With the film’s release less than one week away, the reviews for The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 are starting to arrive online. Generally positive so far (surprise), one thing the reviews have in common is that Mockingjay Part 1 is the darkest film yet in the series.
Alonso Duraldo at The Wrap, who liked the film, writes that Mockingjay Part 1 “examines the power of propaganda, as the action moves off the playing/killing fields of the Games and into the airwaves of a full-on revolution.” Over at Time, Richard Corliss, who did not like the film, still saw a dark endeavor which he described as a “two-hour foot-soldier slog.”
But its David Edelstein for Vulture who captures the dourness of the new Hunger Games best: Edelstein describes Mockingjay Part 1 as “one of the grimmer dystopian movies in a decade.” He continues: “Stuff this bleak used to be in German or Japanese, but now it’s lapped up by American kids who’ve finally gotten the message that whatever’s coming isn’t good.”
These reviews, if you’ve bothered to read or watch The Hunger Games, shouldn’t come as a surprise. Even for dystopian young-adult fiction The Hunger Games is a bleak world where children murder children in a sport designed to remind the poor not to try to revolt against the rich.
But The Hunger Games is not the only teenage story to dive straight into the bleakness. The trend has been all over the cineplex lately. Whatever motivates audiences towards these stories (that’s subject for another time), there’s no denying the appeal. Whether its the tear-jerking cancer-story of The Fault in Our Stars, or the sci-fi dystopias of The Maze Runner or Ender’s Game, these are dark and difficult times to be a teenager in a movie.
The problem is, not all harrowing teen stories are created equal. So, as you wait for the release of Mockingjay Part 1, here are five excellent and dark movies about teenagers for teenage audiences that can satisfy any appetite for the worst of times.
At the beginning of Heathers, a teen-comedy/murder-fantasy from 1988 starring Winona Ryder and Christian Slater, unpopular Veronica tries to get in with the popular clique of girls, all named Heather. That eventually fails.
Veronica then meets J.D., a rebellious outsider who is full of antics like playing strip croquet or pulling guns on bullies. He also murders popular kids and makes their deaths appear suicides. Upon learning of J.D.’s killing streak, and his plan to blow up his high school, Veronica and J.D.’s relationship hits a speed-bump.
Heathers is outrageously dark for a high-school comedy; even more so today given the regularity of violence in schools. The film was a critical darling and a box-office flop, making only $1 Million before it was pulled from theaters. It’s distasteful and vulgar, but also smart and politically astute in a way that most gross-out teen comedies in the 1990s would fail to reach (or even strive for). Still, Heathers is hilarious.
In some ways Heathers is not that far from Hunger Games. Do teenagers need to see a science-fiction dystopia of post-apocalyptic terror to imagine the hard life of totalitarianism and inequality? Or do teens see too much of that every day in the halls of our suburban high-schools?
Humanity is overconsuming the world’s resources to such a degree that ancient gods and spirits have awoken to ward off the threat. After a young man, Ashitaka, is poisoned by the boar-god, he ventures into the wilderness to find the cause of his illness and the awakening spirits. Along the way finds friends–a monk who helps him for a price–and foe–the leaders of Irontown.
He also meets San, a girl raised by wolves who inhabits the space between humanity and nature.
Princess Mononoke resembles an uplifting story of harmony between nature and humanity. We’re using up natural resources too fast? Okay, we shall slow the process and appease nature. Cut off the head of the Forest Spirit? Just bring it back and recover what was lost. But Hayao Miyazaki’s masterpiece does not end so tidily.
Princess Mononoke is a story of the loss of innocence and the gaining of damning knowledge. It is the knowledge of humanity’s eventual destruction of the planet that underlies the film, and even the human “victory” that comes in the end. This victory? Nature will not destroy all humanity quite yet. When San is asked by Ashitaka to help him rebuild Irontown and return to his village, she refuses. She understands the spirit world, and as a result, wants no part of human culture. The end.
Whether you realized it or not, you have probably enjoyed the wiles of Shakespeare as set in American high-school comedies. From Clueless to 10 Things I Hate About You to She’s All That the Bard was (and remains) a regular subject of our teen comedy landscape.
