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Dystopia A Go-Go: The best dystopian book-to-film adaptations

Soylent Green theatrical poster

August 15 marks the theatrical release of director Philip Noyce's film adaptation of author Lois Lowry's popular 1993 children's novel "The Giver," a tale of a dystopian future where emotional depth has been replaced with "Sameness," a state of mental being where all pain, sadness and strife have been stricken from society in an attempt to create a universal utopia.

It's a heavy story for a children's novel, but this is nothing new for Hollywood, a place where many "un-filmable" dystopian novels have eventually made their way to the silver screen. The 1970s and '80s in particular saw many of these film adaptations achieving a level of success and notoriety that rivaled that of the source novels, cementing their own place as classic pieces of science fiction storytelling, while more recent films have pushed the envelope even further with regards to how we view the weird, wild and fantastic.

There are plenty of brilliant dystopian film adaptations out there; here are just a few of the best.

Blade Runner
Blade Runner Wikipedia

Blade Runner

Director Ridley Scott's "Blade Runner" was based upon the Philip K. Dick novel "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" and served as one of the most impressive, arresting and visually stunning films of the early 1980s. The film offers a dystopian vision of Earth 2019, a future where genetically engineered androids, or "replicants," are hunted by law enforcement "Blade Runners" for defying a ban on Earth travel. "Blade Runner" was also notable for having multiple edits, including a theatrical cut featuring star Harrison Ford's noir-esque inner monologue as well as a director's cut without the narration. As such, this is a film which demands multiple viewings which, thanks as well to gorgeous, engrossing cinematography and a standout score from Greek musician Vangelis, stands the test of time as one of director Ridley Scott's crowning cinematic achievements.

Planet of the Apes
Planet of the Apes Wikipedia

Planet of the Apes

It only makes sense to include this classic 1968 slice of cinematic science fiction here in our list of best dystopian film adaptations, given that the recent re-imagining has seen so much success. This is where the Ape Saga all began, however, with director Franklin J. Schaffner's legendary take on the 1963 French novel "La Planete des singes" from Pierre Boulle. Sure, the film's star Charlton Heston achieved cult status when he uttered the immortal lines, "Take your hands off me, you damn, dirty ape!" but there's much more to Schaffner's film than simple jingoism, as Planet of the Apes details a dystopian future where an evolved simian culture dominates over a nearly mute, subservient human race.

Human relations, racism and class structure are but three of the themes which come into play within Michael Wilson and "Twilight Zone" creator Rod Serling's brilliant screenplay, while the sets and special effects would go on to even more success (commercially, anyway) with a number of sequels throughout the 1970s.

Battle Royale
Battle Royale Wikipedia

Battle Royale

Forget "The Hunger Games," it was this millennial film from legendary Japanese director Kinji Fukasaku which first begged the question, "Could you kill your best friend?" Fukasaku's utterly brilliant screen adaptation of the 1997 novel from Koushon Takami followed up a manga comic from the same year, and featured a class of schoolmates who are drugged by their teachers, kidnapped to a remote island and forced to hunt each other until there is one, final victor.

"Battle Royale" is dark, grim and most definitely not for the teeny bopper "Hunger Games" generation. The dystopian future presented here by Kenta Fukasaku's screenplay is rife with generational discord and ageist jealousy from the adults and totalitarian government, while the violence is explicit, stylish and perversely beautiful. It's simply a must-see classic of extreme Japanese cinema.

The Running Man
The Running Man Wikipedia

The Running Man

There was arguably no bigger action star in the 1980s than Austria's legendary Arnold Schwarzenegger, and this 1987 science fiction flick-loosely based upon the 1982 Stephen King novel, written under his "Richard Bachman" pseudonym-served as one of the actor's early hits.

"The Running Man" offers a dystopian vision of the future, one where criminals are no longer fed into the broken, overcrowded prison system, but instead are sent on a run for their freedom as well as their lives on a televised hunt against professional, often extravagant assassins. "The Running Man" is hosted with villainous glee by the beloved real-life Family Feud star Richard Dawson, while Schwarzenegger delivers his deadpan one-liners and heroic beatdowns in classic fashion, making this film a fun, lighthearted romp which could've only emerged in the 80s.

Logan's Run
Logan's Run Wikipedia

Logan's Run

"Hope I die, before I get old," sang Roger Daltrey on The Who's legendary British rock anthem, My Generation. Maybe Roger was commenting on the plot of William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson's 1967 novel "Logan's Run," which features an overpopulated, dystopian society where all members of society all sent to "Carrousel" upon reaching the death-age of 30, in the hopes of being "renewed" for rebirth.

This classic science fiction tale was set to the screen in 1976 by director Michael Anderson, and stars future "Austin Powers" actor Michael York as Logan 5, a "Sandman" whose job it is to chase and eliminate "Runners" who try to escape their government-mandated demise. "Logan's Run" is rife with gloriously gaudy and kitschy 1970s fashion, and co-stars Farrah Fawcett as the beautiful, doomed Holly 13 at the height of her reign as the most captivating sex symbol of the decade. It's a frantic 'n fun flick which remains wonderfully watchable over thirty years since its original release.

A Clockwork Orange
A Clockwork Orange Wikipedia

A Clockwork Orange

What more can be said about director Stanley Kubrick's cinematic adaptation of Anthony Burgess' 1962 novella "A Clockwork Orange"? It's a vital, visceral and uncomfortable film with stark, austere set design and a brilliant lead actor in the form of Malcolm McDowell as Alex, a juvenile delinquent with a serious mean streak.

Indeed, this dystopian future is one of rampant crime, rape and violence at the hands of an uncontrollable youth culture. McDowell's Alex is at the front and center of this movement, as he leads his band of "droogs" on a spree of villainy before being captured and subjected to an equally vile amount of forced "rehabilitation."

It's a film which demands to be seen, and which continues to affect and earn accolades from fans decades since its release as a true work of Kubrick's obsessive genius.

Further investigation

Other recommended dystopian book-to-film adaptations include:

  • "The Day of the Triffids" (1962)
  • "Soylent Green" (1973)
  • "Minority Report" (2002)
  • "Children of Men" (2006)
  • "V For Vendetta" (2006)
  • "Watchmen" (2009)

This is a "sponsored post," meaning the company who sponsored the article compensated me for writing the article. The opinions I have expressed, however, are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."

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