The dictionary defines a dystopia as a state in which the conditions of life are extremely bad as from deprivation or oppression or terror. These scenarios have been the inspiration for countless novels and movies. They reflect our darkest fears and sometimes, actual elements in the modern world.
George Lucas made his name with Star Wars but many film lovers cite this cult movie from 1971 as his masterpiece. It was his directorial debut on a feature length film and he also co-wrote the screenplay. The movie is set in the 25th century and the totalitarian authorities use mind-controlling drugs, which suppress emotion and sexual desire, to sedate the populace. Robert Duvall stars as THX 1138, a production worker, who dreams of freedom. The loss of personal identity and individual liberty are the powerful themes.
The Handmaid’s Tale
Canadian author, Margaret Atwood, created a feminist interpretation of dystopia in her 1985 novel. The Republic of Gilead, (formerly the USA) is the post-nuclear setting in which a military coup follows a revolution. The result is a chauvinist, totalitarian state. There is a population crisis owing to mass infertility and women who are able to breed are forced to be concubines, (or handmaidens). The film adaptation from 1990 stars Natasha Richardson as the central figure, Offred. The story has also been adapted for radio and as a stage play and opera.
Ugly scenes of book burning in Nazi Germany are recalled in Ray Bradbury’s novel from 1953. In this future American society, the population is monitored for any signs of freethinking. The chief character, Guy Montag, is a fireman, which means someone assigned to burn books. Fahrenheit 451 is the temperature at which book paper ignites. Montag begins to question the morality of his job and finds others who want to rebel. Francois Truffaut directed the 1966 movie based on the novel, starring Oskar Werner and Julie Christie.
This film, released in 1984, was a low budget enterprise that became a hugely successful franchise with three sequels. Directed by James Cameron, it starred Arnold Schwarzenegger as The Terminator, a cyborg assassin sent back from the year 2029. The post-apocalyptic Los Angeles of the future is ruled by a race of computer-controlled machines that want to wipe out the human race. The Terminator’s mission is to kill Sarah Connor because her yet to be born son, John is destined to lead a human rebellion against the machines. It’s a cautionary tale of humans versus technology in a popular action film.
Although this German made, silent film dates from 1927, the special effects still impress today’s audiences. Fritz Lang directed in the German Expressionist style, using a blend of Art Deco buildings and futuristic designs to show the city of Metropolis. The year is 2026 and society is divided into two groups. The thinkers live in comfort on the surface whilst the workers live in terrible conditions, underground. Metropolis had an enormous influence on future science fiction films and even features a robot. The heart of the story is a human one however, as workers and bosses are in conflict, reflecting the moral questions of capitalist societies.
The Anthony Burgess novel from 1962 is one of the most controversial ever published. Set in a near future England, Alex and his friends, known as droogs, are a thuggish gang obsessed with rape and violence, and they communicate through a slang language, invented by Burgess. Alex however, is not a typical teenager, as he loves classical music, and Beethoven in particular. After being sent to prison for a brutal crime, Alex participates in a trial to test out the Ludovico Technique. This involves giving him a nausea-inducing drug whilst watching footage of violent acts. Alex is released and can no longer act out his violent urges, due to the aversion therapy. The story prompts the question, should mind control be a part of rehabilitation for offenders? Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation, starring Malcolm McDowell, was released ten years later, continuing the controversy.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? / Blade Runner
The Philip K. Dick penned novel from 1968 led to the famous movie adaptation, Blade Runner, released in 1982. It’s a post-apocalyptic society in which androids perform menial jobs. The main character is Rick Deckard, a bounty hunter whose task is to recapture androids that have taken on a human identity. Ridley Scott directed the visually inventive film, starring Harrison Ford and Rutger Hauer. The story makes us question the place of technology in our lives and what it means to be a human being with emotions.
To be arrested and put on trial and not to be told what crime you are accused of is a nightmare vision. This is the plot, which Prague born author, Franz Kafka, featured in his 1925 novel. It’s a touchstone in literature for every regime that uses internment without trial and imprisonment without charge. The protagonist, Josef K, is unable to stop his life spinning out of control. He is a respectable, senior bank clerk. What crime has he committed? A 1963 movie starring Anthony Perkins and Orson Welles was based on the book as well as a 1993 movie version stars Kyle MacLachlan.
Brave New World
Aldous Huxley set his novel, published in 1932, in London in the 25th century. The World State produces test tube babies, which are socially engineered to fit into one of five castes in order to determine their status in life, from managers to manual laborers. Sleep conditioning is used to stimulate certain desires such as consumption of products. This is a world dedicated to pleasure and shopping and its citizens’ moods are controlled by Soma, a hallucinogenic drug. Henry Ford, the pioneer of the modern assembly line, is worshiped as a god. Huxley’s story is a warning against a hedonistic society with no moral basis. Test tube babies became a reality in the real world and the novel’s premise raises many questions about pre-determination.
George Orwell’s 1949 novel made such an impact, that it became a byword for dystopia. References from the book, particularly ‘Big Brother’, are part of our language and are shorthand for a society where surveillance keeps the population in check. In this imagined future, London is part of a super state known as Oceania. The news is controlled by the repressive regime and the central character of Winston Smith is a civil servant whose job involves falsifying official information. His illicit liaison with Julia leads to an encounter in the notorious Room 101. The story is more relevant than ever as we live with CCTV cameras on every corner and repressive governments around the world censor information from their citizens. Adaptations include a 1954 BBC television play, a 1956 film and a 1984 film, starring John Hurt and Richard Burton.