More troubling, though, is Shakespearean tragedy adapted to the American high-school. That’s Tim Blake Nelson’s O. Adapted from Othello, the film puts the murderous story of race, deception, and jealousy in the hands of high-school kids. It is perhaps a little too easy to situate the senseless evil of Iago in the mind of a teenage boy.
O is Odin, the star of the high-school basketball team. Everyone loves Odin, indluding his girlfriend, Desi. Odin loves Desi, and Desi loves Odin. But the coach’s son, Hugo is jealous of Odin. Jealous of his love for Desi. Jealous that his father loves Odin, too. Hugo is quiet and full of anger and hatred and, well, you know how Othello goes. In the end, many are dead.
O is a strange movie; provocative and realistic in its portrayal of youthful anger and violence. The film was scheduled for release in 1999, but delayed for almost 2-years because of the events in Columbine, Colorado. As a result, almost no one saw it. But if you’re looking for bleak fantasies of high-school drama, you won’t find anything more harrowing than O.
Rebel Without a Cause
In 1955 Rebel Without A Cause was a caustic portrayal of American youth. James Dean’s portrayal of a bitter and lonely teenager seared audiences and left parents worried and scared. Sixty years later, Rebel is a bleak, sad movie. No longer revolutionary on-screen, its now tragic mostly because it is so recognizable.
Dean plays Jim Stark, teenager. The Starks are new in town, and Jim is starting at a new school. Jim is angry; he rages at his parents, gets into knife-fights and carries a deep well of loneliness. Then, he meets a girl named Judy, and a sad kid named Plato. And, finding their families of little reward, the three create a make-shift family of their own. Jim and Judy become the surrogate parents of Plato.
Rebel Without a Cause tells one of the darkest tales of teenage life: it is the story of learning that you will die, your friends will die, even the entire universe will die. So what are you going to do about it? When Jim’s makeshift family faces death, it is cinematic heartbreak of the kind that modern dystopic teenage tales dream of achieving.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1
There’s no shortage of dark and terrible events in the entirety of the Harry Potter Series. Cedric’s murder by Voldemort. Ginny’s possession by Voldemort. Harry’s torture by Dolores Umbridge. Harry’s torture by Snape (sorry, Professor Snape). But it’s Deathly Hallows, Part 1, where the bleakest picture of the wizarding world comes through.
The film opens with Hermione erasing her own life from from her parents’ memories (one of the saddest scenes, like, ever), and it ends with Voldemort at last acquiring the Elder Wand. It may not be a “foot-soldier slog” like Mockingjay, but it encapsulates the darkness necessary for all out war in Deathly Hallows Part 2.
Including: Hedwig’s murder. Months of loneliness, fighting, and doubt between Ron, Harry and Hermione. Hermione’s torture by Bellatrix. Dobby’s murder by Bellatrix. Well, every scene with Bellatrix, really. And over the entire film hangs the growing awareness of the prophecy that Harry learned in the previous film, “neither can live while the other survives.”
If there are any precedents for The Hunger Games in the movies today, it is the Harry Potter series. Not just because they are adaptations of young-adult fiction, nor because they feature a dystopian vision of the world where young people must fight–and kill–an enemy that seeks to protect a totalitarian regime over a society of unworthy equals. But because, like all the films on this list, they understand that the drama of teenage life–in reality, fiction, or sci-fi fantasy–is not about what you choose to do but how you deal with circumstances you would rather avoid. Whether it’s high school or a fight-to-the-death on reality television.
Hunger Games and (the later) Harry Potter films understand that successful youthful portraits of a dark dystopian world are not about the political creations, or villains, or lectures about goodness, but the struggles of a hero to claim his or her identity. Katniss doesn’t want the role of revolutionary icon; she ends up in the games to keep her sister alive and from then on is used and molded until she finally is capable of reconciling herself in the role of hero. And Harry, for all his heroism and idealism (only Captain America is more idealistic than Harry in the role of hero), would gladly trade the part for a chance to see his parents again. What’s sadder, and more moving, than teens bringing down the entire political opposition because they miss their families?