Writing Dystopian Fiction: Rollerball Is The Hunger Games

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Perhaps you’ve seen the 1975 dystopian film Rollerball,  starring James Caan as Jonathan E. and the late and great John Houseman as Bartholomew. I haven’t seen the remake—heard it was terrible—but I happened to be up late the other night and the weird rink and obvious attempts at being futuristic caught my eye. My husband had the remote and stopped on it, saying, “Oh, you gotta see this movie.”

Dystopia teen fictionWe only caught the last 30 minutes, but it was long enough for me to find out the basic premise of Rollerball. A futuristic, dystopian society (in 2018) is ruled by corporations, which are governed by a few and led by Bartholomew. The rest of the people have been forced into subservience and passivity. Their outlet for their more violent emotions is this bloodthirsty game called Rollerball. It is a combination of hockey, pinball (the ball is silver), and roller derby, with a couple of scooters thrown in for speed and extra carnage. James Caan is the most popular player, and the rulers of the land decide he is gaining too much power from his notoriety. So they start removing rules from the game in hopes that the other players will take him down. People die in this game; it’s expected, but the aim is to score the most points.

There has been plenty of commentary about how The Hunger Games, the latest teen-focused dystopian book and film craze, isn’t necessarily a new idea, just a very good version of an old idea, and Rollerball is pretty solid proof. Again, you have a dystopian society, ruled by a capitol—which basically functions like a corporation and is governed by a few. (John Houseman would have made an interesting President Snow.) The rest of the population is forced into passivity by hunger and poverty. They are made to compete in the Hunger Games each year, which is also a fight to the death. Survival is the main point of the game, not scoring points.

The two dystopian stories have one other thing in common: a hero/heroine who resists the leaders and gains popular favor with the masses by being exceptionally good at playing the game. But the good guys who win aren’t necessarily thrilled with how things turn out or the roles they play. Like all good dystopian fiction, everything is in shades of gray. The winners don’t win outright, and the losers don’t necessarily turn tail and go away.

One major difference between the two is the stopping point. Rollerball stops when Jonathan E. is at the top of his game. We see the masses chanting his name as he takes a lap around the rink to the tune of Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor,” in one of the unintentionally funniest pieces of film editing I have ever seen. We don’t know what happens to Jonathan E., but readers get to follow Katniss through her peak of popularity, retaliation by the capitol, and long past the climax. The story arc is much longer.

So if you are thinking about cashing in on a trend, now’s your chance. According to the article “The Hunger Games and the Teenage Craze for Dystopian Fiction,” in The Telegraph, dystopian fiction is the new rage in teen fiction, and especially with girls. And isn’t that refreshing?

Well, yes and no. It’s nice that girls aren’t reading just romances and babysitter novels, but it’s also a little hard to stomach that it “used once to be taboo for children to kill children in stories: now it’s de rigueur.” But young readers, like youngsters in general, are just tougher than we think they are. It’s only when adults start having children themselves that we forget how tough we were as kids, because we become the adults who want to protect the children that we no longer are.

Wow, that sentence belongs in a dystopian novel.

Today’s Writing Exercise:

To mangle a phrase, since everything old is worth renewing, try your own hand at dystopian fiction. Sketch out a story or novel of dystopian fiction you could write that fits in nicely with the Rollerball/Hunger Games themes. You will need:

  • One small set of ruling-class people with one main ruler.
  • One explanation for how they got there. Who died and made them king? (May not need to be revealed up front.)
  • A cast of sympathetic characters who belong to the oppressed class.
  • One hero or heroine who belongs to the oppressed class.
  • One game, challenge, or other obstacle that the main character is forced to participate in, along with his or her fellow oppresses.
  • Plausible reason why main the main character has a fighting chance at winning. (Jonathan E. was simply the best player. Katniss was a good archer.)
  • Warning: Make sure your main character is NOT a Mary Sue!
  • Write out your sketch and decide whether you want to go any further.
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