If anyone is glancing at this review for advice on which films to see this weekend, my recommendation would be to avoid The Darkest Minds. For while it is competently executed and offers some superficial novelties, it is a film that most people have already seen several times, and since two similar franchises to be discussed have failed to generate expected sequels, it may be that many filmgoers are growing as tired of this film as I am.
The film is a generally faithful adaptation of Alexandra Bracken’s novel The Darkest Minds (2012), yet another version of a common formula for success in the modern marketplace of young adult fiction: a future dystopia spawned by an improbable disaster that prods evil adults to torment and oppress its teenagers, despite the fact that – or even because – these amazingly talented and virtuous youth are the only ones who can save humanity from impending extinction. In this case, the improbable disaster is the sudden appearance of a disease called IAAN (Idiopathic Adolescent Acute Neurodegeneration), which kills most young people and imbues the surviving youth with a variety of psychic powers: “greens,” superintelligence; “blues,” telekinesis; “yellows” (in the film, “golds”), control of electricity; “oranges,” the ability to control others’ minds; and “reds,” pyrokinesis. Naturally, the government responds by declaring martial law, rounding up all teenagers, and placing them in concentration camps to either be slaughtered or exploited as slave labor. Our heroine, Ruby Daly (Amandla Stenberg), conceals her feared orange powers, keeping her alive until she escapes from her camp with the help of Cate Connor (Mandy Moore), a member of an underground organization called the Children’s League which turns out to be similarly sinister. But Ruby runs away to join three other teenage fugitives, the blue Liam (Harris Dickinson), the gold Suzume, or Zu (Miya Cech), and the green Chubs (Skylan Brooks), and they proceed to have several adventures in the vicinity of Virginia (though the movie was filmed in Georgia).
Needless to say, since any biologist will tell you that the chances of a disease like IAAN actually coming into existence are virtually nil, one cannot defend Bracken’s novel using one of the traditional arguments for science fiction, that it helps its readers better prepare for possible futures. (But, I suppose, if I ever find my grandson lifting the couch with his mind and my granddaughter erasing my wife’s memories, I will owe Bracken a debt of gratitude for helping me cope with the situation.) To be sure, Bracken is hardly alone in employing a questionable premise to generate a series of profitable young adult novels and film adaptations. Indeed, her idiotic disease provoking a totalitarian nightmare, among others, joins the undistinguished company of aliens who can only be defeated by teenage video game players (Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game  and its sequels); a dictatorial society that forces randomly chosen young people into duels to the death as the only logical way to prevent rebellions (Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games  and its sequels); a government that devises elaborate ways to torture extraordinary young people in hopes that this will engender a cure for a devastating disease (James Dashner’s The Maze Runner  and its sequels); a city that divides teenagers into five groups and tries to assassinate anyone who doesn’t fit in (Veronica Roth’s Divergent  and its sequels); and aliens trying to conquer Earth who decide that the perfect way to eliminate its remaining inhabitants is to turn human twelve-year-olds into trained killers (Rick Yancey’s The 5th Wave  and its sequels).
None of these scenarios make any sense whatsoever, but they represent ideal ways to appeal to a posited audience of entitled youth who don’t understand why nasty adults keep picking on them when they must realize that their children are the most wonderful people who have ever lived on this planet. Because of my recent college classes, I know that there are many grounded and hard-working young people who defy this stereotype, but someone in the know evidently believes that there are enough snowflakes out there to justify crafting stories that perfectly align with their typical world view. Once, the avowed purpose of dystopias was to provide an “awful warning” about events that might actually happen and should be prevented, the classic example being George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949); now, it seems, dystopias are primarily designed to vindicate warped perceptions of the contemporary world, already viewed as dystopian.
That Bracken was deliberately seeking to join a lucrative tradition of young adult novels that become hit movies is suggested by her novel which, more so than the other young adult science fiction novels I have read while preparing for film reviews, reads like an extended film scenario. Her characters are deliberately left vaguely described and underdeveloped, enabling directors to cast any number of different performers to play their roles; there is precisely enough plot to fill a two-hour movie, with appropriately timed action sequences interspersed with quieter moments; and knowing that directors love to fill their films with snippets of old rock’n’roll songs, Bracken even embeds a suggested soundtrack into her novel, as characters keep listening to songs from beloved groups of the 1960s and 1970s like the Animals, the Who, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Credence Clearwater Revival. (Oddly, however, director Jennifer Yuh Nelson instead chose to include some distinctly unmemorable contemporary songs, which perhaps helped her limit the film’s budget to an unusually low $34 million.) Bracken did her work so well that Nelson and screenwriter Chad Hodge were largely able to make their film almost identical to the novel, though they diverge somewhat from Bracken in their concluding scenes (probably to better set up the obviously hoped-for sequels).
