To the casual observer, Divergent might seem like an attempt to cash in on the success of The Hunger Games, especially when you consider the number of similarly themed previews that showed before Divergent. It seems like “young adult” (hate that term) post-apocalyptic stories are “in” these days, and those who haven’t read the Divergent books might be tempted to write the film adaptation off as just another clone. However, to do so would be a mistake, as the Divergent series has a lot to offer, even if this first film is perhaps not everything we might have hoped it would be. The books are filled with interesting ideas and compelling characters and I hope the remaining books are adapted for the screen, because the story covered in the two remaining books is interesting and unconventional, and would make for movies very different than we’re used to.
Divergent tells the story of Beatrice Prior, who was born in a ruined, future version of Chicago, where the citizens are divided into five factions, each of which embodies a certain desirable trait and fulfills a certain role in society. The Amity faction is peaceful and kind, the Erudite value knowledge, the Candor are always truthful, the Dauntless are brave, and Beatrice’s faction, Abnegation, are selfless above all else. In Abnegation, Beatrice wears grey, unadorned clothes, is only allowed to look at herself in the mirror once a year for only a few moments, and must devote her life to serving others. However, a part of her seems to struggle against conflicting impulses within herself, especially as her 16th birthday arrives and along with it the opportunity to choose which faction she will belong to as an adult.
Each person of her age is subjected to a test in order to help determine which faction they fit into, however Beatrice’s test does not go as planned and reveals that she is “Divergent,” meaning she has the potential for multiple factions and therefore is a threat to their carefully constructed society. Her test giver instructs her to tell no one and alters her file to hide the results, but Beatrice is left trying to reconcile this new information with her upcoming faction decision. When the day comes she abandons her family and chooses Dauntless, the faction whose brash, confident ways and energetic attitudes have held her interest since she was a child.
At Dauntless she is forced to go brutal training, teaching her how to fight in order to help the faction protect the city from whatever mysterious threat lies outside the electrified fence that protects the city. The new members of Dauntless spar against each other, fighting until one of them is unconscious, practice throwing knives and firing guns, as well as learning combat strategy. Along the way Beatrice (who renames herself as Tris in order to reinvent herself with her new faction) bonds with the other teenagers who left their own factions to join Dauntless while squaring off against those who grew up in Dauntless. The defining aspect of her new life, however, is that she meets Four, a Dauntless a few years older than her, who teaches the new recruits and with whom she develops a rapport and eventually even a romance. Together the two of them struggle to move Tris from the bottom of the new recruit rankings (which put her in danger of being cut from the program and condemned to live on the streets, factionless), while also protecting her from her competition and uncovering a plot that threatens to change their society for good.
The film adaptation magnifies some of the problems I had with the book. The setup and premise of Divergent is fascinating, but the faction system is explored very little in this movie, with most of the plot simply devoted to the trials of Tris’s training. Having read the books, I know that the world that author Veronica Roth created gets much more interesting and complex in the two sequels, but that might be of little comfort to newcomers to the film. In addition, the movie is hurt by the fact that Divergent is simply a much more difficult film to adapt than The Hunger Games. While Suzanne Collins’ story was tightly plotted and had a simple plot device that created instant drama, Divergent is a bit more fluid in its storytelling and the first book in particular lacks a strong narrative drive. While Tris’s narration in the book helped give weight and meaning to the events as they unfold, without that direct line into her head much of what happens seems isolated or even random. The film sometimes feels more like a collection of “scenes we have to show” rather than a cohesive film. Some of the blame for that must go to director Neil Burger and the screenwriters, but the fact remains that they had a more difficult story to adapt than might immediately be apparent.
However, the film also gets many things right. It starts with the casting of Shailene Woodley as Tris. Woodley, who is set for a big year between this and The Fault in Our Stars, brings just the right combination of strength and vulnerability to the role, helping us to really identify with Tris in a way that reflects how engaging a character she was in the book. Her performance gives weight to a character who might otherwise have gotten lost in this adaptation, something that had concerned me from the start. Woodley is well matched with Theo James, who plays Four with a combination of scowl and charm and who has a real chemistry with Woodley. The romance and connection between the two feels surprisingly genuine, and that is a very good thing given the film’s somewhat enhanced focus on the pair. The rest of the cast makes the most of their screentime, particularly Ashley Judd as Tris’s mother. The other major star in the film is Kate Winslet as the leader of the Erudite faction and nominal villain of the film, who is suitably menacing in a role that has been expanded from the book. (When you cast someone like Kate Winslet in your movie, you have to give her more to do.)
As far as faithfulness to the story, Divergent hits almost all of the big moments from the book, most of which work very well. A sequence where Tris ziplines from the top of a skyscraper is particularly thrilling, and the big emotional moments play out well. As I said before, however, the scenes aren’t tied together as well as they should have been, as though the filmmakers were checking scenes off a list rather than focusing on the overall narrative. As much as we all hate for our favorite scenes to be cut in an adaptation, perhaps some parts of Divergent could have been trimmed in order for the film to breathe a bit and provide viewers with more context. The violence and brutality from the book has been toned down a bit, with one particularly gruesome moment cut completely, but the filmmakers don’t shy away from the most important moments, even if they can (and should) be hard to watch. The book’s ending has been changed a fair amount, not in terms of theme but just to provide a more complete resolution the film, and the change generally works well.
The look and feel of the film is particularly good, from the creative costuming and architecture among the factions to the vision of a crumbling Chicago. One thing I never felt like the book did was give me a good description from which to imagine the setting, but the look they’ve created for the film feels right. I thought the film’s music, both in terms of score and songs, complimented the story and the atmosphere really well, serving to heighten the emotions and attitude of scenes and create a unified feel for the film that the adapted screenplay lacked. I’ll be curious to see how the sequels handle the expanded look at the city and its various factions and locations, as there is much we have still yet to encounter.
In all, I feel like opinion will be very varied on Divergent. For fans of the books, it’s thrilling to see some of our favorite moments depicted so well on the screen, but at the same time some will be upset with the changes to the story. For newcomers, the film provides much of the same promise of the books, with an interesting setup and some captivating characters, but the lack of narrative vision and the apparent copycat nature of the story and setting might disappoint. I think, more than most films, that Divergent will reflect your expectations going in. Regardless of what you’re looking for in this film, you’re likely to find it, and there’s not a lot along the way that will surprise you and challenge your preconceptions. I, for one, enjoyed the movie, both as a fan of the book and on its own merits, but I could easily see how people would be disappointed by it. Some aspects of the film are definitely worth praise, particularly the cast and the design, but the storytelling in the adaptation leaves something to be desired. However, I’m still looking forward to the two sequels to come (beginning with next year’s Insurgent), hopeful that the filmmakers can take the solid foundation they built in Divergent and create something worthy of the story they’re telling. That, and I can’t wait to see how they manage to pull off the twist and turns of the story from here on out.