It’s easy to see where Divergent borrowed from other young adult franchises. As a movie adaptation of Veronica Roth’s bestselling novel Divergent, can check all the same boxes as the juggernaut that is The Hunger Games. Comparisons between the franchises are inevitable, but frankly, Divergent doesn’t make much effort to avoid them.
Sharp-shooting female protagonist? Check. Dystopian North American Fascist regime? Check. Culture of ritualized child-on-child violence? Check. A Kravitz (Zoë, following her father Lenny’s footsteps after his role in The Hunger Games)? Check.
“Divergent,” like “The Hunger Games,” opens on a teenage protagonist living in a world of muted colors and shaky camerawork. Beatrice Prior lives in Abnegation, the community service clique located in a post-apocalyptic Chicago restructured into five high school-like groups. There are the geeks (Erudite), the jocks (Dauntless), the happy hippies (Amity), and the oversharing smartasses (Candor). If you can’t keep track, don’t worry – each faction is color-coded for your convenience, outfitted in different monochromatic uniforms.
In this society, every 16-year-old must take an entrance exam involving what appear to be hallucinogenic jello shots to determine which group they belong to. But when Beatrice is tested, she fits into too many categories. She is Divergent and her test proctor (an imposing Maggie Q) tells her she must hide her condition, or else.
Or else what, you may well ask? And why? We are repeatedly told that “Divergents threaten the system” – but the movie never gives us a reason (perhaps because the book didn’t supply any answers, either), so we’re left with a conflict sans any sense of immediate danger.
Following the test, there is an ostentatious choosing ceremony, where the teens pick the faction they will belong to. This ceremony should be unnecessary, as most of them should already know where they’ll end up from the test they just took. But, as in the The Hunger Games, this ceremony exists to force the heroine to transform into an ass-kicking action lead. Accordingly, Beatrice signs up for Dauntless, the tattooed, pierced, leather-clad military faction.
Frankly, it’s surprising that more of these 16-year-olds aren’t running to join this glamorous crew.
Beatrice, rechristening herself “Tris,” undergoes the brutal Dauntless initiation training – the violence of which was toned down from the book. In Roth’s novel, a peripheral character takes a knife to the eye, the heroine is nearly sexually assaulted, and most of the trainees regularly beat each other into bloody unconsciousness.
It’s actually a pity they took it out. The random, shocking violence in the novel created an atmosphere of peril and urgency that the nearly nonexistent conflict couldn’t supply. In The Hunger Games film, the constant threat of death and bodily harm (retained from the novel) kept things interesting, even during the more banal moments. The world of Divergent feels safer, so there is less reason to care.
Divergent continues to tell us about some vague danger without showing us the threat. The movie tries to give us a good scare with a violent inter-faction coup-d’état in the fifth act, but it’s too little, too late. The movie spends plenty of time letting the characters train for a fight without giving them an occasion to use their skills. The slowness of Divergent invites this unfavorable comparison with The Hunger Games. The latter jumped into the midst of battle early on, while the former stays stuck in the training stage for far too long.
Both The Hunger Games and Divergent started out as novels that told more than they showed. Both were narrated in the present tense by their teenage protagonists. Their voices are humorless, ponderous, and sometimes irritatingly petulant.
However, when The Hunger Games author Suzanne Collins adapted her own novel for the screen, with input from Billy Ray and director Gary Ross, she made the smart decision to leave Katniss’ narrative voice out of the screenplay. In the film version of the The Hunger Games, Katniss becomes all wordless action. The character’s silence, combined with the quiet strength of her portrayer, Jennifer Lawrence, made Katniss all the more compelling.
Shailene Woodley is just as strong an actress as Lawrence, but the screenplay of Divergent does its best to undermine her. She’s forced to engage with the plodding voiceover, largely intact from the book. A sample, the very first line of the movie, drones “They say the war was terrible.”
Her dialogue is just as stilted. Her unconvincing language is a reflection of the character’s lack of motivation. Tris just doesn’t seem to have much to fight for. In any movie, especially an action film, actions matter more than words. Like its “Divergent” protagonist, this one never adheres to that mantra. The result isa film that’s all bark, and no bite.
Movie Verdict: Fail
This article was published in its original form in The Massachusetts Daily Collegian on April 9, 2014.