Directed by Neil Burger
“We live in an age that reads too much to be wise, and that thinks too much to be beautiful” (Lord Henry in The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde). Hollywood these days has become a battlefield, a sanctuary of hopes and dreams of some sort, for the well-known young adult novels we have all been confronted with in our lives. However, risking to turn an enjoyable fictive teen saga into a high-grossing worldwide franchise comes at the cost of many things. Based on Veronica Roth’s bestselling trilogy, Divergent perfectly illustrates that it’s possible for wonderful concepts and themes in literature to go terribly wrong on the big screen. Surely I can imagine that Divergent has pleased many of its fans across the globe even though it’s almost impossible to be the perfect adaptation. Moreover, I haven’t read the novel myself. The question I’m posing is therefore not whether this was a likable film, but merely whether its merits take precedence over its faults. It is clear to me that this is not the case: Divergent is an obscure adaptation of an insightful concept that takes too much time to unfold into a highly entertaining story.
The film stars the gorgeous and talented Shailene Woodley as Beatrice (or ‘Tris’ Prior), the female protagonist in a dystopian world who must choose between the five abstract factions that rule society. On a side note, the idea of the factions — Erudite, Amity, Candor, Abnegation, and Dauntless — is loosely based on Plato’s idea of specialization in society which he gives voice through Socrates in The Republic. That’s some brilliant thinking from Roth right there. The 16-year-old Tris and her brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort), both born Abnegation, are part of a large group of teenagers whose time has come to make a life-changing decision at the initiation ceremony. Even though Tris chooses to be part of Dauntless, some kind of badass police with a knack for parkour and a long way to discipline, her aptitude test suggests she doesn’t belong in a specific faction and instead is divergent. Yes, she’s a special case. This is where things turn upside down and the film turns into a blunt soap and an even weaker reflection of some popular filmmaking standards set by YA franchises such as The Hunger Games and Harry Potter.
Without getting into a detailed comparison between the young adult franchises, it’s obvious that Divergent finds its roots in the very popular The Hunger Games. Both franchises have a female lead who live in an institutionalized oppressed ‘Orwellian’-like society. And yes, both protagonists turn against the indoctrinated greater good and try to idealize much needed change. Now, it would be very easy to dismiss Divergent as an unoriginal remake of The Hunger Games. However, the franchise is much more than a remake: in the world of Hollywood it’s merely a tool to supplant any other preceding YA franchise which has failed. And that’s where Divergent‘s Achilles’ heel lies: the film tries too hard to be the next The Hunger Games or Harry Potter, Shailene Woodley tries too hard to become the next Jennifer Lawrence and most importantly, director Neil Burger tries too hard to satisfy the film’s loyal fanbase.
Consequently, the story misses out on very practical subplots to achieve empathy within the audience as the story progresses really slowly. Woodley’s Tris and the charming Theo James as ‘Four’ show no chemistry at all thanks to a really awkward screenplay. It makes me wonder how Veronica Roth could have ever agreed with such a flawed script in the first place, but then we’re in Hollywood after all. The film, however, manages to convey some sentimentality through its dream sequences. We come to learn a lot about Tris and Four and their fears in some Matrix-like sequences. It shows that much attention has been paid to these two characters. It also shows that no one cared about Jeanine (Kate Winslet) who is supposed to be the terrifying villain of the story. Moreover, Winslet’s ability to portray a villain is perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the film.
Even though the film has many weak points, it’s definitely got some positive things to it as well. Take for instance the stunning visuals of future Chicago. Furthermore, I must say that the thin plot and the terrible script didn’t degrade the overall acting of the cast at all. The fitting soundtrack, including songs by Ellie Goulding, create the perfect mood that will entrance the audience into Tris’ world.
To sum it all up, Divergent has a great cast with a wide acting range, but the overall effect of the poorly structured plot takes too long to set the story. This results into a rushed ending. Nevertheless, Divergent may just be what the franchise needs after all: a solid foundation for a powerful second film in the series. Let’s hope so.