The recent boom in young adult literature has not translated to the big screen the way Hollywood had hoped. For every bombastic, Hunger Games-esque success, there have been numerous other failures (Beautiful Creatures, The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, and most recently, Vampire Academy, none of which made enough money to merit a franchise the way the studios hoped). However, Divergent, adapted from the first volume in Veronica Roth’s bestselling trilogy, stands to come the closest to inheriting Katniss Everdeen’s fiery mantle. It has an intriguing, color-coded dystopian setting, a tough female protagonist who feels like a real teenage girl despite her uncanny ability to shoot down a bad guy, and a love story to boot. The novel is not without its weaknesses, which are primarily plot-related; Roth’s writing is often weak and confusing when she ventures beyond worldbuilding into actual story structure. Yet while the film shares some of the same weaknesses as the book, Divergent is a decently entertaining adaptation that improves on the source material and should merit its sequels.
Divergent takes place in a near-future Chicago surrounded by a wall that protects its citizens from the war-ravaged outside world. In order to maintain a peaceful and productive society, the community has been divided into five factions based on virtues: Erudite value intelligence and seek knowledge, Amity are peaceful people who farm the land, Candor are always honest and maintain justice, Dauntless thrive on bravery and serve as soldiers to keep the city secure, and Abnegation are selfless public servants who manage government affairs. Our heroine, Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley) was born into Abnegation, but the day is coming for her to choose to either stay there or pick a new destiny all her own. There is a test, of course, to tell you which faction you should choose--a dystopian take on the Hogwarts Sorting Hat. Beatrice hopes that the test will make up her conflicted mind for her, but it actually makes everything worse: rather than being apt to one faction above all others, she is one of the very rare Divergent, who cannot be so easily categorized, and could easily choose any one of three different factions. She ends up choosing Dauntless, changing her name to Tris, and being launched into a intense initiation ritual that involves jumping from trains, being trained in combat, and undergoing mental simulations to face her biggest fears. If she fails, Tris will be tossed out to live among the downtrodden factionless, but if anyone discovers that she is Divergent, she will die; people who cannot be categorized cannot be controlled, and in this highly organized world, that is dangerous.
If you thought that was an excessive amount of exposition, you won’t be surprised to learn that Divergent clocks in at a lengthy two hours and nineteen minutes. Much of the time is spent explaining the complicated society, and very little is spent on actual plot--much like the book itself--meaning that the action-packed final third feels rushed and somewhat confusing. There are two intertwined central conspiracies, and neither are terribly well fleshed out: the first concerns the hunting down of the Divergent, while the second involves an Erudite conspiracy to overthrow the Abnegation government with the help of a Dauntless army. Both center around ice-cold Erudite leader Jeanine Matthews, played by Kate Winslet, who is chilling as the film’s villain despite the occasional ridiculousness of her crimes. Fortunately, Winslet is not the only talented performer in the film’s cast, all of whom work their butts off to make you care about what is going on and generally succeed in doing so. Woodley is the hot young actress in YA adaptations (The Spectacular Now, the upcoming The Fault in Our Stars) for a reason: she brings a powerful spark and a great deal of empathy to Tris, which is crucial considering that she carries the entire story on her narrow shoulders. The rest of the young actors are equally good, though none as surprisingly so as Theo James as Tris’s instructor and love interest, Four. Four has his own secrets (naturally); all of his resulting mysteriousness and brooding felt flat on the page and made it hard for this not-so-secret YA junkie to feel invested in the romance. Onscreen, James brings Four to life with some charisma and old-fashioned movie star good looks--not to mention some palpable chemistry with Woodley. Director Neil Burger (The Illusionist, Limitless) deserves props for getting these performances out of his actors and making Roth’s somewhat flimsy characters feel much more lifelike.
The casting isn't the only thing the filmmakers got right. The production is lavishly detailed and beautifully designed, from the color-coded and faction-specific costumes to the alternative architecture of the film's version of Chicago, and the atmosphere is properly set with a haunting soundtrack that includes numerous tracks from Ellie Goulding. Because of this, the world of Divergent feels real even before the lengthy exposition kicks in, proving that “show, don’t tell” should and could have been much more closely adhered to here. Nonetheless, despite its flaws, I enjoyed the film far more than I thought I would, especially considering my apathy towards Roth’s writing; teenage fans of the series will no doubt be pleased with the result. Until Hollywood finally wakes up and realizes that Marie Lu’s amazing and underrated Legend trilogy deserves to be the next big-budget YA franchise, Divergent is the next best thing out there.
"Divergent" opens March 21, 2014 and is rated PG13. Action, Drama. Directed by Neil Burger. Written by Evan Daugherty, Vanessa Taylor. Starring Kate Winslet, Shailene Woodley, Theo James.