“Divergent” made an impressive $56 million during its opening weekend, easily leaving recent YA adaptation box office flops “Beautiful Creatures” and “The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones” trailing forlornly in the dust. Adapted from Veronica Roth’s “Divergent” trilogy, the film has been hotly anticipated as the potential successor to the colossal “The Hunger Games” trilogy. There are indeed certain cursory similarities. “Divergent” is set in a futuristic dystopian Chicago in which society is divided by personality type into five distinct factions. “The Hunger Games” is set in a similarly post-apocalyptic United States, in which an autocratic ‘Capitol’ presides over twelve sharply divided districts. Yet while “The Hunger Games” revolves around a teenaged heroine, it never feels like it can merely be enjoyed and appreciated by the very age group it portrays. The idea of a reality program in which children fight to the death as a punishment for their parents’ insurrection is both clever and disturbing; its uncanny parallels with our reality-obsessed society can be appreciated by people of all ages. The premise of “Divergent” is much less inventive. The surviving population of Chicago is separated into factions: Dauntless (the brave), Erudite (the smart), Amity (the peaceful), Candor (the honest) and Abnegation (the selfless). This form of cataloging taps into our obsession with self-categorization and self-analysis, attested to by the sheer volume of ‘Which (insert anything here) are you?’ quizzes on Buzzfeed. To this day I have friends discussing which Hogwarts house they’d be sorted into, or even whether they’d be a House Stark or a House Lannister if they lived in Westeros. Indeed there’s now even a Buzzfeed quiz for “Divergent” fans – see http://www.buzzfeed.com/ariellecalderon/which-divergent-faction-do-you-actually-belong-in (I was Abnegation: apparently if I was Tris I’d have stayed safely in my faction and there’d be no story to tell).
But (spoiler) some people don’t fit neatly into one category. These people are ‘divergent’. So the film has a very simply premise with a very simple message: people are complicated and conformity is bad. Criticisms of the plot’s basis aside, my reaction to watching much of “Divergent” can be summarized by this gif…
The film was entertaining and easy to watch. Despite its 139 minute running time, it didn’t feel particularly bloated or inclusive of superfluous material. The extended time meant the film was able to develop the central relationship and flesh out the protagonists’ characters realistically. The hamminess and simplicity of the plot itself was countered by the fun of self-insertion into the narrative. (What faction would I be in? What would my fear landscape look like?) The charisma of, and chemistry between, the two leads really anchored the film and more than made up for the unremarkable story and the vaguely tedious climax. Shailene Woodley proved her acting chops in “The Descendants” a couple of years ago and she proves them again here as the Abnegation-turned-Dauntless sixteen year old Tris Prior. She manages to deliver some fairly cheesy lines with a straight face (which is more than can be said for the cast of “Twilight”) and, like Jennifer Lawrence, is able to convey conflicting emotions and thoughts, described in detail using the first person narrative in the source material, with just a facial expression. I wasn’t sure about Theo James as the semi-Byronic Four when I first heard the casting news but he turned out to be more than a match for Woodley. Just look at the angst and intensity!
“Divergent” is definitely flawed and, superficial comparisons aside (strong female lead, dystopian setting), it’s definitely no “The Hunger Games”. It is, however, a highly gratifying experience if you try not to compare it to anything that’s come before it. Masquerading as an action piece, it’s effectively a straightforward and slightly hokey romance and coming-of-age story centered around a futuristic sorting hat. And I’m looking forward to the next helping in March 2015.