On the Post-Apocalypse of the Young Adult Imagination
Last night I went to see Allegiant, the latest addition to the Divergent film franchise and arguably the least exciting film premiering among a host of desperately mundane films in theaters this Spring. I didn’t dislike it because it followed the same exact arc as every other Strong Female Archetype and every other Very White, Very Straight, & Very Dangerous World we’re delivered in post-apocalyptic literature written for a middle grade or teen audience — although the film’s whiteness and heteronormative architecture certainly did it no favors in a market crowded with similar offerings.
I didn’t dislike the film because it was single-minded to the point of simplicity, derivative to a fault, and raucously disdainful of the laws of physics. I didn’t even dislike it because it took the Jeff Daniels I so loved as John Sculley in Steve Jobs and NASA administrator Teddy Sanders in The Martian, both of which ranked among my top five films of 2015, and turned him into a cardboard cutout of a soulless bureaucrat-cum-scientist named David who somehow deems it wise to wipe the memories of every single person living in the walled-off experiment that is Future Chicago … as if that wouldn’t pose any challenges to future administration. Just picture a standoff between unwitting civilians and David’s high-tech troops: “Go home!” “Where’s home?” “I have a gun!” “What’s a gun? Who are you?” “I make the rules! Do as I say!” “Yeah, but what are rules?” Etc on into infinity.
I didn’t dislike Allegiant much at all, if I’m honest, because the film inspired nothing more complicated than my curiosity while watching it:
Where does our fascination with the post-apocalyptic come from? Why is it so entirely billed as a teen phenomenon, when adults turned out in droves for Mad Max: Fury Road, for Terminator Genisys, and for each and every installment of the Resident Evil franchise?
Despite its flaws, Allegiant wasn’t a terrible movie. It was a nicely repackaged bundle of everything we’ve been given before in adaptations of The Giver and The Hunger Games and The Maze Runner and The 5th Wave — which came out a mere two months ago — only with aircraft that evoked both Mac and PC aesthetics and an aggressively on-the-nose discourse encouraging its viewers and villains alike to embrace diversity.
Allegiant’s message about abolishing the distinctions between Pure and Damaged, Allegiant and Factionless, Outside the Wall and Inside the Wall wouldn’t have felt so ham-fisted if the cast hadn’t been so, so very white. Only five actors of color have speaking roles in the film, and they only serve to typify the difficulties facing true diversity in Hollywood: one is summarily executed in the first ten minutes to illustrate the Evil Regime Being Evil — after being interrogated by the second person of color, who is clearly blind to corrupt justice — another dies a meaningless death shortly thereafter, and the fourth, Zoë Kravitz, gets to shoot lots of people but only when there are too many for the white leads to shoot alone. Only Octavia Spencer is given any lines of note, but she exists only as a foil to Naomi Watts’ maternally-challenged sort-of baddie.
If all this seems beside the point, hear me out:
I don’t dislike any particular iteration of the Young Adult book-to-movie machine and I have even been known to sample both sides of the aisle with both full impunity to be a snob (I have a graduate degree in writing nonfiction) and diplomatic immunity to like the odd extract or two (I am a Youth Services Librarian, after all). I bought a copy of the first book in the Divergent trilogy back in 2011 when it was still young and fresh and the Hunger Games craze was still going full-steam. I’m within a month of the same age as Veronica Roth, Divergent’s author, and several years ago I was lucky enough to see her speak at a now-closed Tattered Cover in Denver’s Highlands Ranch. She’s young, she’s smart, and she accomplished exactly what she set out to accomplish with her books. In general, I’m a casual fan of anyone who has the guts to finish and publish a book — even if that book has become part of a larger, more problematic machine.
It probably comes as no surprise that what I struggle with most — as the one person tasked with broadening my library’s youth-centric collection — is an ancient one. How do I balance the books? How do I introduce teens and middle grade readers to the kinds of books that reach into their lives and drive them deeper into the world of literature … without acting as a gatekeeper, censoring what I think is bad and including personal favorites because here’s some good shit for your mind, kid!
An even more pertinent question — after watching Allegiant and glancing once or twice at my own unwritten notes as well as casting an ear toward what others have to say about trends among readers and cinema-goers — might be: Is there something inherently wrong, or perhaps flawed, about post-apocalyptic books and movies? Whatever answer you give, I want to know what that means for the people who love it. And why do we criticize repetition of a theme or one-dimensional characters in science fiction and youth-related media but hold back when it comes to other, perhaps more respectable if less well-beloved, genres?
I will never stop criticizing the establishment for perpetuating systemic evils including a lack of diverse representation in film, but I refuse to believe that it is a problem that belongs exclusively to kids these days. My refusal doesn’t exactly aid me in deciding which books I can afford to slip onto the library shelves this year, but it does give me an inkling of what it must feel like to be blamed for cheapening the quality of literature everywhere. Although if you read my work you might be justified in thinking that of me, personally, anyway. And I won’t tell you you’re wrong.
Last night I went to see Allegiant, not because I really wanted to, but because going home feels like walking through the still sad silence after a real apocalypse, and because I’m a coward who can’t seem to work things out with my housemate. Still, as I watched familiar figures race across the silver screen and banter back-and-forth in an oh-so-familiar nuclear wasteland, I was left wondering if I can learn to love books and their movie adaptations with the same uncomplicated, undemanding love I had before eighteen years of education left me coldly critical.