by Kathie Smith
The adventurous trends in Young Adult fiction (YA, for those who don’t know) are anchored in the wild successes both on page and screen of Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games. Whatever advances have been made by the flood of books in this very broad category have, however, been slow to follow in movie adaptations where the groove being carved does not veer too far from the middle of the road. Although Veronica Roth’s book would never be described as groundbreaking source material, Divergent nonetheless had enough promise in its basic elements for a potentially strong film: a complex young female lead, a setting that sparks the imagination, and reality-based fist-to-face foot-to-ground action. As disappointing as it might be, it should come as no surprise that director Neil Burger, with the help of writers Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor, chose to focus on the story’s most unadventurous aspects—a jejune social premise and chaste romance—in the form of superficial bullet points.
Director: Neil Burger
Producers: Lucy Fisher, Pouya Shabazian, Douglas Wick
Writers: Evan Daugherty, Vanessa Taylor, Veronica Roth (novel)
Cinematographer: Alwin H. Küchler
Editors: Richard Francis-Bruce, Nancy Richardson
Music: Junkie XL
Cast: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Kate Winslet, Ashley Judd, Miles Teller, Zoë Kravitz, Jai Courtney, Ansel Elgort, Maggie Q
Genre: Action, Sci-fi, Romance
US Theatrical Release: March 21, 2014
US Distributor: Summit Entertainment
Divergent takes place in a dystopian Chicago, where a massive wall has been built around the dilapidated city and its remaining people live in an orderly civil society split into five factions that resemble a rudimentary personality test: Abnegation (The Selfless), Amity (The Peaceful), Candor (The Honest), Dauntless (The Brave), and Erudite (The Intelligent). The factions reside in separate parts of the city and each one fulfills a public duty that ensures an efficient and just society. But just because you are born into a faction doesn’t necessarily mean that is where you belong. So at the age of sixteen you are given an interactive aptitude test—a series of choices in hypothetical scenarios—that signifies your temperamental leanings and from there you choose your faction with the society’s motto in mind: “Faction Before Blood.” Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley) appreciates the humble and giving values of her Abnegation lifestyle, but on the eve of her test and Choosing Ceremony, feels something else stirring inside her.
Needless to say, when Beatrice takes her aptitude test, the needle skips all the way across the LP because—now hold on to your hats—her test was inconclusive. Rare as it might be in this flat future world, Beatrice has a personality that does not fit into a tidy package and proves to have the facilities for, not one, but three factions—in other words, a rogue element, a Divergent. The woman administering the test tells Beatrice, in a terse, hushed voice, that Abnegation will be manually registered as her result even though she was also found to be compatible with Erudite and Dauntless. And, for reasons unexplained, she must never ever tell anyone that she is Divergent.
Despite being confused, Beatrice sees this as an opportunity to join the Dauntless, the faction that jumps off moving trains, runs like a pack of wolves, and protects the city with their bravery. She leaves her family behind forever, adopts the name Tris, gets a tattoo, and begins the competitive trial-by-fire Dauntless training where she may or may not make the cut. Almost immediately Tris forms a connection with Four (Theo James), a hunky instructor who seems to know and understand something about being Divergent. But darker forces are afoot politically, and the Dauntless are about to become a pawn in ruthless power-grab by the Erudite and their leader Jeanine (Kate Winslet). Divergents are a threat to her plans and Tris begins to understand why she must keep this identity a secret.
Divergent never delivers much in the way of substance, painting characters and plot points in monochromes that simply pander to the facile source material. Despite its weak assertions and paper-thin setup, the book excels in portraying a conscientious girl forced into independent thinking and self-sufficiency in a physical and psychological sink-or-swim environment. This is where the movie misses an opportunity to stake a claim in the male-dominated platforms of the Hollywood manifesto—to build a powerhouse blockbuster of a certain vigor, bite and complexity with a young woman in the lead. On this sort of critical level, Divergent even falls below the low bar of The Hunger Games by playing way too safe and by literally passing over the female lead for a male poster boy. Woodley, clearly a star on the verge of a breakout (but, alas, not here), does her best with what is handed to her in her performance of naïve Beatrice transforming into assertive Tris. Woodley as Tris may win with audiences, but it will do so by the simplest means necessary.
The narrative incongruities offer a sieve-like foundation for Tris and Four, but no one seems remotely concerned that anyone will look that close. The factioned society, an elementary representation of our own, represents perfection through propped up technological advances and beyond-basic-logic regressions. All of that is fine and dandy; civilly, I can’t say we have progressed much in the past hundred years, so it’s not too far of a reach to think the same would be true for the next hundred. But why is there a wall around this city and why is it Chicago? What’s really to gain in this microcosmic coup d’état? And if divergence is something that can so easily slip out in drug-induced profiling, why is it such a puzzle for the powers-that-be to find them? These are all questions that might or might not be answered in the two subsequent installments--Insergent and Allegiant, slated for 2015 and 2016 respectively to be directed by Robert Schwentke of R.I.P.D. fame (which does not bode well). For now, if looking for a YA film adaptation to break out of a bland mold, we might be better served to forget about trilogies and the future and look toward the more subtle emotional innovations mined in the present, à la The Perks of Being a Wallflower, The Spectacular Now, and the upcoming The Fault in Our Stars.