The Return of the Dystopian YA Film: 7 Best Movies to Watch

As The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes releases, we take a look back on the best films from the dystopian young adult genre of the 2010s.

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The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes
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When you entered a theater during the 2010s, it was almost a sure bet you’d come across a newly released dystopian young adult movie based on a popular book series.

This decade was a significant period for young adult (YA) dystopian literature, with books like The Hunger Games, The Maze Runner and Divergent having a significant impact on young readers. These stories introduced captivating and imaginative dystopian worlds, with audiences eagerly embracing each new series. While some books did well, their movie adaptations often fell short. However, in a few exceptional cases, both the original source material and the cinematic adaptation not only met, but even surpassed high expectations.

With The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes set to release next week, we wanted to reflect on some of the best films in the genre that were released during that era.

Here's a list of 7 of the best YA dystopian film adaptations.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

2013's The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is undeniably one of the best dystopian YA films of all time. The sequel to the highly successful first movie in the Hunger Games series earned an incredible $865 million at the global box office and solidified the franchise as being a bona fide hit. It's widely regarded as the best entry in the series. The story follows Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark, who return home safely after winning the 74th Annual Hunger Games, only to embark on a Victors Tour. While traveling through the districts, Katniss senses a rebellion brewing, but President Snow demonstrates his firm control as news arrives of harsh changes in the rules for the upcoming 75th Hunger Games.

Jennifer Lawrence stars in the film alongside Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright, Stanley Tucci and Donald Sutherland.

Ender’s Game

In an unspecified future on Earth, humanity is engaged in a conflict with insectoid aliens known as Buggers. The global military enlists young children to undergo training as elite officers. These children gain military expertise through progressively challenging war games which is where Andrew "Ender" Wiggin shines the best. While the book received widespread acclaim, the film adaptation received mixed reviews. Although the movie fell short of capturing the gripping and thought-provoking essence of the book, it remained an entertaining science fiction film, boasting strong performances, enjoyable action sequences and impressive visuals.

Asa Butterfield leads the film amidst an ensemble of major talents including Harrison Ford, Ben Kingsley, Viola Davis, Hailee Steinfeld and Abigail Breslin.

The Hunger Games

The catalyst for the dystopian YA genre boom of the 2010s can be traced back to 2012's The Hunger Games. This initial installment in the billion-dollar franchise depicted a grim reality where the Capitol of Panem enforces its dominance over 12 districts. They achieve this by forcing each district to select a male and a female, known as Tributes, who must engage in a nationally televised event called the Hunger Games. Every citizen is obligated to witness the brutal competition, in which the young participants fight to the death until only one victor remains. The Hunger Games did not shy away from portraying the harsh conditions imposed on the Tributes; highlighting the physical, political and emotional toll inflicted on them. This depiction triggered a surge of other films striving to replicate the remarkable success it achieved.

Alita: Battle Angel

The James Cameron-produced Alita: Battle Angel serves as an adaptation of Yukito Kishiro's manga. Centered around Alita, a remarkable cyborg girl harboring hidden significance, the film seamlessly blends elements of romance, action and breathtaking combat sequences. Alita herself is an endearing protagonist who introduces viewers to her captivating universe. Notably, Weta Digital (the special effects company founded by Peter Jackson) delivered subtle yet groundbreaking technological effects, marking Alita as their most ambitious creation to date. The film earned $405 million worldwide on a reported budget of $150-200 million and has had fans pleading for a sequel since its release in 2019.

Rosa Salazar portrays the titular lead in a cast consisting of Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali, Ed Skrein, Jackie Earle Haley and Keean Johnson.

The Maze Runner

The Maze Runner follows a teenager named Thomas who suddenly awakens in the midst of a vast labyrinth, with no knowledge of his life prior to being in this maze. Each night, the maze doors seal shut and release menacing creatures known as Grievers. The unexpected arrival of a young woman with a shared history with Thomas encourages their group's collective effort to escape the maze, revealing a surprising conspiracy. The film effectively showcases the quintessential violence needed within the YA dystopian genre while satisfying the audience's desire to witness an unlikely group of youths challenging an intimidating system, albeit at the cost of heart-wrenching sacrifices.

Dylan O'Brien leads the film as Thomas alongside Kaya Scodelario, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Will Poulter and Patricia Clarkson.


Arguably the standout installment in the Divergent series, this 2014 film serves as the adaptation of Veronica Roth's novel. In this dystopian tale, humanity is separated into five distinct factions, with individuals compelled to choose their allegiance by the age of 16 and ultimately severing family ties. Aspiring faction members are subjected to rigorous tests, facing exclusion from society if they fail. Divergent caters to those seeking a world as ruthless as Panem from The Hunger Games. It also introduces another resilient heroine similar to Katniss in Tris, driven by both a commitment to fix her world and sheer survival. The franchise went on to spawn two additional sequels, with the planned fourth and final installment deemed financially unsustainable.

Shailene Woodley stars as Tris while Theo James, Ashley Judd, Jai Courtney, Ray Stevenson, Zoë Kravitz, Miles Teller, Tony Goldwyn, Maggie Q and Kate Winslet round out the cast.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2

In the franchise's concluding chapter, Katniss Everdeen joins forces with her closest allies including Peeta, Gale and Finnick. Their mission involves liberating the oppressed people of war-ravaged Panem and eliminating the power-hungry President Snow, who is fixated on Katniss's destruction. Ahead of them lie deadly traps, formidable enemies and moral dilemmas that will shape the fate of millions. While it is not the franchise's most beloved installment, Mockingjay - Part 2 continues to convey a fundamental yet crucial message about how contemporary Western society handles and portrays violence, a message that will continue to stay relevant years after its release. The film also contains an effective mix of remarkable action sequences alongside poignant, contemplative moments.

The dystopian YA genre remains an entertaining and engaging genre despite its popularity depleting throughout the years. With the highly anticipated The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes set to hit theaters, there's hope that it will embody the cherished characteristics of the genre, offering a captivating viewing experience for long-time fans and newcomers alike.

The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes will be released in theaters on November 17, 2023.