Based on the popular young adult novel by Veronica Roth, Divergent is yet another dystopian tale staring a strong young woman. There wouldn’t necessarily be anything wrong with that if the film brings even half of the source material’s quality to the table.
When Beatrice (Shailene Woodley) finds out that she might not fit as neatly into her factioned society as she would have hoped, her life changes in some drastic ways. Learning about the world from a different viewpoint from that which she grew up with, she struggles to figure out where she belongs. That’s not easy as she comes to realize the society she used to trust may not be as simple and perfect as she used to assume it was.
Theo James, Kate Winslet, Jai Courtney, Ashley Judd, and Miles Teller costar.
The novel, despite sounding like some sort of Hunger Games ripoff, is actually quite good. It is a nuanced story that deals with themes of loyalty, consequence, responsibility, faith, right and wrong, bravery, and perhaps most importantly, selflessness. Character development is front and center, giving Beatrice (or Tris) some very complex issues to deal with that visibly shape who she is growing to be, and affect her decisions. By the end of the novel, she has been sculpted into a very real person with values, questions, strengths, weaknesses, and personality. The same can be said about most of the supporting characters as well. It’s a shame I’m not reviewing the book because now I have to tell you about a truly bad version of Tris’s story.
I wanted to like this movie. I really did. I respect Lionsgate, and thoroughly enjoyed the novel on which it is based. I like the leads. I wanted to like this movie, but it wouldn’t let me.
Throwing character development out the window, along with any sense of subtlety, the film wastes no time delving right into the plot without giving any time for the story. Like clockwork, scene after scene flies by. So much time passes, yet nothing happens. Important moments show up – often in distorted form – only to be gone the next second. The impressive scaffolding of characters and underlying themes built up in the book is torn down and whittled into neat little generic puzzle pieces that could fit into any young adult story. This film brilliantly showcases everything people find wrong with the genre – glossy romanticized violence, cheesy teen romance, generic characters, and a story that seems to only exist in order to appeal to the lowest common denominator. Filled with shots and bits of dialogue better suited to a soap opera than cinema, it is literally laughable. Seriously – the audience was in fits of giggles half the time.
When I was working for MyHungerGames I wrote a 5,200+ word essay breaking down and analyzing every bit of the first film against the source material. Most of what I had to say was extremely nit-picky, noticing things that only the most attentive “Tribute” would care about. I’m glad I am not writing for a Divergent fan site – I would have to write a novel as long as Roth’s just to discuss that countless things that were needlessly changed, left out, or added to this movie. I’ve seen a lot of bad adaptations. I watched Eragon for goodness sake. This is right down there with the worst of them. I fully understand and can accept that not everything on the page translates well to the screen. It’s a fact, and sometimes changes actually improve the story. Not so here. I can’t think of a single change here that felt like it had a good reason for existing. In favor of adding scenes that detracted from the fundamental character of the leads, character development was cut. Violence is dumbed down to the point where what should have been brutal reality seems inconsequential, romanticized, and fake. Some of the best lines are cut or butchered. The same can be said for important scenes that lose all emotional weight and become giggle inducing, or just bland instead. Divergent fans, be prepared to be disappointed again and again as the story is ripped apart and assembled again a mishmash of missing and changed pieces.
I do, of course, have to look at this from the perspective of “just a film” as well. Putting aside my opinions as a fan of the book, does this work as a movie, separate from the source? Sorry, no, it doesn’t. Overly long, it wobbles too and from boring, cheesy, cliched, and confusing. The actors, work with what they have, and the casting is actually pretty good. Visually, it’s got a good flavor to it as well, and fits nicely with what I imagined. The soundtrack is also fantastic. Most of the pieces are here, but the writing lets it down terribly. Instead of any sort of suspense or mystery, the story hits you over the head by the spoonful, making it overly obvious where everything is going before we’re even close to getting there. There is no meat or subtlety to anything, it’s all very obvious and bland.
Like I mentioned before, the violence is so watered down that a story about life and death consequences, abusive treatment, and a threatening society manages to have little to no impact on screen. There’s no reason that a film needs to be gobbed in gore, but there’s also no reason to ignore it so completely. I understand that a PG-13 rating is important here, but it falls so far below that threshold, it’s ridiculous. What is more dangerous, after all – to see someone beat to a pulp and on the threshold of death, or show a bruised cheek as the consequence of such a confrontation? It loses all impact.
Based on such a compelling story, sure, the film still has some draw and will appeal to a certain crowd – most of whom probably didn’t bother to read the book, or did but only care about seeing certain scenes and characters realized on the big screen, regardless of quality or context. It’s got enough throwaway popcorn appeal to satisfy a less discerning audience, but the comparisons to The Hunger Games will soon go away as it is compared to something much less desirable. Maybe Twilight. But that might be giving it too much credit.
Mrs. Hamster says:
“It’s like someone read the CliffsNotes of the book, forgot half of them, and then wrote this screenplay.”
My rating (subtract one if you are a Divergent fan): Two out of five hats
Divergent rises in 3,936 theaters, March 21