There’s a pearl of wisdom that says there are specific types of fiction one needs to sample at set points in their life. In particular, young adults are recommended to immerse themselves in stories about loss, sacrifice, and exactly what is at stake in maintaining a just society. This is arguably when we as people are most attuned to these issues as we exit our self-centered childhood and become more focused on determining who we are and what role we will play in a society we will soon be expected to participate in.
There are a ton of young adult novels that directly dive into this audience, but recently there’s been an increased focus on licensing them for movie adaptations. Elephant in the room: most of them aren’t very good. What seems to have kick-started the trend is Twilight, a series maligned in both print and film for pandering to its young audience to the point that coherent logic and appealing characters are a foreign concept. In much the same way the success of the Lord of the Rings adaptations a decade ago spurred a brief burst of fantasy book adaptations of varying quality, now it’s the turn of young adult fiction (primarily those aimed at girls). The current leader is The Hunger Games, focused on young people caught up in a dystopian future where the machinations of adults have buggered up society.
To be fair, at first glance you can’t help but feel that Divergent author Veronica Roth looked at the success of The Hunger Games and said “I can do that too!” A century or so after a vaguely defined world war, the remains of Chicago continue as a pocket society contained within a security fence. In order to avoid any chance of future conflict, the founders of this neo-Chicago created a system where the population would be assigned to one of five factions from their mid-teens, with personality type defining which cornerstone of society one works for: selfless (government and infrastructure), brave (military and police), honest (judicial), optimistic (agriculture) and intelligent (science and pharmaceutical). After choosing a faction, individuals are expected to honour it over blood ties — socially reinforced because those without a faction lose all citizenship rights.
Teenage girl Beatrice Prior is uncertain which faction to aim for, torn between the selfless Abnegation faction she has been raised with or the more free and exciting Dauntless military faction. The issue becomes further muddled when the test that is supposed to tell her exactly what faction is right for her classifies her as a Divergent: an individual capable of excelling in multiple factions and viewed as a risk to the entire system. Attempting to hide this fact, Beatrice (renaming herself Tris) chooses Dauntless and soon finds herself undergoing brutal ‘survival of the fittest’ training to earn her place as a faction citizen. Not only must she contend with passing the gruelling initiation process and hiding her status as a Divergent, she also learns of a brewing plot within the supposed utopia that threatens not only her family but the entire society.
Any veteran of science fiction will spot that this isn’t exactly an original plot. There are a ton of stories about nightmarish ‘utopias’ built on denying key human rights. However, taken in hand with the series link to the aforementioned craze of young adult fiction, I have to be fair and say Divergent isn’t as bad as it could be.
Tris is more likeable than the likes of Twilight‘s Bella. Tris is an uncertain young woman who respects her parents but wants the freedom to craft an identity that feels right for herself. Unfortunately, her status as a Divergent seems designed to appeal to shallow youngsters who think they’re above others. The status means being so super unique that you can’t be easily labelled and placated like 99% of the population….but nobody really thinks of themselves as outside that 1%. Being Divergent makes one a trailblazer that can save a society gone wrong, but evidently it’s equally good as an escapist fantasy to believe that those who get you down simply aren’t as good as you.
It’s also the case that in many of the scenarios, none of the Dauntless trainees take action until Tris does. They aren’t crying out for her to solve everything but she seems to be trying to anyway. Given that she forms a small circle of friends, I would have welcomed more balance in how the younger cast reacted to and progressed events.
Possibly the most hormone charged element is Tris’ eventual relationship with Four, an older and established male member of Dauntless. There is some worth applied to the wider story through this subplot (including a surprising revelation about a minor but important character which does get subtle follow through more than once later), but this is probably the most teenage female fantasy element of the story. Four eventually swoops in to save Tris at least once, smooching in between his ‘you’re the only one who understands me’ brooding. It’s to director Neil Burger’s credit that this doesn’t come off as nauseating or as flat as it could be (and indeed has been in the form of a certain sparkly vampire).
This is something Burger seems to be consistent with. Although the main focus is on Tris and she comes off as broken at times (though Shailene Woodley can clearly act and is clearly trying to make the character carry a human fragility), the film is good with peppering little touches of character into the other key personae we meet. This is especially true in the relationship between Tris and her mother Natalie (Ashley Judd), which fleshes Natalie out as a person with a life before she chose to become a mother. Burger seems to have blended all the necessary elements to produce a surprisingly competent film for the genre, as even CG elements weren’t noticeable to me as such until pointed out in the extras. I do question his choice to make the members of the military/police force run around the city hollering and parkouring the heights of Chicago like the cast of an interpretive dance stage show, however.
An English 5.1 audio track is presented on the DVD, with the addition of an optional English subtle track. Similar to most modern releases, a selection of extras are available on the DVD release with more added to the Blu-ray version. The two highlights of the DVD release are a pair of commentaries, one with director Neil Burger and the other with producers Lucy Fisher and Douglas Wick. These are both worthwhile commentaries that reveal a lot of the tiny yet important decisions required to bring a film to the big screen, with Burger in particular revealing tons of juicy tidbits on everything from casting to cinematography. ‘Faction Before Blood’ is a brief video where the cast discuss the concept of the faction system. It’s spoiler heavy, so best avoided for first time viewers. Deleted scenes offers roughly 4 minutes of interesting character moments that were cut, including a particularly gory look at how twisted one of the other trainees is. ‘Beating Heart,’ one of the songs in the film, gets a particularly silly music video and there’s a gathering of the trailers and posters for the film.
Divergent isn’t a bad film but I’m not sure how much a seasoned fan of cinema/science fiction will get from it. It’s clear that the movie production side put in care and skill, but at its heart, the story is still that of a recent young adult novel that feels like it’s wanting a piece of the pie more than anything. I’m not sure if it’ll survive the test of time but in the here and now, this is a decent and well made film that won’t leave you feeling like it’s insulting your intelligence.