismatic but delusional figures who seek to wrest power for themselves by violent means and view the teenage heroes as vehicles for them to do so. In “The Hunger Games,” Katniss becomes an icon for the rebels in the legendary District 13 but ultimately distrusts their humorless and pathologically driven leader, Alma Coin; in “Chaos Walking,” Viola (Todd’s girlfriend and female counterpart) falls in with The Answer, a group of terrorists who are healers by profession but are just as adept at setting off bombs, and wouldn’t blink at blowing her up if it achieved their own ends.
The heroes are called upon to navigate between dystopian rulers and rebel would-be-dystopian-rulers; as champions of democracy, they pull together disparate disenfranchised groups in ragtag bands that become as strong as the sum of their parts. In doing so, they demonstrate the power of not being “confined to one way of thinking,” – a phrase used by the mother of the heroine in the pointedly-titled “Divergent,” shortly before she’s violently killed by a zombified soldier. Homogenization is the enemy – which is why it’s odd to find so many Occupy-movement protesters wearing the V mask.
Like the new YA dystopias, Moore and Lloyd’s “V for Vendetta” highlights problems with rebels who have the same aptitude for violence, disregard for collateral damage and distrust of nuanced world-views as the dystopias they fight. V is a vigilante revolutionary for whom any ends justify his means. He takes Evey under his wing as he attacks members of London’s ruling elite, and when she balks at killing people, he then “kidnaps” her and, in disguise as a police officer, tortures her, effectively breaking her down to nothing and then building her back up again in his own revolutionary image. This is the ur-terrorist narrative, which upholds the belief that each person must be shattered and remade to serve a purpose, in order that the same may be done to civilization itself. It’s the strategy employed, in “Chaos Walking,” by the dystopian Mayor Prentiss as well as the opponent he brands a “terrorist,” the bombing-happy healer Mistress Coyle. But neither can ultimately control the book’s dual protagonists, Todd and Viola, whereas in the even darker “V for Vendetta,” Evey becomes V’s disciple, blowing up 10 Downing Street and offering the citizens of London a choice between “lives of your own and a return to chains” – apparently she has read her Rousseau. The bloodthirsty version of freedom she offers them is more savage than noble, and itself suggests another form of imprisonment. The book ends not with the triumphant Evey but rather with the consistently questioning Inspector Finch, who wanders off alone outside London, into darkness and the unknown, rather than choosing one of two unattractive sides.
Finch refuses to let others think for him. He, not Evey, is the analogue to Todd and Viola in “Chaos Walking,” whose strategy of avoiding violence unites their people as well as other species on the planet. In “The Hunger Games,” Katniss ultimately undermines the regimes of both President Snow and Alma Coin, throwing her society into disarray but perhaps helping to usher in what one character calls “the evolution of the human race.” In “Divergent,” where a future society is split up into factions based on personality traits, Tris grows up as Abnegation (forsaking herself), undergoes initiation as Dauntless (having no fear), and saves both factions from destruction by a third (Erudite) by being divergent – rejecting received and rigid modes of behavior and thought. In “The Eleventh Plague,” in the post-apocalyptic aftermath of biological warfare with China, orphaned and distrustful teenager Stephen and his bad-seed Chinese-American girlfriend Jenny secure help from people that their town elders had thought were plotting their destruction. Ironically, in action-packed, plot-driven novels filled with violence, these novels interrogate the practice of using violence (and sometimes torture) as a solution to political and social problems.
Stories of people who are trampled on by competing ideologies and broken by enforced scarcity are certainly apt at a time when the U.S. political system is regularly brought to a standstill by politicians unwaveringly devoted to ideologies, the European Union threatens to disintegrate due to its members’ conflicting demands, divisions between the rich and the poor are ever-increasing, and those with the power to help offer rhetoric instead. The Occupy movement, as a loosely affiliated band of concerned people – Marxists, anarchists, environmentalists, survivalists, and more – has on the whole avoided ideology and embraced diversity and democracy. Some would say its lack of specific goals has undermined it, but the adoption of a V-style oppositional stance surely wouldn’t help. Occupy has done much to cast the U.S. and U.K. as dystopias, as pictures of police in riot gear confronting protestors have proliferated in the media; nonetheless, it needn’t cast itself as the kind of rebel movement that uses repressive strategies similar to those of the ruling elite.
Propped against a wall inside the Bank of Ideas is a placard that reads, “’1984′ was not supposed to be an instruction manual.” Nor, indeed, is “V for Vendetta,” and neither are “The Hunger Games” or “Chaos Walking.” The new YA dystopian novels are thoughtful books, but they don’t offer solutions or blueprints – they merely suggest ways of combating stifling political ideologies. They’re full of different voices, or what literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin, writing in – and against – Soviet Russia, called “polyphony”: the opposite of propaganda, and the enemy of ideology. Where they resonate with the Occupy movement, it’s in the protagonists’ determination to recalibrate the world around us in creative ways: seeing a bank as an educational institution, a tent as a library, a movement as a gathering of people asking questions, and encouraging ways of thinking by which solutions could be found.
While you can’t – and perhaps shouldn’t – evict an idea, it’s best, as the U.K. singer Nicolette has said, and as these dystopias suggest, to let no one live rent-free in your head.