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Op-ed: Join the discussion: Why is young adult fiction so political?

The last few years have been kind to science fiction films, particularly those aimed at young adult audiences.

The recent release of films such as "Divergent," "The Maze Runner" and both films in the Hunger Games franchise (a third is due out in theaters in November) show that Hollywood is not only willing to bet on the passions of young sci-fi obsessed viewers, but that politics has a place at the movies, even in major tent-pole blockbusters.

The latest in this string of political sci-fi films, based on what are typically categorized as "YA dystopian" novels, is "The Giver." Based on the Lois Lowry novel of the same name, "The Giver" tells the story of a dystopian society in which conformity is near inescapable, and the only hope for a future full of variety and free will is a young protagonist who stumbles into becoming a leader of The Opposition.

That likely sounds familiar, since it's a story description that could be easily applied to any one of the movies mentioned above.

So what is it about a possible dystopian future that has audiences (and Hollywood producers) in such a tizzy? After all, "The Giver" was first released as a novel in 1993, so why the sudden interest?

As Donald Sutherland famously argued during the promotion for both Hunger Games films, some believe the most succesful dystopian stories of recent years have simply struck a nerve with audiences because they reflect the fears of the modern mind.

"When you have a society [in which] General Electric gets away without paying any taxes on their profits, and where [the government] has the gall to take $15 billion of food stamps away from the poor it’s pretty evident," Sutherland said while explaining what he sees as the parallels between the world of Panem and our own, as quoted by Flavorwire.

Both conservatives and liberals have drawn comparisons between the dystopian worlds projected onscreen and 21st century America. While "The Giver" has been received with general mixed reviews, conservative commentators such as IJReview's Kira Davis have gone on record lauding the film's message.

“ ‘The Giver' is the story of what happens when a few people in power decide they know what is best for everyone else," Davis wrote, arguing that the film was much more than "just another movie jumping on the young adult fiction bandwagon."

"It is the story of how equality divorced from the power of free will only results in 'sameness', not equality of dignity," Davis continued. "In short, 'The Giver' is a profoundly conservative story."

Not everyone is as convinced as Davis, however. In fact, The National Review's Armond White — who is famous for his contrarian film reviews — argues that "The Giver" does nothing but prove that real political discussion is not helped by films that embrace "the essence of commercialized conformity."

“ ‘The Giver' is just newly dressed, pseudo-political pabulum," White argues, "part of the entire Young Adult franchise designed to boost sales and naïve notions rather than connect to the eternal verities of classical literature."

While not defending the quality of the film (or even really mentioning the existence of the film) The Atlantic's Shannon Chamberlain disagrees with White's assertion that young adult fiction can't explore complicated political issues in effective ways.

"(‘The Giver’), and numerous others that followed it, imagined worlds where economic conditions dictate the facts of human life, as of course they have a tendency to do," Chamberlain argues. She then dissects the central claims and assumptions of the novel, comparing them to those of real-world economics. If nothing else, according to Chamberlain, these stories can get our brains working in the right direction.

The world of politics is increasingly complicated. Generations of history stacked atop each other have made a distanced, nuanced view of our own situation difficult. "Fortunately," Chamberlain writes, "we have literature to help us out with that."

JJ Feinauer is a Web producer for Moneywise and Opinion on DeseretNews.com. Email: jfeinauer@deseretdigital.com, Twitter: jjfeinauer.