Despite the modern commitment to avoid suffering and embrace pleasure at any cost, our world remains infatuated with dystopian tales that are specifically designed to show us a world permeated by suffering, injustice, pain, and hopelessness. While we are horrified when we hear about child abuse on the news, we spend millions of dollars to read or watch The Hunger Games trilogy where children are literally put into a gladiatorial arena to fight to the death for the entertainment of the wealthy (according to Box Office Mojo, the film series has a gross revenue of $1,451,538,526). This infatuation is not limited to the past few decades. Consider The Lord of the Flies, a perennial best seller since its release in 1954; the reader is brought into a world where, like the Hunger Games, children are killing each other, this time for want of civilization. The fascination with the dystopian lends itself to a deeper question: why do these types of stories, which would be horrific in our own world, charm us so much that we make them into bestsellers and blockbusters?
The first clue to answering this question might be found in the first chapter of The Hunger Games. As narrator and protagonist Katniss Everdeen provides the reader with background information about her world, she says, “Taking the kids from our districts, forcing them to kill one another while we watch—this is the Capitol’s way of reminding us how totally we are at their mercy.” Likewise, reading about this type of brutality serves as a reminder in our world as well. Shamefully, terrible things do happen every day in the real world. Evil is not just a type of literary creation that Suzanne Collins employs to invoke sympathetic attention from the readers. While the manifestation of that evil may be more blatantly obvious in a country that sacrifices its children on live TV, the reader cannot help but remember that our world is also a fallen place.
While this might not seem to be the kind of reminder that would appeal to a reader or viewer, C. S. Lewis argues that pain serves an important function; “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” Perhaps we continually return to dystopian stories because we want to wake up. We live in a real world filled with real evil, but in our world full of airbrushed social media personas and the pressure to feel “fine,” we find parts of reality in dystopian stories that we need to face in our own. Through all the pain that people like Katniss experience, we feel reality screaming at us. Finally someone is willing to talk about the hard parts of life and is brave enough to wrestle with the difficult problems that it is not always socially acceptable to talk about.
Good dystopian stories can do more than just remind us about the state of our world and offer a real recognition of the pain that we all feel. They can also help us diagnose what is wrong with our own world. Dystopian stories almost provide us with a predictive simulation of our own world. They allow us to think through what our world could be like and the consequences of embracing certain ideas. In The Lord of the Flies, the rule of law is the chief issue in question. Socially awkward Piggy is continually calling his fellow schoolboys back to civilization despite their seemingly inevitable descent towards anarchy. His final line illustrates his consistent struggle throughout the entire storyline. He shouts, “Which is better—to have rules and agree, or to hunt and kill?” We recognize the tendency toward chaos around us as well. For Piggy, it seems evident on the island that brutal survival of the fittest is not the answer. The majority of the other boys have fallen into savagery, but he tries to call them back. In 1984, Fahrenheit 451, Animal Farm, or any other dystopian book you choose, the issues might be different, but all of the stories serve a similar purpose. They help us diagnose our own problems and see the consequences of the ideas we espouse.
In her famous diary, Anne Frank offers a clear diagnosis of the evil in her real-life dystopia yet adds a sense of surprising hope to her observations. In her third to last entry, she wrote regarding the state of her life, “It’s utterly impossible for me to build my life on a foundation of chaos, suffering, and death. I see the world being slowly transformed into a wilderness, I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too, I feel the suffering of millions, and yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty too shall end, that peace and tranquility will return once more. In the meantime, I must hold on to my ideals. Perhaps the day will come when I’ll be able to realize them!” Chaos, suffering, and death exist in our world. Most of us reading this article have not suffered and will never suffer to the degree that Anne Frank did. However, even in our less extreme circumstances, we don’t want to experience suffering or death either, but we know they are simply a part of our existence whether we like them or not.
My world is different than most dystopian worlds, but reading about them causes me to reflect on my world. I am not secluded in hiding, hoping for survival, like Anne Frank. I am not trapped on an island like the schoolboys in The Lord of the Flies. However, I am changed by my experience about reading what could be. I have a renewed sense of purpose as a result of reading about all that could be wrong. It causes me to hold all the more dearly to that which is right. Perhaps not everyone responds to dystopian literature in the same way I do, but it seems consistent with our human desire for the good, the true, and beautiful. Anne Frank saw that. By this point in her diary, she had been in hiding for years and was exhausted by it. I don’t know how she had the strength to persevere and think so deeply even in such trying times. She recognized that in her world, these awful circumstances forced her to hold onto her ideals even more closely.
Dystopian stories help ordinary people like me. By imaginatively entering into these worlds, we can look up at the sky in a different way too. We all experience differing degrees of evil, but we are not always comfortable talking about it. Dystopian literature helps awaken us. We don’t always know the consequences of certain ideas or practices in our slumber. These stories reinforce our belief that certain ideologies ought to be avoided. That is why dystopian stories remain popular. Understanding potential evil encourages us to embrace that which is good with all the more resolve.
Zachary D. Schmoll earned his Ph.D. in Humanities at Faulkner University and his M.A. in Apologetics from Houston Baptist University. He serves as the Managing Editor of An Unexpected Journal, a quarterly publication of cultural and imaginative apologetics. His academic work has been published in Christianity & Literature, Mythlore, Cistercian Studies Quarterly, the Journal of Faith and the Academy, and Fourth World Journal. His essays have also been featured at The Imaginative Conservative, Public Discourse, Front Porch Republic, and The Federalist.
Zak Schmoll. “Why are We DRawn to the Dystopian?” An Unexpected Journal 2, no. 3. (Fall 2019): 157-162.
 “The Hunger Games,” Box Office Mojo, August 3, 2019, https://www.boxofficemojo.com/franchises/chart/?id=hungergames.htm.
 Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games (New York: Scholastic Inc, 2008), 18, Kindle Edition.
 C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: HarperCollins, 2009), 91, Kindle Edition.
 William Golding, Lord of the Flies (New York: Penguin Publishing Group, 2016), 169, Kindle Edition.
 Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl (No City: Lifebooks, 2018), Kindle Location 5712, Kindle Edition.