Given the unprecedented success of The Twilight Saga and The Hunger Games (2012), is it any wonder studios are now mining the entire young adult catalog for sci-fi fantasy novels to adapt? In little over a year, we saw the release of Beautiful Creatures (2013), The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones (2013), The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013), Vampire Academy (2014), and now Divergent, all based on hit series comprising at least three entries, all written by female authors for a female audience, and all starring introverted teenage girls destined to change the world as they discover their true selves.
Give credit where credit is due: rather than repeat the same formula over and over again, the bigwigs at Lionsgate have made a point of emphasising what makes each of their licensed properties unique. Twilight (2008), for example, explores exclusively the romance between Edward and Bella, while The Hunger Games pertains more to political intrigue and Jennifer Lawrence’s charisma. It would’ve been easy for Divergent to highlight the same elements, as all (save for Lawrence) are featured in Veronica Roth’s novel. Instead, director Neil Burger focuses on the world in which her story takes a place, a complex society that divides its citizens in accordance with their psychological aptitudes.
Nowadays, it seems every piece of science fiction in Hollywood has to be set in a dystopian future. Divergent bucks the trend, depicting a word order that, while imperfect, presents some distinct advantages over our own. Before entering the work force, all adolescents are asked to undergo a dream-like personality test to determine which of five factions they should join: Abnegation, where the selfless offer social services; Erudite, where the intellectuals develop new technology; Candor, where the forthright handle legislation; Amity, where the peaceful farm the land (I don’t get it either); and Dauntless, where the brave provide military defense. In other words, every citizen is given a purpose adapted to his or her predisposition, guaranteeing both productivity and job satisfaction.
The problem lies in the segregation of the different factions, which fosters resentment as their respective values grow further and further apart. Even leadership is consigned to a single group: Abnegation, whose standards can’t be quantified, leading Erudite to suspect government corruption. The solution to this strikes me as glaringly obvious: form a council with a representative from each culture at its head. Perhaps future instalment will address the notion, but, for now, Divergent centers on the one question on every teen’s mind: what happens to those who don’t conform to either personality type?
Tris Prior (Shailene Woodley) is one such child. Raised in selfless Abnegation but eager for self-discovery, she joins self-sacrificing Dauntless, hoping to find the mysterious test administrator (Maggie Q) who hid her inconclusive results. Like Ender’s Game (2013), Divergent then spends most of its runtime at training camp, catering to an audience still in school, but I was riveted just the same by the details of this cruel but caring community made up of adrenaline junkies, the way, for example, drill instructor and hunky heartthrob Four (Theo James) intellectualises their values to help our heroine avoid suspicion. I only wish as much care had been put in the third act, which involves a conspiracy to have one faction destroy another by way of hackneyed symbolism.
I generally dislike fables about the evils of conformity. True, thinking outside the box makes it easier to improve the system, but anyone who’s worked with first-year film students knows how little gets accomplished when everyone’s trying to reinvent the wheel. In fairness, Divergent seems to understand this, portraying those who willingly toe the line as thoughtful, dynamic individuals from whom our heroine can learn. Even the baddie proves earnest in her cause, making valid points about the festering corruption in Abnegation’s leadership. The film eventually cheats, though, by giving Divergents magical nonconformist powers that don’t relate to anything you’d find in the real world. I mean, so what if Tris is immune to some made-up brainwashing serum?
I’m more interested in her thought processes, the way, for instance, our heroine rationalises shooting a former acquaintance, amusingly played by the love of her life (Miles Teller) in The Spectacular Now (2013): “Every minute we waste, five more people die, and another becomes a killer!” Notice how Tris incorporates, in this one sentence, all five core values of the factions, showcasing her intellectual flexibility rather than her originality. Maybe I’m playing semantics with the otherwise engaging themes of Divergent. Maybe I’m pointing out Lionsgate’s new recipe for success.