If there is anything different about Bracken’s dystopian vision, it relates to a common phenomenon: as writers and filmmakers keep imitating their precursors, they have to keep raising the volume. So, hoping to duplicate the success of a film with ten explosions, you make a film with twenty explosions. In the story that arguably provided the template for these series, Card’s Ender’s Game, the author was content to present one group of evil adults oppressing his young heroes; Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy introduced the convention, followed by others, of bringing in a second group with adults who are revealed to be evil. In Bracken’s novel, there are actually four groups of evil adults that Ruby must avoid: the government’s thuggish Psi Special Forces (PSFs); independent “tracers” like the despicable Lady Jane (Gwendoline Christie), who try to capture young people to earn a bounty; the gentler but equally menacing representatives of the Children’s League; and a group of refugees led by the almost-adult Clancy Gray (Patrick Gibson), who seems benevolent but turns out to have his own inimical agenda. Setting her story in rural Virginia, where Bracken attended college, also qualifies as mildly innovative, though by having one character leave to go to California, the author signals that her sequels will move into more familiar territory.
Overall, though, I cannot say that I was greatly impressed by the writing talents of Bracken, who I suspect has risen to the top of young adult publishing primarily by means of industry connections. And if someone wants to waste their time with her story, they should skip the novel and watch the film, which in most respects is far superior to the novel. Bracken’s Ruby, while narrating her story, never directly says to readers, “Please feel sorry for me,” but virtually everything she says about her miserable life and sad plight seems to function as instructions to pity this poor, put-upon woman. The film’s Ruby seems more mature, and less self-involved, making her a more likable protagonist. Bracken appears to focus her book on an expected audience of twelve-year-old girls who worry that they aren’t pretty or charming enough to attract guys, as it just so happens that the two most exciting and eligible bachelors in the milieu of teenage runaways, Liam and Clancy, both fall madly in love with a girl who describes herself as socially awkward – an aspect of the story that the film downplays. Perhaps clumsily endeavoring to convey the limited knowledge that a young camp prisoner would have, Bracken does a poor job of explaining the five categories of psychics and the government’s different treatments of them, matters that were presented more clearly in the film. Finally, the novel’s Ruby has the annoying habit of constantly announcing that she has absolutely no control over her powers while repeatedly, somehow, contriving to employ them to rescue herself and her comrades; in the film, it is established almost from the start that Ruby, in fact, has a great deal of control over her powers, making her miraculous escapes seem more plausible.
The film also includes some striking dialogue, not found in the novel, that provokes some remarkable insights into the sorts of stories that now being offered to young people. When Ruby and Liam decide to attend an evening dance at Clancy’s camp, they observe young people strangely dancing under patio lanterns, and thinking that it all seems magical, Ruby exclaims that it’s “like Hogwarts.” Immediately recognizing the reference to J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels, Liam replies, “That would make you Harry … and I’m Hermione.” The minor point being made is that contemporary young adult novels – including four of the six dystopian series listed above – often involve a role reversal: instead of the older tendency to feature a male hero with female assistants, it is now more typical to employ a female hero with male assistants. More interestingly, I suddenly realized that the saga of Harry Potter, despite its trappings of fantasy, fits precisely into the pattern of young adult novels I have described. Once again, we have a thoroughly admirable youth who is implacably tormented by sinister adults – his spiteful foster parents, brutal instructors at Hogwarts, and of course the evil Lord Voldemort and his minions; and Harry Potter, naturally, also represents the only person who might be able to defeat Voldemort with his unprecedented magical powers and thus prevent the world from being taken over by that demonic mastermind. One might say that Rowling’s novels are the fantasy equivalent of science fiction novels like Ender’s Game and its cohorts; but in fact, I would prefer to maintain, all of these young adult series, even though set in the future and filled with scientific marvels, might be better classified along with the Harry Potter books as fantasies, as they also describe imaginary worlds that, as already discussed, will never actually exist.
Finally, the comparison to Harry Potter reminds us that these nightmare visions of dystopian futures often include distorted images of schools: Ender is taken to a space station to be taught fighting skills; Collins’s Katniss Everdeen undergoes both informal and formal training to prepare for the Hunger Games; all newcomers to Dashner’s Maze must learn how to live in that strange environment; Roth’s teenagers must complete an educational program to officially join their factions; and Ruby may be thinking about Hogwarts because she hopes that the camp can become her school, as Clancy has promised to provide a series of lessons on how to better use her powers. Children have always hated going to school, but teachers in popular culture were usually depicted as nice people, genuinely interested in helping young people – recall James Hilton’s Mr. Chips – and even when teachers seemed awful, like Louis Gossett, Jr.’s drill instructor in An Officer and a Gentleman (1982), they were ultimately revealed to have had their students’ best interests in mind, being cruel to be kind. These novels and films suggest the emergence of a new stereotype, teachers who are sinister sadists, cruel simply because they love being cruel. (To name another film outside the genre, consider as an example J. K. Simmons’s sociopathic drum teacher in Whiplash .) No one should have been surprised, then, to discover that the apparently kindly Clancy turns out to be a Teacher from Hell.
