Christina: You, my friend, have a death wish.
Following the monumental success of the first two films in the HUNGER GAMES trilogy, it won’t be easy for another young adult dystopian book adaptation to distinguish itself. It will inevitably be scrutinized and compared to the HUNGER GAMES, no matter how different their themes, characters, and plot developments may be. It may also even be examined for its transparent parallels to the previous heir to the adolescent book to celluloid adaptation throne, HARRY POTTER. As expected, this predestined fate does indeed befall DIVERGENT, the filmic adaptation of the first book in Veronica Roth’s young adult trilogy. The question is can it overcome these expectations?
Set in Chicago in the not-so-distant future, the city’s population has been confined to a cordoned off area with a fenced wall marking its limited boundaries. The inhabitants are further divided from one another and demarcated in terms of their dominant principles. These five factions are labelled as Abnegation (the selfless, who also run the government), Candor (the unabashedly honest), Erudite (the superiorly intelligent, “they know everything”), Amity (described as “always happy”, they are peaceful and environmentally conscious), and Dauntless (the fearless protectors of the peace). When the children in each faction reach the ripe age of sixteen they must take a proficiency test in order to establish under which area they will live the rest of their lives. If the test is ruled inconclusive, however, subjects are deemed Divergent. Beatrice ‘Tris’ Prior (Shailene Woodley) receives such an evaluation, but is warned by her adjudicator, Tori (Maggie Q), not to reveal her Divergent label to anyone, as people of that distinction are being hunted. Infatuated by the adrenaline junkie spirit of the Dauntless, Tris selects their sector in her choosing ceremony, much to the chagrin of her parents, Natalie and Andrew (Ashley Judd and Scandal‘s Tony Goldwyn). She quickly learns that initiation to her newly chosen faction includes jumping from trains and tall buildings, a savage game of Capture the Flag, as well as literally fighting for a spot to stay amongst her peers (those not chosen become Factionless and homeless). During this treacherous trial period, she bonds with contemporaries including Christina (Zoe Kravitz) and Will (Ben Lloyd-Hughes), and grows attached to training leader, Tobias ‘Four’ Eaton (Theo James). Meanwhile, there is a growing distrust of the governing Abnegation, led by Erudite leader Jeanine Matthews (Kate Winslet) who may be at the helm of the hunt for those labeled Divergent.
While both the HUNGER GAMES and DIVERGENT revolve around strong willed, valiant young females, and occur in the near future, the comparisons begin and end there. One may be so bold as to say that Tris is far more courageous and secure in her identity than Katniss. Additionally, Tris’ story never strictly revolves around a young man (as Katniss is routinely torn between loves Peeta and Gale), and she is allowed to flourish and blossom as a relatable tenacious female as a result. If one were to compare Roth’s work to anything similar, it would be Rupert Thomson’s DIVIDED KINGDOM or even M. Night Shyamalan’s THE VILLAGE. In one exchange, presumably a hat tip to Shyamalan’s screenplay, Tris asks Christina what lies beyond the fenced wall of their domain, to which Christina deadpans, “Monsters.”
In terms of a comparison of the film to its source material, there are a few glaring differences with which fans of the trilogy will not be pleased. Most notably, Theo James doesn’t quite capture the emotional pathos of his character, Four, or the fiery connection he’s supposed to have with Tris. Although very easy on the eyes, James’ performance is very one note and Woodley winds up having far more chemistry with her SPECTACULAR NOW co-star, Miles Teller (playing the devious Peter). Secondly, screenwriters, Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor, sacrifice the book’s in-depth character development in favour of the overly extended and drawn-out Dauntless training sequences. Beloved characters Will, brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort, Woodley’s love interest in the eagerly anticipated THE FAULT IN OUR STARS), evil Marcus (the excellent Ray Stevenson), Edward (Ben Lamb), Al (Christian Madsen) and friends Uriah, Lynn and Marlene resemble props in the film. Furthermore, the traditionally flawless Kate Winslet doesn’t quite do justice to her cunning character. Sadly, she seems like little more than a cartoonish caricature, but that could easily be attributed to the underdeveloped script and limited screen time she is given. Thankfully, as central heroine Tris, Shailene Woodley sparkles. Fans of the books will not be disappointed with her exemplary casting.
Overall though, the film could easily be labeled with the same taunting nickname Tris is given – stiff. Perhaps afraid of the comparisons with which it was burdened, director Neil Burger assembled a film that does not seem comfortable with itself. Divergent is not given the breathing room that it needs to stand “defiant of categorization”.