Catching Fire, the follow-up to Hunger Games, opens this Friday, and the future of teen fantasy film may depend on its success. When The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones tanked at the box office in August, critics rejoiced over the apparent death of the genre. A few months earlier in March, The Host had also flopped, winning the distinction of being the last film Roger Ebert ever panned. BuzzFeed writer Jordan Zakarin concluded that the “tween vampire jugular is tapped.” In the Atlantic, Gina Dalfonzo suggested that teenage girls nursed on Twilight had finally seen through the hackneyed “Chosen One” story trope, a plot-line that has held its own since the Book of Esther. Writing more pragmatically in Forbes, Scott Mendelson blamed City of Bones’s floundering on bad marketing.
Despite this failure, the actual book by Cassandra Clare was a roaring success, selling more than 16 million copies worldwide. Though the teen fantasy craze may be on the downslope, it is not quite dead; rather, the supernatural romances of Twilight and its ilk have yielded to the dystopian universe of Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games Trilogy. The first film adaptation grossed $691 million last year, and with a fresh crop of middle-schoolers looking for signposts to their own significance, the second installment’s curtain raise is likely to be well-attended.
Though publishers distinguish between supernatural, paranormal romance, and dystopia, these genres all involve an element of fantasy. HarperCollins editor Kari Sutherland told me that since 2010 the company has tripled its number of such titles, which include the wildly successful Divergent and Delirium series. Scholastic, publisher of The Hunger Games, said these books have played an “intrinsic” role in the increase of titles it’s sold in the past five years. Fantasies can be valuable testaments to the power of literature, allowing readers to work out real-world problems in a metaphorical context and encouraging creativity, courage, and self-sacrifice. But it would be a mistake to assume that the same girl who sped through Twilight and Hunger Games will easily find her way to The Martian Chronicles or even contemporary fantasy’s immediate forbearers — works by authors like Tamora Pierce or Robin McKinley. Teens today aren’t genre nerds who only love fantasy. According to Ms. Sutherland, they read these books because it’s what their friends are reading. But how did they become so popular? And what do they have to say — specifically to their young, female readers — about the world?
Before the American Civil War, the idea of writing books for teenagers didn’t cross the minds of American publishers. It was only in the 1860s that popular novels for girls like the Elsie Dinsmore series appeared, featuring saintly, passive heroines whose lives revolved around the home. But a demand also grew for blood-and-thunder romances that expressed an underlying feminine ennui as much as they negatively implicated the women reading them. The heroines of these tales were usually embroiled in a lurid affair between suitors or some other form of love-gone-awry that threatened their virginity.
These women — the evolutionary ancestors of today’s high-grossing teen heroines — were seen to confirm upper class assumptions about the promiscuity of the lower class. Louisa May Alcott’s first story, a psycho-thriller novella called Pauline’s Passion and Punishment, followed a jilted woman’s quest for revenge against a lover who leaves her for a wealthy woman. In 1862, after it was published under the pen name of A. M. Barnard, Alcott wrote to her friend Alf Whitman: ”I get ten dollars a page for my foolish little story…money is the end & aim of my mercenary existence I scribble away.” Even after she became a famous writer, Alcott continued churning out pulp fiction for the tabloids. “Perilous Play” of 1869 ends memorably with its heroine exclaiming, “Heaven bless hashish, if its dreams end like this!”
But squeaky-clean domestic romances remained the more socially acceptable reading choice until the turn of the century, when publishers like The Henry Altemus Company concluded that “girls as well as boys love adventure.” The Stratemeyer Syndicate published 85 new girls’ series between 1910 and 1920 starring young women who played basketball, drove cars, helped the poor, solved mysteries, and even made movies. Most of all, they went to college. The historian Jane S. Smith has noted that less than four percent of college-aged American girls attended university in 1910, “but it was a rare heroine of fiction who did not take a room on the campus green, where she studied biology and Latin, drank cocoa with her kimono-clad chums and upheld the school traditions with moist-eyed fervor.”
