Word that Kristen Stewart and Nicholas Hoult might be signing on for Equals, the next movie from Like Crazy director Drake Doremus, dates all the way back to last October, when Deadline reported what was then just a possibility — but more recent revelations about what Equals is about has left potential moviegoers both wary and excited. As it turns out, Equals is an adaptation of George Orwell‘s classic dystopian novel 1984. That’s right: The latest development in the world of dystopian-future movies with young stars is 1984 starring Kristen Stewart.
Despite the loud and predictable uproar, the casting and timing of Equals makes perfect sense. That’s because, when it comes to Hollywood’s track record with young women in dystopias, a 1984 adaptation like Equals could be the next Hunger Games.
Earlier this week, the Associated Press reported that Stewart had described the movie as an “ambitious” take on “a slightly updated version” of the 1956 movie (based on Orwell’s 1949 novel), and that it was “a love story.” (Doremus also revealed that Jennifer Lawrence, Hoult’s real-life love interest, considered the role.) Most folks who read the original book, about a man who begins to question the totalitarian government under which he lives, will remember Big Brother, words like “thoughtcrime,” and that cage full of rats.
The very idea of a romantic take on 1984 — a book that doesn’t exactly scream “love story,” despite the fact that it does have a romance between protagonist Winston and fellow rebel Julia, and despite the 1956 movie having already substantially updated the book’s plot to emphasize their relationship — already has some people up in arms. Geekosystem.com’s headline begins “Oh God, Please Don’t”. The Guardian invites readers to “share [their] dystopian visions of how bad it will be.” On the other hand, women-in-pop-culture blog The Mary Sue declares that “it might not suck as much as you think it will,” arguing that Stewart’s best work happens in roles that require her to blunt her emotions and that, as a passion project for the director, it’s less likely to be a mess than a profit-motivated movie trying to capitalize on the dystopian-young-adult trend would be.
Although the precise target demographic will depend on how the film is made and marketed, it’s a pretty safe bet to say that, given its stars, it will be geared toward a young audience. (If not tweens and teens, then young adults at least.) Dystopian futures have been big in that area for a while, edging out paranormal creatures like vampires for the reading and moviegoing habits of young people, especially young women. The Hunger Games is the most prominent example, and the forthcoming spring movie Divergent — also adapted from a blockbuster YA novel series, about a world in which individuals are sorted into groups by their personality attributes — hopes to carry the trend forward.
For adult men, visions of dystopia have recently tended toward environmental destruction by men (Matt Damon in 2013′s Elysium) or space aliens (Tom Cruise in 2013′s Oblivion), resulting in those men carrying guns around and flying in spaceships. For young women, on the other hand, though their dystopias also involve fighting, surveillance — the cornerstone of 1984‘s scariness — is key. So, though 1984 is about a guy and carries enough literary heft that the thought of Stewart taking on the project has stirred up detractors, it’s actually right in line with the trend established by The Hunger Games and Divergent. Both of those, like 1984, take place on a different but recognizable Earth; both are about scenarios in which the protagonist must hide her true feelings from the government; both involve using her deepest fears in an attempt to gain control of her mind; both give the society’s ruling group the power to know what citizens are up to. The Mary Sue (probably presciently) suggests that Stewart and Hoult gender-switch on the Winston/Julia roles from 1984, and there’s nothing in the source material that really demands the protagonist would be male. That change would leave Stewart with a role that, while its important-literary-foundation cred is a bit larger, is a very close parallel to those played by Jennifer Lawrence and Shailene Woodley.
When book-to-movie adaptations with similar plots and young female stars have already done so well and are set to do well in 2014, the idea is pretty obvious. Knowing that the genre succeeds and that we live in a time when government surveillance is in the news regularly — just today, for example, President Obama announced that the National Security Agency would be limited in its collection of phone-record metadata — it’s easy to imagine how an artist might come up with 1984 as an inspiration for a movie starring someone like Kristen Stewart. What’s more surprising than the concept for Equals is, ironically, that it’s surprising at all.