A primer for dystopian classics

These classics take inspiration from real life.
Photo courtesy of Penguin Publishing

Art imitates life imitates art

Many students grew up reading books for classes that shaped their perspectives of the world. One type of fiction seeks to illuminate the problems existing in reality through a parallel literary universe. Dystopian works like Brave New World, Nineteen Eighty-Four, A Clockwork Orange, and The Handmaid’s Tale became popular among audiences for their ability to critique the way systems of power often manipulate people and turn them against each other. Originally released as novels, each of these works also inspired successful feature films and TV series. 

Brave New World

Published in 1932, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley depicts a society in which people were divided into certain classes based on a bizarre scientific system. While on the surface the people in this world seem fine, a more sinister picture unfolds. As the story progresses, the character Popé takes center stage as a representation of the colonized “other,” modelled after the stereotypes of indigenous Americans. With two made-for-television movies based on the book in 1990 and 1998, Brave New World might be due for another attempt at cinema.


Written by George Orwell in 1949, Nineteen Eighty-Four takes a dark turn from the drug-induced land of pleasure found in Brave New World. Although he was actually a student of Huxley, Orwell depicted a bleak society in which imperial governments battle for global dominance. Based around the main character Winston Smith, the story follows his tragic life as a journalist working for the state. With a film adaption made to coincide with the year 1984, the novel might have another film version in the works. 

A Clockwork Orange

Anthony Burgess wrote A Clockwork Orange in 1962 during the height of the Cold War. At first the novel might be difficult to follow because it was written using a fictional language that blends Russian and English. Unlike the political commentary presented by Huxley and Orwell, Burgess created a lewd and provocative work that must have shocked audiences when first published. Stanley Kubrick brought the book to life in 1971 with a film that still maintains its allure. 

The Handmaid’s Tale

Margaret Atwood wrote The Handmaid’s Tale in 1985, addressing gender hierarchies in ways not found in the other fictional dystopias. More recently, The Handmaid’s Tale gained popularity after the Hulu adaptation for the way it critiques the patriarchal systems in the United States. With the current president and vice president openly supporting the same sort of evangelical Christianity found in the book and TV show, The Handmaid’s Tale feels eerily more real. 

While reading or watching any of these works might be discouraging, depressing, and enraging, they also provide insightful perspectives on society in the real world. A common thread in them all is the idea that the constructs of utopia and dystopia can exist simultaneously for different groups of people, depending on factors like race, class, and gender. A similar statement should be said about American society: what has been great for a select few has been horrible for so many others.

This is a selection from the Nov. 04 issue. To view the full issue, visit: https://online.flippingbook.com/view/434645/

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