These books captured the spirit of the Suffragettes, who in 1913 marched on the Washington Mall to demand women’s equality. The popular Ruth Fielding Series (1913-1934) was about an orphan living with a mean uncle who disapproves of her desire for a future outside the home. Smart and ambitious, Ruth works hard in school, goes to college, wins a film-writing contest and even starts her own production company. In book #15, Ruth Fielding Homeward Bound (1919), the narrator explains, “Marriage was something very far ahead in the future, if Ruth … thought of it at all.” When Ruth’s boyfriend Tom proposes in book #19, Ruth Fielding on the St. Lawrence (1922), she feels that “to do as Tom wished would utterly spoil the career on which she had now entered so successfully. Tom, like most young men in love, considered that a girl’s only career should be a husband and a home…she wanted to live her own life.”
It’s ironic, as Smith has noted, that bettering one’s self through college or career fell out of focus in teen fiction not long after women got the vote. By the 1980s, suburban dramas in the vein of Sweet Valley High and The Baby-Sitter’s Club predominantly reigned.
One night in 2003, Stephenie Meyer had a dream about vampires and woke up the next morning to begin writing the first Twilight book, a nearly 500-page tome. Within five years the first Twilight film appeared, launching a franchise, and by extension, a phenomenon. Though girls devoured the series in cinematic and print form (I once saw a first edition at Half-Price Books valued at $600), critics spared no kindness on its 17-year-old heroine, “Bella” Swan:
“Neither [Edward or Bella] has much personality to speak of.”
“[Bella] is not only hard to identify with but positively horrifying…”
— Entertainment Weekly
“It’s hard to say which is more difficult to swallow: Bella’s perpetually low self-worth, or the fact that all the other characters are obsessed with her…young readers are left with the image of a girl who discovers her own worth and gets all she ever wanted, by giving up her identity and throwing away nearly everything in life that matters.”
— National Review
“…the overall effect is a weird infantilization that has repellent overtones to an adult reader and hardly seems like an admirable model to foist upon our daughters (or sons).”
— Washington Post
And a final, damning rebuke:
“You can’t get away from a strange paradox. Women are using their regained power over the picture house to trash their hard-won independence. What mysterious creatures they are.”
— The Guardian
Branding youth culture as obscene or degrading is old hat — and teens don’t care. After the first Twilight film, Bella (Kristin Stewart) became a de facto role model for young women — the instantaneous object of their envy, praise, and imitation. The internet was rife with articles and YouTube videos instructing girls how to dress like Bella, apply their makeup like Bella, and, most frighteningly, act like Bella. In one video, a girl earnestly advised viewers to be “clumsy and accident-prone.” Clothing brand BB Dakota even replicated for mass production the jacket Bella wore in the film. Bella singlehandedly set the stage for an army of similar teen heroines that came after her — ones who share more in common with Alcott’s Pauline or even Elsie Dinsmore than Ruth Fielding. In fact, the sting of Twilight intensifies when one compares the book to Girl of the Limberlost (1908), a young adult novel authored by Gene Stratton-Porter and published a full hundred years before Twilight premiered in theaters.
Both Elnora Comstock, author Gene Stratton-Porter’s 16-year-old heroine, and Bella Swan are Cinderella archetypes. Twilight opens when Bella moves to the leafy town of Forks, Washington to live with her dad, since her mom is preoccupied doting on a boyfriend. Elnora’s father is dead, and she lives in rural Indiana with her mother, a grief-stricken tyrant. Each, in their own ways, are loners. Though friends flock around Bella at school, she tells the reader, “I didn’t relate well to people my age… Maybe the truth was that I didn’t relate well to people, period.” While Bella may feel like an outsider, Elnora is one. Snubbed for her old-fashioned clothes, she becomes a pariah on her first day of high school and eats her lunch alone. Both girls also spend their time wandering the woods near their homes. Bella’s activities in the lush Northwest forest involve chasing around her love interest, a vampire named Edward Cullen (or more often, joyriding on his back). Elnora works quietly in the swampy Limberlost, where her own father drowned, collecting rare moths to sell so she can buy schoolbooks and save money for college.
