In the beginning there was Harry Potter, a coming-of-age fantasy about finding one’s identity along a path filled with angels and demons. Then came the atmospheric melodrama Twilight, with a strong female protagonist divided by love and loyalty, ushering in the era of the 12-22-year-old female fantasy series.
The Hunger Games moved Twilight’s teenage-girl-and-two-hunky-suitors formula into a dystopian future with a clever satire on reality television. Neil Burger’s film, Divergent, based on the first book of Veronica Roth’s trilogy, is a pale copy of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and rushes through the ample novel too quickly to mask its contrived Sci-fi concept.
One hundred years after an unspecified war, Chicago has maintained peace by dividing the population into four communities or factions. Abnegation is for the selfless and runs the government. Erudite are the intelligent faction producing doctors and researchers, while Amity, the peaceful faction, are farmers. Candor can tell no lies while Dauntless, are both the police and the guardians of the borders.
There is, however, no mention of what has happened in the USA beyond the border. At 16, a person can choose their adult faction, aided by a simulation guidance test. Sticking needles into people’s necks to induce them into a simulation is very popular activity here.
On her simulation test, Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodly), who comes from a staunch, but loving, Abnegation family, registers somewhere between Abnegation and Dauntless. This makes her Divergent which means she is a troublemaker (read non-conformist and fair-minded). She is advised to keep the result a secret, even from her parents.
At the Choosing Ceremony Beatrice chooses Dauntless and, changing her name to Tris, masters the challenges thrown at her, including living in a co-ed dormitory. Her wit and courage, not to mention her test results, attract the attention of revered trainer Four, a handsome, fearless 18-year-old with secrets of his own. There’s no hope for Al, the gentle giant who has a crush on her.
As Tris and Four discover love, they also discover an Erudite plot, led by the brilliant scientist Janine (Kate Winslett), to manipulate Dauntless into staging a coup against Abnegation. The teenagers’ courage, skills and relationship are put to the test as they single-handedly try to frustrate the sinister plan.
Neil Burger (Limitless) is a decent director, but he grapples with a listless script by Evan Daugherty (Snow White and the Huntsman, The Killing Season) and the usually witty and insightful Vanessa Taylor (HopeSprings). On the positive side, Tris Prior actually looks like her parents (a strong performance from Ashley Judd and Andrew Goldwyn).
On the other hand, Tris bears no resemblance to the character described in the novel as short, short-legged, flat-chested and unattractive. The producers were clearly more interested in finding someone who resembled Hunger Games’ star Jennifer Lawrence. While Woodley (the Descendants) might lack Lawrence’s prodigious talent, she and her handsome co-star Theo James are the best things in the film. Kate Winslett isn’t given the material to pose a serious challenge to Glen Close as the best female villain over 35.
The characters are so scantily drawn that even Tris struggles to match the impact of Kristen Stewart and Lawrence. Along with the detail of her many initiation challenges, she loses the first person voice that helped define her in the novel and allow young readers to identify with her. She fares better than her rivals, friends and leaders, however, who are all glossed over to the point of being one-dimensional clogs.
In The Hunger Games, the Orwellian future is just about believable but here, where all the factions intermingle at the Choosing Ceremony and live in a confined space, it’s impossible to believe that this contrived, artificial system would be sustained. You might as well put all Aquarians in the government as to expect communities to conform to a personality trait, such as selfless.