Five factions coexist in dystopian Chicago—Abnegation (the selfless), Dauntless (the brave), Amity (the friendly), Erudite (the knowledgeable), and Candor (the honest). On Choosing Day, Tris Prior (Shailene Woodley) must choose one of them. After getting inconclusive aptitude results, a problem that Tris later learns is called “Divergent,” she chooses to join the Dauntless faction, forsaking her Abnegation life and family. With Dauntless, she’s thrust into a world of battle training, tests of bravery, and an unexpected romance with her instructor, Four (Theo James). But as tensions start to rise between the factions, Tris learns that being Divergent is more dangerous than she thought.
I read Divergent. It wasn’t amazing, but it was decent. And unlike some young adult novels with sparkly vampires, it gave us a complex heroine named Tris, who’s bravery derives from her ability to rationalize her fears and put her concern for others ahead of herself. But despite Tris’ compelling narrative and the book’s interesting dystopian concept, Divergent was unoriginal in both plot and character structure, which made the overall story a little weak.
The movie is no different in that aspect. It’s not original. We’ve seen this story played out onscreen before with other first films of young adult series—The Hunger Games, The Mortal Instruments, Twilight. An ordinary girl turns out to not be as ordinary as we think; then, her eyes are opened to a new world, where she experiences romance with a brooding guy and has to fight off people who want her dead. As I said, it’s not exactly new. While the concepts of these books/movies are unique, they follow the same formula every time. Because it sells.
And why shouldn’t it sell? The young adult audience enjoys this formula because it captures the essence of the very things they’re going through in their own lives while transporting them to new and exotic surroundings. It’s easy for the rest of us to write off these books/movies as “stupid” simply because we’re not able to relate to these things anymore. Just because we can’t remember what it’s like to be uncomfortable in our bodies—or even what it feels like when you accidentally touch someone you like—doesn’t mean it’s dumb.
That being said, we can complain about how the movie is clumsy.
If there’s one thing I hate in movies, it’s when voiceovers are used to catch us up with the story’s setting. Laziness is what it is. Rather than working the backstory into the plot (like a good writer), Divergent‘s screenwriters take the easy way out and have Tris give you a quick history lesson. Sure, it mimicks the way the book follows her first-person viewpoint, but we lose a lot of the story’s weight, especially when it comes to faction relationships (which are kind of important, considering they set up a revolution in the next two films).
But the biggest problem this movie has is separating Tris from the people around her and explaining exactly why Divergents are a serious problem to society (Constantly repeating “They can’t be controlled” isn’t solid enough. You have to be able to tell us why).
You see, the point of being Divergent is that you don’t adhere to one faction’s behaviors and values because you encompass multiple behaviors and values. In Tris’ case, she’s Abnegation, Dauntless, and Erudite (i.e., selfless, brave, and intelligent). Yet as you watch the characters around her, you realize that, technically, they’re all like this. For example, Tris’ Candor-turned-Dauntless friend, Christina (Zoe Kravitz), is honest, brave, and friendly.
I know why this happened, too. It’s because the screenwriters had to fix the issues caused by Veronica Roth in her novel. Roth wrote all of the non-Divergent characters with only one defining personality trait, which emphasized Tris’ “otherness” archetype, but also turned everyone else into one-dimensional characters (This is a sign of poor writing, by the way). So when the screenwriters reworked the secondary characters to make them actually behave like humans, it unfortunately made Tris’ divergence less unique.
As for explaining why being Divergent is dangerous, the movie totally missed the point. Tris rationalizing her fears to escape the fear simulations isn’t divergence—that’s just a symptom. All it shows is that she’s able to use Erudite intelligence, despite being Dauntless (and Abnegation). But the movie pushed it as if this was divergence, completely forgetting that Dauntless are trained to conquer fear anyway. The real reason Divergents threaten society is because the factions only work when people fall in line with their values. When someone has more than one value, it goes against the value of their particular faction, leading to authority and beliefs being questioned.
Nevertheless, the movie makes up what it lacks in structure with action sequences. The jumping off the train, the capture-the-flag game, the battle training, the zip-lining through Chicago—these are all filmed well, and they’re exhilarating. I will say, though, that the best fight is between Tris and mind-controlled Four in the movie’s climax. Talk about conflict. Not only is Tris fighting her lover, who doesn’t recognize her, but she’s also fighting her battle instructor. And holy shit, she pulls a kick-ass, Black Widow-esque move on him.
Performance-wise? Shailene Woodley, who plays Tris, is fabulous. She perfectly captures that bravery through selflessness and intelligence combination that made Tris such an interesting character in the book. Theo James, who plays Four (a.k.a. Tobias, but that name sucks), has the brooding love interest role down. And I love that he brings a little humor to Four’s stony demeanor. Lastly, Kate Winslet, who plays Erudite leader and Divergent villain Jeanine Matthews, nails that whole “rational psychopath” (if that makes sense) thing.
Overall, Divergent is pretty entertaining and gives us a female hero to look forward to in the coming sequels. However, if it weren’t for the performances of Shailene Woodley, Theo James, and Kate Winslet, as well as the well-choreographed action sequences, this movie would fall victim to its source material’s poor crafting (that is, predictability, shallow character development, and plot holes). In terms of film translation, I’d say it’s about 70% accurate to the events and characters in the book (if that helps you decide to see it).
And as long as we’re using female-centric young adult book-to-film adaptations as a point of reference, here’s where we stand…
1. The Hunger Games
4. The Mortal Instruments
For my radio review of Divergent on “Pat & JT in the Morning,” visit this link (starts around the 29:19 mark).