But at the heart of Twilight lies something else almost more sinister than its treatment of romance. The more Bella submits to Edward’s charms, the closer she gets to the end of her human life and the beginning of her undead one. Coupled with her disinterest in the outside world, her desire for Edward becomes a death wish — fulfilled when she is finally bitten by him and becomes herself a vampire. If this sounds twisted, remember that it’s the ending that most Twilight readers hoped for. This hunger for death is countered in Limberlost not only by Elnora’s resilience against life’s blows but also by the forest’s own struggle to survive industrialization. Like Edward’s deadly effect on Bella, Elnora’s foraging in the Limberlost threatens it. A family friend warns her, “Each year you will find less in the swamp, and things everywhere will be scarcer.” By the time she graduates high school, the forest is not what it used to be. Still, Mrs. Comstock, who owns a large swath of the land, refuses to sell it to developers. Life pushes back against destruction for the conservation of a fragile but crucial habitat.
To a modern reader, Limberlost is sentimental, almost saccharine, and though it encourages independence it ultimately bows to the conventions of its era when, towards the end, Elnora reveals her perception of being a wife: “I understood that to mean that he desired me to keep him a clean house, serve him digestible food, mother his children, and give him loving, sympathy, and tenderness,” she says. But in a time when few women went to college, Elnora’s ambition was a brave push into new territory, inspiring readers with aspirations for their own futures. What hope did Bella inspire?
The author Lauren Oliver credited her inspiration for the dystopian teen romance Delirium to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who wrote that all great books were about love and death. Throughout literary history, these twin subjects have been the core of many great novels (Anna Karenina) as well as many bad ones. As Twilight demonstrated, teen fantasy authors have taken up these themes with a special fervor, but no one has handled them as ruthlessly as Suzanne Collins in the Hunger Games Trilogy.
Writing in Salon, critic Laura Miller has praised Katniss Everdeen, Collins’s strong-willed 16-year-old heroine, as an improvement on Bella:
Bella Swan is clumsy and largely helpless, a rescue object for Edward and Jacob… Katniss is a tough and competent woodswoman and sharpshooter. Bella is willing to give up everything — her family, friends, previous life, even her humanity — to dote on her beloved Edward for eternity; Katniss sacrifices herself for her mother and sister.
Indeed, Katniss has far more in common with Elnora. She also spends her days in a forest, hunting not moths but meat to sell on the black market. The resemblance between the two is uncanny. Like Elnora’s father, Katniss’s father is dead and her mother also emotionally invalid; just as Elnora inherits her father’s grace with the violin, Katniss has her father’s rich talent for song. Both characters struggle to survive in a dangerous environment. Thieves have overrun Elnora’s forest and warn her to keep out; her father’s bones, we are told, rest in the swampy pool bottom where he drowned. Yet somehow the Limberlost’s dangers don’t overwhelm her. Katniss’s post-apocalyptic home of Panem terrorizes her. Food is scarce; mutant birds and insects threaten; and hunting is a crime penalized by death As punishment for a past rebellion, each of the nation’s 12 districts sacrifices two “tributes” to compete in an annual reality show where the winner is the last one alive.
Here, dystopia reaches into every corner of life — even love. Along with a boy named Peeta, Katniss represents her district in the 74th annual games. Though Katniss never had romantic feelings for him before the Games, she pretends to return Peeta’s affection in order to “give the audience something more to care about,” and it’s this complex brand of romance that becomes her main tool for survival. Critics have applauded Collins for subverting standard romantic hooks, but this faux love story actually draws many Hunger Games fans, who debate aggressively online over the respective hotness of Peeta and Gale, Katniss’s childhood friend. Though Katniss eventually becomes a hero, up until page 156 of the first book, her internal struggles revolve around her conflicted emotions toward Peeta and Gale, not on the ethical dilemma of having to kill people. In chapter 10, Peeta — who faces the same pressures as Katniss — tells her that his goal is to stay true to himself, even until death: “I’m more than just a piece in their Games… Don’t you see?” Katniss replies, “A little… but who cares, Peeta?”