The film also adds something to Bracken’s story that appears to be incredibly minor but may have broader significance. Hostess Twinkies, it appears, are Zu’s favorite food, and there are at least three visual or verbal references to the snack in the film; further, it is suggested that at least one of her group’s makeshift meals will consist entirely of Twinkies. All of this is probably the result of a surreptitious payment from the recently reestablished Hostess company, hoping that a few plugs might boost the sales of a product that, in an age increasingly dedicated to healthy diets, is not as popular as it once was. But bear with me while I present my admittedly outlandish theory that Hodge (who is openly gay) is recalling the “Twinkie defense” employed during the 1979 trial of San Francisco supervisor Dan White, which outraged many when he was only convicted of voluntary manslaughter for the seemingly premeditated murder of mayor George Moscone and gay supervisor Harvey Milk (as immortalized in the 2008 film Milk). The argument presented by his defense attorneys, while more nuanced, was popularly perceived as the following: because White consumed so many Twinkies and other forms of junk food, he had a “diminished capacity” that made him incapable of the rational thought required for a premeditated murder. Later comments from White suggest that his “diminished capacity” made him paranoid, as he claimed that his victims were conspiring against him. Well. We have here some young people whose perception of the world, while validated within the context of the story, seems a bit paranoid – all these adults are out to get us – and they constantly consume Twinkies. One conclusion to draw is that young viewers in the audience, also inclined to believe that adults are out to get them, may be thinking that way because they similarly eat too many Twinkies and other sugary garbage.
Both the novel and film also refer to Richard Adams’s Watership Down (1972), the story of fearful rabbits forced to constantly flee from various dangers, and they quote the advice one rabbit receives – “All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies, and whenever they catch you, they will kill you” – which certainly sounds like the essence of paranoia. When Ruby temporarily departs from her friend, the film adds a bit of clichéd advice from Liam – “don’t take any candy from strangers” – and a youth twice comments that “The only ones who can help us are us,” again communicating a fundamental suspicion of the entire adult world. This begins to sound like “Don’t trust anyone over thirty,” suggesting that the attitudes expressed in this film may not be as novel as previously intimated. Yet all of these references can also be regarded as ironic: far from being like frail, frightened rabbits, Ruby and her psychic friends are capable of killing their opponents, though they choose equally effective but nonlethal ways to save themselves; when Ruby had barely met Zu, she accepted a Twinkie from her, almost literally “taking candy from strangers”; and when Chubs is severely injured, Ruby contacts the Children’s League, recognizing that the only ones who can help them are the adults who earlier pursued them. In the end, then, the novel and film tepidly endorse one group of adults as less evil than the others.
Overall, with some effort, one can detect evidence that this film is both expressing, and subtly critiquing, the perception of the world that underlies so many contemporary young adult novels and films. The open question is whether this evidence was deliberately planted by Nelson or Hodge, or is being seized upon and over-interpreted by a reviewer desperate to find something to say about The Darkest Minds other than “don’t bother to see this forgettable film.” The answer will come, I suppose, only in the unlikely event that the film proves popular enough to justify a sequel.
Directed by Jennifer Yuh Nelson
Written by Chad Hodge, based on the novel by Alexandra Bracken
Starring Amandla Stenberg, Harris Dickinson, Skylan Brooks, Miya Cech, Patrick Gibson, Mandy Moore, Mark O’Brien, Gwendoline Christie, Wallace Langham, Wade Williams, Golden Brooks, Sammi Rotibi, and Lidya Jewett
Gary Westfahl has published 26 books about science fiction and fantasy, including Science Fiction Quotations: From the Inner Mind to the Outer Limits (2005), The Spacesuit Film: A History, 1918-1969 (2012), and A Sense-of-Wonderful Century: Explorations of Science Fiction and Fantasy Films (2012); excerpts from these and his other books are available at his World of Westfahl website (here). He has also published hundreds of articles, reviews, and contributions to reference books. His most recent books are the three-volume A Day in a Working Life: 300 Trades and Professions through History (2015), An Alien Abroad: Science Fiction Columns from Interzone (2016), the co-edited Bridges to Science Fiction and Fantasy: Outstanding Essays from the J. Lloyd Eaton Conferences (2018), and Arthur C. Clarke, part of the University of Illinois Press’s Modern Masters of Science Fiction series.