YA novels make strategic film adaptations because of their existing and rabid fan bases, but I’ll admit I didn’t know about Veronica Roth’s Divergent series until the film version was announced last year. (I’ve since ordered it from Amazon because I was a few dollars away from getting free shipping on my order. I’ve yet to read it, but will soon.)
Divergent is the first big book-to-screen adaptation of the year, with 2014 especially promising for the unstoppable genre: coming soonest is an adaptation of John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars which, like Divergent, stars Shailene Woodley, followed by The Giver, The Maze Runner, and Mockingjay, the third of four films in the Hunger Games series, set for Nov. 21.
Divergent, like The Hunger Games, takes place in a futuristic, dystopian United States. Also like The Hunger Games, it features a young and strong female lead character portrayed by an actress purported to be the next It Girl (even though Jennifer Lawrence was already an Oscar nominee for Winter’s Bone when The Hunger Games came out and Woodley, the star of Divergent, is a Golden-Globe nominee for her work in Alexander Payne’s The Descendants). Both also have violent premises. In The Hunger Games, 24 teens fight to the death in an arena designed by a demented government as punishment for its people’s uprising. Divergent takes place in Chicago 100 years after a devastating war, we’re told, forced the city’s leaders to build walls around it. Its people are put into five factions, so everyone has a purpose in society: members of Abnegation are the selfless, Erudite are the intelligent, Dauntless the brave, Amity the peaceful and Candor the honest. There are also factionless Chicagoans who don’t fit into either of the five factions or were kicked out of them.
At a sort-of graduation ceremony, Chicago’s 16-year-olds pick the faction in which they’ll spend the rest of their lives after undergoing an exam that determines the faction for which the teen is best suited. It’s a weird, induced-dream/role-playing sequence: our heroine, Beatrice Prior (Woodley), is being chased by a dog and has to find a way to escape. It’s never explained in the film, but she showed characteristics from too many different factions for her test to be conclusive. “It didn’t work on you,” she’s told by Tori (Maggie Q), who’s administering her test. They call it Divergent, and it’s very rare and dangerous and if “they” find out, “they” won’t be happy because “they” can’t control Divergent people. Tori becomes an ally of Beatrice and manually enters Abnegation, Beatrice’s parents’ faction. Abnegation runs the government and feeds the factionless which are two things Beatrice just isn’t into. Beatrice selects Dauntless, to the shock of her parents (Ashley Judd and Scandal‘s Tony Goldwyn). Dauntless are Chicago’s army – they protect factions from each other as well as the city from whatever is beyond its borders. If you ask me, Beatrice doesn’t look like she has the cardio or parkour skills to be Dauntless. Actually, Divergent never really makes clear why she picks Dauntless over the other factions: all we know is she doesn’t feel like she fits in with Abnegation, but her decision (to a person watching the movie who has not read the book) seems to be rooted in the desire to fit in with the cool kids. Dauntless dress in all-black, have tattoos, piercings and mohawks. There have a general laissez-faire about them and are by far the most badass of the factions.
Directed by Neil Burger and adapted from Roth’s novel by Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor, Divergent spends a whole lot of time taking us through Beatrice’s training process. I don’t doubt that a former social worker needs tons of training to become a soldier, but at 139 minutes, Divergent doesn’t use its time as wisely as it could have. We meet other Dauntless initiates but barely get a backstory on any of them. Her closest friend is Christina (Zoe Kravitz) who was born Candor; as Beatrice – who shortens her name to Tris on Day One at Dauntless Academy – moves up the ranks, other recruits begin to resent her (Christian Madsen, Ben Lloyd-Hughes, Miles Teller), but she catches the attention of Four (Theo James), the hard-ass, hard-to-please Dauntless trainer who never smiles. James and Woodley have great chemistry even though their romance is predictable.
As a standalone film, Divergent is a little bland. We see how the city and the faction system work, but don’t get to know two of the five factions: Dauntless and Abnegation get loads of screen time, and Erudite get a little bit more than the two that get none, Amity and Candor. Beatrice’s brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort, who’ll star in The Fault in Our Stars alongside Woodley this summer) selects Erudite, the faction led by Jeanine Matthews (Kate Winslet is as icy as ever but her villain is one-dimensional) that believes it should be running the government, not the allegedly corrupt Abnegation.
Where the first Hunger Games film rushed through its first act to get to the action, and as such poorly presented life in Panem and the relationships between Katniss and the other characters, Divergent does the opposite: it takes its time, but only brushes the surface of what life in Chicago is like for the characters who are not Tris. When it gets to the conflict it’s been teasing for more than 100 minutes, Divergent lacks energy and it doesn’t quite materialize into anything nearly as exciting as a Hunger Games (how could it, really?), and not for nearly long enough.
As the first chapter of a trilogy-to-be, though, Divergent could end up being excellent. With all the time devoted to the setup in Divergent, Insurgent, the next film in the series slated for a March 2015 release, has to get to the point more quickly and more excitingly.
★★½ (out of ★★★★)