In America we love a lot of things. We love football, fried food and drinking beer (I’m guilty of at least one or all of those). We also love films and TV shows, and in recent years we especially love films and TV shows where some sort of apocalypse has occurred and the world is reduced to a gray dystopian mess where normal rules no longer apply. And if at the center of this gray dystopian mess stands a teenage girl who is REALLY good at taking people out with her crossbow, well let’s just say, folks are going to see your film in droves over the holidays each year.
Unlike most people, I’ve yet to see the most recent “Hunger Games” film so I have no opinion to offer on how it stands up in quality to the previous two entries. I’m guessing about the same. The first two films, which begin to tell the futuristic story of Katniss Everdeen and her effort survive in a world where children are forced to fight to the death in a made-for-television event created by a set of totalitarian leaders, are well-done action films and further proof that Jennifer Lawrence is probably the best actress of her generation.
What’s amazing though is that the “Hunger Games” series isn’t an outlier, but merely at the center of the above-referenced apocalypse trend on film and TV. Just this year alone there have been a number of films that fall into a similar category, including “Divergent,” “The Giver” and “The Maze Runner.” We’re serioulsy at a point where if the logline for your script includes the words “dystopian” and “teenager,” your project is guaranteed to be greenlit because chances are good it will make $100 million in a weekend.
Apocalypse-mania extends to television as well. AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” where a group of survivors attempt to live through a zombie apocalypse, just wrapped up the first half of its fifth season (the second will air in February) and it remains the most popular show on cable and one of the two or three most watched shows on all of television. This past weekend’s mid-season finale drew 14.8 million viewers, numbers that most of the big four networks would die to have. In addition, TNT’s alien invasion series “Falling Skies” is still on the air and HBO’s rapture drama “The Leftovers” enjoyed critical acclaim over the summer.
So why are these stories of our world being upended and the ensuing aftermath so popular? What is it about this specific genre that so effectively connects with viewers?
A lot of it is possibly wrapped up in our world’s post-9/11 landscape. People point to “24,” the extremely popular Fox terrorism drama starring Kiefer Sutherland, as the perfect program to reflect our fears and concerns about threats to our safety and while that’s true, disaster entertainment also connects with our fears in a general sense of imminent worldwide carnage, which became very real that September day 13 years ago.
“The Walking Dead” and “The Hunger Games” are obviously extreme narratives, but in a world where we see commerical jets fly into skyscrapers or average American citizens beheaded on camera, the fear of our world going off the rails can sometimes seem very real and is always in the back of our minds.
These shows and films tap into those fears, even if the source isn’t a human enemy. After all, anyone who has read “The Stand” by Stephen King has probably had that narrative about a virus wiping out most of the world population creeping around in their subconscious with cases of Ebola spreading throughout the fall. We’re all on some level on the lookout for Randall Flagg just around the corner.
A main goal of “The Walking Dead” or “The Hunger Games” is to put the viewer in the shoes of the survivors and cause them to ask themselves how they would respond when the world as they know it ceases to exist. Would we crumble at the horror of so much change or would we survive, becoming a katana-wielding zombie fighter like “The Walking Dead’s” Michonne and a crossbow-shooting revolutionary leader like “The Hunger Games’”Katniss?
If you look at that last sentence you’ll realize the two characters referenced are both females and that could be another factor in their popularity. For years action films and shows were a male-dominated venue, but the female protagonists of “The Walking Dead” or “The Hunger Games” are not damsels in distress waiting for their suitors to save them, but are in many cases doing the saving themselves. This could go a long way in explaining why these franchises enjoy such broad appeal. Actually, I could make a case I know more women than men who are die hard fans of “The Walking Dead.”
If nothing else, it could be these apocalypse narratives are beloved simply because they provide a compelling setting to build a story around. After all, most of them deal with familiar basic themes: power-seeking, revenge, betrayal, etc. These are made inherently exciting because the stakes are raised by placing charaters in unique situations.
For example, the zombies in “The Walking Dead” are simply a plot device for the writers to build the story around. They are the driving force that set the story in motion, but in most episodes the zombies are in the background wandering around while the main conflicts are between groups of survivors. Whether it’s the main character Rick and his cohorts against the crazy eye-patched Governor or a band of carnivores at Terminus, the zombies are simply there to instigate conflict for the narrative.
Whether this trend of apocalypse fascination continues for many more years remains to be seen. “The Walking Dead” is much too popular to depart any time soon, but “The Hunger Games” series is wrapping up with its final film a year from now. The first “Divergent” film was a popular success so we’ll see if it is able to sustain itself the way “The Hunger Games” series did. While the current slew of post-apocalyptic dramas is probably a trend that won’t last forever, it’s safe to assume they’ll never completely go away. As long as we remain fascinated by the end of the world and large-scale disaster, they’ll always have a place with audiences.