Note: This is a guest post authored by Elizabeth Eckhart (Find her on Twitter at @elizeckhart).
Divergent, which premiered on March 21st in US and has already surpassed $100 million at the US box office, feels in many ways like familiar territory for fans of Young Adult films adapted from books: a dystopian future setting (Chicago, specifically) that includes a rigidly divided society and oppressive ruler; a gutsy female lead actress (Shailene Woodley) as Tris, who is the “special one”, clearly destined to break out of the confines her world is trying to force her into; a hunky male love interest named “Four” (Theo James); and plenty of training montages of Tris growing stronger, bouncing back from getting hit, etc.
If this sounds familiar, it’s probably because it’s somewhat similar to The Hunger Games, a movie whose model of blockbuster success undoubtedly taught Lionsgate executives that adapting wildly successful young adult books was a pretty surefire way to bring in dump trucks full of money, regardless of the quality of the films themselves (the second Hunger Games movie Catching Fire is out on DVD/BluRay and streaming online now, details here). The Divergent books, penned by twenty-something first time author Veronica Roth and seemingly parallel to The Hunger Games series, sold and continues to sell so many books that a film adaptation was a near certainty.
For those who haven’t read the books, Divergent covers the story of Tris, who is in the perilous position of having tested as a “divergent” in her war-torn future society’s round of trials by which young adults are forced to choose one of five distinct classes based on their personality traits - “Abnegation” for those that selflessly help others, “Dauntless” for those that are brave and bold, “Amity” for the peaceful who work hard and keep to themselves, “Candor” for the most truthful, and “Erudite” for the intelligent. Murmurs of a conspiracy against the established order set the backdrop for Tris and other new initiates to be psychologically and physically tested, and when Tris finds out she is “divergent”, and thus able to fit into any class, she also realizes she’s therefore a threat to the social order, setting up the main thrust of the plot.
I found Divergent to be mildly entertaining, but ultimately underwhelming. Shailene Woodley is a good actress, but there’s just something flat and sort of one dimensional about the character of Tris as the screenwriters adapted her that makes it hard for the movie to come to life as much as Hunger Games did. As much as I loved the book, I kept feeling like the movie really wanted her to be a “kicking butt and taking names” type of super-heroine while also simultaneously portraying a sort of delicate, emotional fragility, but the result on the screen just doesn’t come together. Even Tris’s romance with Four seems a little flat, to the point where a few times I almost felt taken out of the movie and more like I was just watching some awkward acting from the side of a movie set.
I wound up mostly enjoying the movie (probably because I wanted to like it so much), but ultimately wasn’t that impressed, unfortunately. There are definitely some nice action scenes, and the testing sequences came out looking pretty cool, but for the most part I feel like a lot was lost in the adaptation - the book has a nice, brisk pace to it that keeps you turning pages, while the movie sometimes felt like it was stumbling a bit in trying to find a rhythm, and I just didn’t connect emotionally with a lot of the acting. Also, compared to the Hunger Games, I couldn’t help feeling like the setting was a little bit drab and boring - a similar story about survival against all the odds, but without all the colorful clothes, food, scenery and other trappings from the world of Katniss.
Regardless of what I think, though, sequels to Divergent have already been announced, so we’ll see if the movies can improve down the line, or if we’ll eventually see a gritty reboot of some type - I wouldn’t put it past Hollywood. For now, I definitely have to say I prefer the books, just as I prefer the Hunger Games books to their film adaptations.
Thanks Elizabeth for this interesting and relevant post! :)
PS- Divergent movie releases on April 11, 2014 in India.