Dystopian novels are provocative avenues through which readers can explore and even question their civic relationship to government, but Collins’s series fosters an especially grotesque worldview. The words “dead,” “dying,” and “death” appear more than 300 times in the series. In Catching Fire, Katniss and Peeta are again chosen to compete in a special edition of the bloodbath. When Katniss is wounded, the authorities nurse her to life because a quiet, private passing would be a loss for them. Later, Katniss resolves to kill Peeta “before the Capitol gets to choose the agonizing means of his death.” As Mockingjay opens, she stumbles through the bombed-out landscape of District 12, tripping on human skulls and breathing in the ashes of the dead. When the couple finally defeat the Capitol, their victory feels pyrrhic at best. With most of their families dead (and Katniss’s initial sacrificing of herself for her sister rendered pointless), they marry, and nightmares haunt them always. Readers are left to untangle the book’s intimations about the real world for themselves. They may wonder: if the world really is that hopeless, what’s the point of striving for anything at all?
In comparison to Collins’s dark tale, Daniel Woodrell’s noiresque Winter’s Bone — whose 2010 film version also starred Jennifer Lawrence — seems strangely light. The fact that the novel, published in 2006, was not marketed to teenage girls is almost — but not quite — surprising. Its heroine, 17-year-old Ree Dolly, shares many similarities to Bella, Katniss, and Elnora. Living in the Ozark woods and hunting squirrels to feed her family, she also searches for her father, a meth cook who has gone missing. If he doesn’t turn up for his court date, her mother and siblings will be forced out of their home. There is no romance here; Ree mostly dreams of leaving the Ozarks and joining the Army. But in the end, she preserves her family home by confronting her father’s death in its most horrifying physical form. When the film version came out in 2010, David Edelstein noted in New York Magazine, “For all the horror, it’s the drive toward life, not the decay, that lingers in the mind. As a modern heroine, Ree Dolly has no peer…” New Yorker critic David Denby called Winter’s Bone “one of the greatest feminist works in film.”
Literature may not be about easy answers, but some of the best books bring some level of clarity to the reader within their nuanced explorations of the world — even if that clarity means that they find the answers are grayer than they thought. The problem with Twilight and Hunger Games is that while operating in a seemingly black-and-white world they actually infect their readers with chaos: Twilight by exploiting its audience’s desire to completely escape reality, and Hunger Games by cementing its readers’ fears that there is nothing beyond the darkness.
The value of books like Girl of the Limberlost and Winter’s Bone is that while acknowledging the world’s ugliness, they carve a path of resilience the reader can follow. Though many teen readers lead average, suburban lives, they live in an information age rife with anxiety. Their social worlds, artificially reorganized online through social media, are open to endless bullying. Threats of nuclear war, environmental destruction, and domestic terrorism loop continuously on the nightly news. AMC — who owned the venue in which the Aurora shooting occurred and in whose franchises many fans will line up to see Catching Fire’s premiere — now runs a cautionary commercial about how to act in the case of such a catastrophe. In the midst of these uncertainties, let alone the hormonal depression from which many already suffer, the fashion and beauty industries fuel the pressure to look and act perfect.
In her article, Dalfonzo wrote, “It might be that, far from wanting to watch other kids save the world time and again, kids would like to watch them just being kids.” But kids don’t just want to watch kids being kids. They want to step into the shoes of ordinary kids doing extraordinary things. I asked David Levithan, Scholastic’s vice president and editorial director, whether such books might be a way for girls to escape the real world. He explained that most successful fantasy literature is actually deeply relatable to the reader: “The themes (survival in Hunger Games, unrequited love in Twilight, etc.) are completely real even if the situations are not.” Within this milieu, authors as influential as Meyer and Collins have the opportunity to inspire their readers toward greatness, but they squander it miserably. Neither Bella nor Katniss have dreams that transcend their current situations.
Yet, in the famous words of Tolkien, not all who wander are lost. Louisa May Alcott may have written sensational vampire stories, but she also wrote Little Women, a classic I first read in middle school that taught me I could do or be anything, and that my uneventful life was filled with meaning. I’m not betting on Meyer or Collins to create her, but I’d like to think another Jo March might still be out there.