Fiction or Non-Fiction Books and Films about Societies Falling apart?
September 9, 2013 9:19 PM   Subscribe

I am looking for fiction or non-fiction books (or movies - documentaries or fiction) about societies that are collapsing or falling apart -- anything from the late Roman Empire to 1990s Yugoslavia. I'm especially interested in books or movies that focus on the lives of regular people while the collapse is happening. I am specifically NOT looking for sci-fi dystopias or fantasy novels, so please don't recommend any.
posted by empath to Media & Arts (23 answers total) 51 users marked this as a favorite
Death and The Penguin might do it for you.
posted by bswinburn at 9:43 PM on September 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

This happens several times, over the course of centuries, in The Bridge on the Drina. The focus on the lives of ordinary people, with the usual grand protagonists of historical fiction relegated to the blurred background, is one of the things this novel is famous for.
posted by escabeche at 9:51 PM on September 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

The People of the Book is historical fiction that sort of fits. It chronicles the imagined journey of the (real) Sarajevo Haggadah from 1996 Sarajevo back to the 15th century. The societies that the Haggadah existed in may or may not be described as "collapsing" at any one time, but they were certainly filled with civil and/or military conflict.
posted by gubenuj at 10:03 PM on September 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

Anthony F. C. Wallace's The Death and Rebirth of the Seneca is a terrific historical ethnography that covers the collapse of the Iroquois League, a "slums in the wilderness" phase for the Seneca, and the charismatic movement led by Handsome Lake that followed.

A lot of first-hand accounts of colonialism in the Americas offer insight into societies collapsing from disease, warfare, conquest, etc. Throughout Columbus's The Four Voyages, you can't help reading all the little anecdotes as the gradually unfolding story of the collapse of Hispaniola and Cuba. Garcilaso de la Vega covers the Inca. Bartolome de las Casas gives a brief, tendentious overview of the whole deal. 1491 summarizes a lot of what we know now. This stuff is not at all dry. Bernal Diaz del Castillo's account of Cortes causing the Aztec empire to fall apart reads better than most novels.

Readable, interesting books on other places and times that come to mind include The Tailor King: The Rise and Fall of the Anabaptist Kingdom of Munster and Tom Holt's bitter but funny novel Alexander at the World's End about Alexander's empire, though I guess that one takes place earlier than you're looking for.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 10:21 PM on September 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

Erich Maria Remarque wrote about Germany in the interwar years and after -- the two books that would best fit your criteria would be The Black Obelisk, about people struggling through the declining years of the Weimar Republic, and A Time to Love and a Time to Die, my second favorite of his novels (after All Quiet on the Western Front), about a disaffected, non-Nazi German soldier who returns to a flattened Berlin toward the end of the war to look for his parents.

J. G. Ballard's Empire of the Sun might also fit your criteria, as it concerns a child's experience of the dissolution of the British expatriate community in China and its subsequent internment during the Japanese invasion.

And Stanislaw Lem wrote a non-science-fiction novel about a Polish hospital serving as a sanctuary for trapped scientists in Nazi-occupied Poland called Hospital of the Transfiguration that is rather moving.

Non-fiction: We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda (Philip Gourevitch) is tragic and terrifying.

An Unexpected Light: Travels in Afghanistan is Jason Elliott's memoir of his experience as a journalist (and sometime soldier-of-fortune) in Afghanistan during the fight against the Soviets and the Taliban's destruction of Western-style Afghan society -- I highly recommend it.

Oh, and this amazing book: There Once Was a World: A 900-Year Chronicle of the Shtetl of Eishyshok, a Jewish village in Lithuania that was virtually obliterated by the Nazis (there were fourteen survivors of a town of thousands, and the author is a granddaughter of one of them).
posted by tully_monster at 10:33 PM on September 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

Goodbye Lenin! (East Germany at the collapse of the Berlin Wall)
Missing (Chile just after the coup in 1973, based on true story)
House of Fools (Chechnya, Chechen-Russian conflict, based on true story)
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 10:42 PM on September 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe.
posted by she's not there at 10:55 PM on September 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

In The Garden Of The Beasts Not so much collapse as rush into fascist war-wondering and societal ferment as seen from upper crust (but still having to hold day to say embassy jobs) Americans in Berlin.
posted by The Whelk at 10:56 PM on September 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

EM Forster's A Passage to India is about life in 1920s India, as the prospect of Indian independence draws closer and the balance of power between colonist Britains and populist Indians begins to shift.

At face value, JM Coetzee's Disgrace is about the fall from grace of a lecherous don, but it is also a powerful analysis of post-Apartheid South Africa.

