Modern-Day Fairy Tales

Why Dystopian Tales Are Good For You

The last two decades have witnessed a sharp rise in widespread popularity of young adult book series including J. K. Rowling’s "Harry Potter," Stephenie Meyer’s "Twilight," Suzanne Collins’ "The Hunger Game " and Veronica Roth’s "Divergent." These book series have, in turn, spawned some of the most successful films of the past 13 years. What makes these stories so popular? The answer may be surprising. While some may see these series’ popularity as a recent fad, the truth is that the plots and characters in these stories are as old as literature itself.

From the fifth-century BC "Aesop’s Fables," to the 18th-century folk and fairy tales collected by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm and the 20th- and 21st-century series by Rowling, Meyer, Collins and Roth, stories of youth who venture out, learn harsh truths about the society in which they live, overcome obstacles and gradually find their place in the world have consistently spoken to young and adult audiences alike. These stories, also known as bildungsroman, or "coming of age" stories, appear in folk tales, young adult novels and teen films and share some common threads: the absence of parental authority propels the main character into the adult world alone, and the young protagonist must make his or her own way. Most often depicted as disadvantaged in some way, commonly as poor, weak or bullied, the protagonist finds throughout the story that he or she is special, endowed with a unique gift and that it is his or her duty to use that unique gift to save family, friends or even the entire world.

One of the most effective ways to present a critique of current society is to set a story within a fantasy or science fiction world. These environments allow the writer to criticize modern society and the reader to imagine how he or she would deal with the problems the protagonist faces.

The "Harry Potter" and "Twilight" series, set in familiar, modern-day environments, include fantasy elements to create the conflict each protagonist will face. "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone" uses fantasy to reveal a hidden alternate world of witchcraft and wizardry. Harry, an orphan, taken in by his aunt and uncle, is mistreated and bullied throughout his youth. He comes to realize that he is part of a secret world of witchcraft and wizardry, where he is a star. The society depicted in the series addresses real 20th- and 21st-century issues of discrimination, genocide and totalitarianism.

The "Twilight" series features Bella Swan, a shy, gawky girl who lives with her father and loves a boy from school who is a vampire. Bella learns that she has powers, which help her protect her family, friends and the entire race of werewolves and vampires against a corrupt vampire leadership, the Volturi. As in the "Harry Potter" series, those with power are shown as easily corrupted, and it is the responsibility of the protagonist to stand against that authority to do what is right.

Other young adult series inhabit the science fiction genre and are set in dystopian future worlds that have resulted from the failure of the society in which the reader lives. "The Hunger Games" series features Katniss Everdeen, a girl who lost her father and has taken on the caretaker role her mother cannot fulfill. Set in a future version of Earth, society has been divided into districts, overseen and controlled by Panem. A critique of the disparity in power and resources between 21st-century first and third worlds, Katniss represents a citizen from a disadvantaged district. She is a source of inspiration for the citizens of the other districts and becomes leader of the rebellion against Panem.

In "Divergent," set in a future version of Chicago, Tris Prior is part of a society divided into five factions, segregated from the others and relegated to specific roles. At the age of 16, members take a test to determine the faction they will join. Tris finds she does not belong to a single faction when her test results are "divergent," showing that she has attributes to join any faction. Tris leaves her family and joins a faction of wild and brave citizens. She overcomes her physical shortcomings and learns that the faction system is corrupt and divisive. Ultimately, Tris sacrifices herself to save all of the factions and to free them from the experiment in which they have been living.

…readers and viewers find inspiration in the realization that everyone has a gift…

All of the teens in these series leave home, learn the truth about the world and make decisions about the kind of people they want to be and the kind of world in which they want to live. Although they are not privileged, they find they have something unique to give, and that their bravery and sacrifice can change or save the world. In all of the stories, the main characters face the choice to ignore the injustice around them in order to protect themselves but in every case make the brave choice to do what is right. Teen readers and viewers can identify with the clique system depicted in the Hogwarts houses in "Harry Potter," the clan conflict between the vampires and werewolves in "Twilight," and the segregation and inequity in the districts of "The Hunger Games" and the factions in "Divergent." Just like the characters in these series, readers and viewers find inspiration in the realization that everyone has a gift and the responsibility to find the bravery to make the world a better place.

Although a cursory summary of these book and film series might lead one to think of them as dark or violent, they, like the folk and fairy tales that have preceded them, are morality tales in which good triumphs over evil and truth will win in the end. Ultimately, it is this optimistic message that has led to their popularity. In times of war and genocide, when it is tempting to look away from terrible things happening on the other side of the planet, these series remind us to be brave and to do what is right, even when it isn’t easy. We don’t need to be popular, strong or wealthy. If we act against injustice where we see it, we may inspire others, and in our own small way, save the world.