Hunger Games, Lorax, WALL-E & other movie dystopias

This is the first time in five years that “dystopia” has appeared in a ReadTheSpirit headline. We asked the noted faith-and-film critic Edward McNulty to help orient readers to this movie genre. Turns out, it’s far more popular than most of us might guess—and Hunger Games is not the only dystopic movie that’s popular with young moviegoers right now. This week, ReadTheSpirit is running a wide range of viewpoints on Hunger Games and this genre:
Twilight expert Jane Wells writes on differences between the two popular Young Adult series

Dystopias We Love to Explore:
From Dr. Seuss to WALL-E

By Edward McNulty

Although both the book and the film version of Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax are intended for children, the city of Thneed-Ville in them is a dystopia almost as grim as those found in adult tales, even though it is a colorful place. However, the colors are all artificial, even the trees, flowers and lawns made from plastic. No living plant grows in the city because they were destroyed by a greedy industrialist!

Both the story’s environmental message and its concept of a dystopia show how respectful Theodore Geisel was of children and their budding intellectual ability. As I watched this pleasing adaptation unfold on the big screen, images of other dystopias crowded into my mind, some of which I think might be interesting to you too. Why? Because writers/filmmakers use the concept of dystopia as a means of warning their audiences of something in society, some trend or set of values, that is dangerous. A story about dystopia is thus a cautionary tale designed to forestall a perceived calamity if a current trend or policy in society is allowed to go on to its logical conclusion.


1984. George Orwell in 1948 foresaw that in the Cold War struggle both sides were using tactics that would lead to the loss of freedom of thought and action if allowed to continue unchecked. The Soviets had gone down the path of totalitarianism further than the West. But, Orwell also was concerned about the mounting use of secrecy, spying, deception, propaganda, and debasing of language that he believed the US and British governments were encouraging. If those world powers pursued their course far enough, then the Cold War opponents might become morally indistinguishable. Remember that this was the beginning in the US of Communist witch hunts that lead to so many liberals being blacklisted. There were two excellent films based on the novel. One was a black and white version in 1956. The other was released in color in the actual year of 1984, produced with a distinguished cast that included Richard Burton and John Hurt. Then, and now, history was different from what Orwell predicted, but his “Big Brother” remains in our lexicon—and a threat as government continues to increase its power.

(If you are intrigued by Orwell’s dark visions, I also recommend the 1954 animated version of his fable Animal Farm exploring the same themes with it’s memorable Double Speak quote: “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.”)

Fahrenheit 451. Censorship campaigns have cropped up for centuries in countries around the world. Ray Bradbury was so concerned about this issue that he wrote Fahrenheit 451, named for the temperature at which book paper ignites into flame. His dystopia is the State, which controls what people think and has banned all books and libraries. The job of the Fire Department ironically is to start fires of any book they come across. The conclusion, in which the two protagonists discover an underground of literate resisters who preserve the heritage of civilization by memorizing books, is gratifying and hopeful.

Logan’s Run. In 1976, ten years after the Bradbury film was released, the movie adaptation of William F. Nolan’s novel addressed a range of youthful issues raised in the 1960s. Through the misuse of science the outside world had been ruined, but citizens had found refuge in a domed city where all physical needs are met, allowing people leisure to pursue their own pleasures. The one catch, however, is that to relieve the pressures of population, the lifespan stops at 30, on which birthday the citizen is terminated in a public semi-religious ceremony called Carousel. Our hero Logan is a Sandman, a policeman charged with catching Runners, those who try to escape their termination because they do not believe the claim that the terminated are being transported to a better world.

Lord of the Flies.  William Golding wrote his book to refute the shallow liberal view that if only the innocent children of the world could run it, things would be so much better. There have been two film versions of this tale of young castaways on an island when their plane goes down and the adults are killed in the crash. Peter Brooks directed the 1963 black and white version, and in 1990 it was remade in color. The boys set out as good civilized Englishmen to make the best of their situation, but soon the rational boys are overcome by those who turn to fear and lust for power. Neither version fully captures the inner torment of the rational Piggy, especially of the surreal scene in which he hears the Lord of the Flies taunting him, but still the films are worth watching, serving as a reminder that there is a savagery or darkness within all of us. In the story the lovely island is reduced to a fiery hell on earth before the boys are rescued and returned to a society that also is engaged in a larger war.

In Time. Just out last year, this film is the kind that a group of talented Occupy Wall Street folks might have created if they wanted to spread their message of addressing the inequities of our society. In the future, humanity has been genetically engineered to stop aging at 25 years, but then to live for just one more year unless people can acquire more time, time now being the ultimate currency for all transactions. A digital clock has been imbedded on everyone’s wrist, and when the digits count down to “0,” the person dies unless new time has been acquired through transactions, begging, or stealing. The wealthy live in a special section where immortality is a possibility, whereas others live in a series of time zones made dangerous by desperate people seeking more time. When our worker hero is given another hundred years by a wealthy man whose life he has saved, he begins a series of acts that lead to a rebellion against the unjust system.

WALL-E. Like The Lorax, this is more than just an animated film for children, infused with a profound message and warning, like all good cautionary tales. The little robot that lends its name to the film’s title continues to function—as he was built to do long before the Earth was reduced to a wasteland by humanity’s pollution. Then, through his linking up with a reconnaissance robot named EVE, he and his new companion inadvertently set out on a mission in which he reconnects with humans and triggers a sequence of actions that will set them free. Humanity has fled the ravaged earth in a huge spaceship that at first seems like a utopia. However, it is a world in which no one walks, humans being are so well served by machines that they have grown fat and ride around on chairs. Mrs. Obama might well adopt this section of the film as part of her campaign against obesity.

The above are but a few of the many dystopias that talented filmmakers have created over the years. No doubt the dystopia that currently is eclipsing all the others is The Hunger Games. I plan to write more about the film after I attend one of the first showings, but I do know one thing about these films: They are terrific discussion starters in small groups!

Read Twilight Expert Jane Wells’ story about the Hunger Games and Twilight series.

Care to read more from Edward McNulty?

    (Originally published at, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.)

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