Peter Godwin's memoirs When a Crocodile Eats the Sun charts the impact of Mugabe's rule on post-colonial Zimbabwe through the lens of his parents' lives.
posted by MuffinMan at 12:25 AM on September 10, 2013

Jane Smiley's The Greenlanders is a family "saga" set against the slooooow disintegration of the Norse settlements in Greenland in the 15th century. As far as I can gather it is based on as much fact as possible. The style falters occasionally, and it takes a while to get into, but then it is absolutely gripping.
posted by runincircles at 12:26 AM on September 10, 2013

On phone so can't link but Zlata's Diary (non-fiction, child's account of life in Sarajevo during the siege) and Q by Luther Blisset (Anabaptists) might be worth picking up.
posted by inire at 1:01 AM on September 10, 2013

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond, known for "Guns, Germs, and Steel", is an examination of civilization collapse throughout history.
posted by anonymisc at 2:48 AM on September 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

Dr. Zhivago. Some of the stories of Isaac Babel also detail the same catastrophic period in Russian history.
The Pianist. (Wikipedia says the film ends in a way I simply don't remember.)
Tristes Tropiques, an anthropological work in which the demise of certain societies visited seems inevitable.
posted by glasseyes at 3:26 AM on September 10, 2013

Blindness by José Saramago
posted by neutralmojo at 7:17 AM on September 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'm reading The Oligarchs: Wealth And Power In The New Russia by David E. Hoffman, and it's an amazing account of how Russia collapsed after the fall of the Soviet Union (starting with an account of how bad the situation was already in the Brezhnev years). It concentrates mainly on the rich and powerful, as the subtitle suggests, but there are enough anecdotes about how ordinary people suffered that I think it would suit your needs. And Hoffman understands and explains the banking/finance stuff clearly enough that even I, who have no head whatever for it, am able to understand it.

Two excellent books on how Chechnya descended into hell: Chechnya: Calamity in the Caucasus by Carlotta Gall and Thomas de Waal (superb reporting) and Chechnya: Tombstone of Russian Power by Anatol Lieven (more academic/historical).
posted by languagehat at 7:28 AM on September 10, 2013

Two very good novels where social collapse through civil war is central: Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Scenes from Early Life: A Novel by Philip Hensher
posted by Sybil Stockwell Oop at 7:57 AM on September 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

If you need not restrict your list to prose, I would also recommend an anthology of poetry edited by the poet Carolyn Forche, titled Against Forgetting: Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness.

The later poetry of W. B. Yeats, from about 1920 on, also expresses his anxiety in the face of what he saw as the collapse of tradition and civilization (in particular, the Great War, the Irish Civil War and the formation of the Free Republic, along with the decline of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy, which he saw as providing stability and a civilizing influence to Irish culture and society, and its replacement by dehumanizing industrialization, and the rise of Fascism in Europe) on the eve of World War II. "The Second Coming," from which Achebe's novel Things Fall Apart takes its title, partly addresses this issue, and so do poems like "Lapis Lazuli" and those included in his 1928 collection The Tower (often considered his greatest work) and his allegorical verse play Purgatory. Yeats had a very complicated kind of metaphysical belief system that drew, among other things, on Hindu and Buddhist mystical notions of time and history being cyclical (taking the form of what he called "gyres").

In fact, you'll find that a lot of English modernists were concerned with collapse, instability, and their repercussions for ordinary life, from Eliot ("I had not thought death had undone so many") to Lawrence (particularly in his depictions of traditional, semi-feudal agrarian life giving way to mechanized production and the destruction of the land in novels like Women in Love and short stories like "The Horse Dealer's Daughter") to Woolf (especially her novel Between the Acts, which sets the disruption of a marriage against the backdrop of a village pageant commemorating English history just before the outbreak of WWII and was her last completed novel before her suicide in 1941). And Conrad's Heart of Darkness, on which Achebe's book is also kind of an elaborate riff, is about the deep corruption and inevitable failure of the European colonization of the Congo and has a kind of dreamlike, apocalyptic feel.

And then there's Samuel Beckett's play Endgame, which isn't science fiction or fantasy--it's absurdist theatre and highly allegorical and follows the deterioration of basic human relationships (husband and wife, parent and child, servant and master) in the wake of some unnamed catastrophe (likely nuclear, but could also simply be the postwar world). Happy Days also explores these ideas. These plays are very highly abstract, but one thread running through them is the characters' obsessive need to cling to ordinary daily ritual and routine in the face of apocalypse.

One other book I should have mentioned in my previous post, as it's more straightforward than these, is Nadine Gordimer's July's People, which predicted the fall of South African apartheid society in a weirdly accurate way and depicts a white liberal family's struggle to survive and negotiate a suddenly-chaotic world in which they no longer possess power, privilege, or even basic necessities.
posted by tully_monster at 9:16 AM on September 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

Two valuable, internationally acclaimed recent films from South America portraying the 1970s descent into fascism from the point of view of regular, non-activist people, are The Secret in their Eyes (2009) and Tony Manero (2008)
posted by Basque13 at 11:19 AM on September 10, 2013

An Ordinary Man: An Autobiography by Paul Rusesabagina & the movie he inspired called Hotel Rwanda tell his story during the Rwandan genocide in 1994. There are many other memoirs of survivors from this event on Amazon - search for "Rwandan genocide".
posted by stampsgal at 11:36 AM on September 10, 2013

Oh, I should also mention Triomf, a weird and fairly upsetting book that follows a family of poor Afrikaners as the apartheid regime collapses around them. This family is not exactly "regular," though, as you'll see if you read the book, which I highly recommend.
posted by escabeche at 11:45 AM on September 10, 2013

If you're looking for a more academic take on societal collapse then I'd really recommend the work of Paul Collier, author of The Bottom Billion, which looks at why poor countries stay poor and why failed states continue to fail.
posted by MuffinMan at 12:55 AM on September 11, 2013

Stewart O'Nan's A Prayer For The Dying is exactly this to me, but it might strike others differently.
posted by turbid dahlia at 4:27 PM on September 16, 2013

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