Director Neil Burger obviously would belong to the Dauntless faction if he existed in Veronica Roth’s Divergent world. Young adult franchises haven’t performed well at the box office recently and other than the current Hunger Games franchise, it’s tough to point out a young adult adaptation that satisfied both fans of the source material and moviegoers whose only knowledge of the make believe world on the screen came from trailers and clips supplied by a movie studio. Sure, Twilight made a ton of money but the majority of that was due to Twihards going to multiple screenings and dragging along family members/significant others. That tidy sum Summit Entertainment made off the sparkling vampire series certainly wasn’t due to critics promoting the movie or to the average male moviegoer suddenly deciding to cast his vote (via his wallet) for Team Edward or Team Jacob.
With the release of Divergent, Summit’s hoping to end the string of young adult box office failures by appealing to Roth’s readers as well as action and/or sci-fi movie junkies of both sexes and all ages. The dystopian world Roth created certainly isn’t meant solely for a female audience, and getting that message out was one of the major challenges of the film’s pre-release advertising campaign. Divergent, the book series and the film, centers on a strong, independent female character played by Shailene Woodley who surrounds herself with like-minded individuals intent on rebelling against the authorities over the span of three books. And it’s those supporting players, led by Theo James as Four, who are in large part responsible for drawing in the male audience.
In a nutshell, Divergent is set in a future in which Chicago’s walled off from the world and inside those walls people live in factions. Those factions reflect the main personality traits of their members, and in the first film of the series the three factions most in play in the story are Abnegation made up of people who live to serve; the Erudite faction consisting of the intellectuals; and the Dauntless faction with members who would feel right at home in Sylvester Stallone’s Expendables film franchise. The Dauntless are brave, strong, into fighting, shooting, knife-throwing, and Parkour. They’re this walled-off Chicago’s security force.
At 16, each member of the community must decide which faction they will belong to for the remainder of their lives. Most stick with the community they grew up in, but some switch to factions that better reflect their personalities and attitudes. They’re helped along in the decision process by the administration of a special test which should indicate where they belong. Beatrice ‘Tris’ Prior (Woodley) is a faction-switcher, choosing Dauntless over Abnegation after being told by the test administrator, Tori (Maggie Q), that her results were inconclusive. Tris is confused as she’s never heard of an inconclusive test result and further disturbed when Tori tells her she’s Divergent and that she must keep that fact a secret from everyone – including her family.
Once in the Dauntless compound, Tris makes friends with other new initiates and finds herself drawn to her fighting trainer, Four (Theo James). There’s something different about Four that sets him apart from the other leaders of Dauntless and Tris soon learns she’s not the only Dauntless member guarding a secret.
Divergent would be dead in the water if it weren’t for the superb job of casting that director Neil Burger did with the leads and supporting players (including Zoe Kravitz, Kate Winslet, Miles Teller, Christian Madsen, Ben Lloyd-Hughes, and Mekhi Phifer). Shailene Woodley is already an indie darling following starring turns in The Descendants and The Spectacular Now, but Divergent marks her entry into mainstream Hollywood films. Woodley is more Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games than Kristen Stewart in Twilight both in character and in acting ability, and her Tris is basically Veronica Roth’s Tris come to life on the screen. Fans of the book series should embrace her performance as she delivers a fully-rounded, fully fleshed-out Tris. At 22, she’s older than the book’s Tris, but that’s about the only negative mark on her attachment to the film series and it’s certainly not jarring enough to take fans of the book out of the film version. James, at 29, is slightly too old to be her love interest but their chemistry is solid enough to make the ages a non-issue.
Burger does an impressive job of delivering the action scenes, although he doesn’t make them nearly as brutal as described by Roth in her debut novel. The sets, costumes, makeup, and overall look and tone of Divergent adhere faithfully to Roth’s descriptions. From the major Ferris Wheel scene to the zip line strung from high rise rooftops, Divergent the movie is a close match to the book. Some characters and scenes have been omitted, most likely to keep the film at a manageable running time, which, at two and a half hours still runs a good 15 minutes or so too long. And that leads to the one real complaint I have about Divergent: the pacing over the first half of the film is too sluggish. It’s imperative the story be set up and the world of Divergent be explained, but it’s done a little too thoroughly.
Pacing issues aside, Divergent should satisfy fans of the book series while allowing moviegoers unfamiliar with Roth’s books to understand the world she created and which Burger faithfully delivered to the big screen.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for intense violence and action, thematic elements and some sensuality
Release Date: March 21, 2014