A lot of people are excited for the Hunger Games movie to come out. I confess, I do have an interest; I think they picked a good Katniss, and I think that the action and story flow will translate well to the screen.
A few years back, 1999, a book came out in Japan and was subsequently translated to English. It was called Battle Royale, and was written by Koushun Takami. Battle Royale takes place in a fictional totalitarian state. Every year, a class of high school students is chosen to be taken to a location for "The Program", given weapons, and kill each other. There is one winner. If the students decline to kill one another, there is a time limit for nobody dying, and then they're all killed remotely and there is no winner. Pretty similar, n'est-ce pas?
A few years before that, in 1979, a man named Richard Bachman (who, shhh, is really Stephen King, shhh), wrote a novel called The Long Walk. In that novel, in a totalitarian United States, there is a yearly Long Walk in which teenage boys must go to the starting area and, well, walk. If they go too slow, interfere with one another, stop entirely, etc. they are shot. Not entirely the same thing, but a kernel principle, I do think.
One thing a totalitarian government needs is, of course, some means of control over its population, and some sort of threat on that population's spirit. Killing a population's young people is taking away its future, its vision, and it's hope. Am I saying The Hunger Games is cribbed directly from these other novels? Not necessarily. Not any more than I think City of Ember was meant to be derivative of Logan's Run, or any other of the 40's, 50's, and after sci-fi stories of a society that had to go underground because the surface of the earth was tainted by pollution, or nuclear radiation, or war, and then was never allowed to go back up.
Really, I never knew how much of a theme that was in Golden Age of Sci-Fi era until I got a collection of old radio plays on tape. These plays were things like the War of the Worlds broadcast, and the show Dimension X, things like that. They're absolutely fabulous to listen to. They speak of the Cold War paranoia and nuclear fear that a lot of people felt after World War II. Communism, or Russia, or They were going to come and take over and do bad things. Of course, not all of the stories are like that; some are of the regular pleasant mad scientist sort, or aliens appearing sort, and that's all right too.
Does this mean that all dystopias are alike? Or that all of them represent a Red Fear? Well, perhaps they don't mirror a fear of Communism any longer, but they do tap into other societal apprehensions. 1984 was written a good long time ago, and still resonates today. People still talk about Big Brother, and reference Thought Crimes and Doublespeak, and things like that, with the technology available today, can be an eerie and uncomfortable thing to think about.
So, how to write a fresh dystopia, then? Lois Lowry certainly accomplished it, with The Giver. It seems a necessary theme is that society's memories must exist somewhere, somehow, and somebody must discover them and have the courage and curiosity to pursue a goal. Totalitarian government is a must, and regulation over things things that would normally seem like a clear personal choice, like exercise (re: one scene in 1984) and taking an apple home (re: The Giver).
Oh, and of course, one mustn't forget the thing societal veneer that everything is just fine, thanks!