There’s no doubt about it: 2020 has been one hell of a year. Though reality may seem stranger than fiction right now, it’s proving ripe ground for a raft of other-worldly films, TV series and books released this autumn. From government conspiracies to dystopian societies, stories that might once have seemed fantastical are starting to feel like cautionary tales.
Take Brave New World, the TV adaptation of Aldous Huxley’s famous novel about the perils of state control, coming to Sky Atlantic next month. Or Black Widow, soon to hit cinemas, which stars Scarlett Johansson as an international assassin forced into a top-secret brainwashing programme. Or Gone Girl writer Gillian Flynn’s new Amazon show, Utopia, which grapples with the fallout from a deadly virus. Sound familiar?
Dystopian fiction, in particular, is a time-honoured literary tradition – think 1984 by George Orwell, Farenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury and The Road by Cormac McCarthy. But the trend for modern novels that create dark, alternative worlds has been growing steadily for several years. There was The Power, Naomi Alderman’s depiction of a matriarchal society which won the Woman’s Prize For Fiction. And who could fail to notice the surging popularity of books like The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood’s iconic novel) and Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman, now both acclaimed TV shows?
None of the current crop of chilling books will make for cosy bedtime reading. Reality, and Other Stories by John Lanchester is a Black Mirror-style account of home technology taking over our lives – it’s an uncomfortable and eye-opening take on the tech-controlled future into which we might be heading. Sophie Mackintosh’s Blue Ticket, meanwhile, explores motherhood and free will through the lens of a patriarchal lottery system.
As our world becomes stranger, we consume media to match. During lockdown, Contagion, Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 disaster thriller, shot up the streaming charts. According to Warner Bros., the film was lurking near number 300 among its catalogue titles at the end of December; since the start of 2020, it has leapt to second.
If you’re one of the few people who hasn’t seen it, Contagion is a fictional drama about a worldwide pandemic that kills 26 million people. A key symptom of the virus is a hacking cough and citizens are told to familiarise themselves with social distancing (a term many of us hadn’t come across until 2020). It’s hard to believe the film wasn’t made yesterday, let alone nine years ago.
Contrary to popular belief, it would seem we’re hardly turning to entertainment for escapism. Instead, we’re looking for books, TV shows and films that resonates with us, that take the idea of an imagined threat and put it inside the very real confines of our own experience. Given our fascination with narratives that capture the zeitgeist, it’s unsurprising that producers and publishers are pushing stories where the ordinary collides with the terrifying, to create unthinkable but horribly believable situations.
Our appetite for frightening stories and horror films suggests we enjoy being just that little bit scared. But in a year that seems sprung from the imagination of a disaster novelist, we’re not teasing ourselves with fantasy worlds – the threats are more relatable. Prepare for the latest dystopian dramas to create a lasting sense of unease, suggesting that fiction may just be seeping into fact.
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