Courtesy of Summit Entertainment
The young adult novel film adaption genre is over-saturated, and while some of it is quite good (Harry Potter, Hunger Games), on the whole, these are unremarkable and easily forgotten films cashing in on a fad that already feels like it is waning.
Enter Divergent, an adaption of the first book in Veronica Roth’s dystopian young adult novel series. In a post-apocalyptic world, the remnants of humanity have divided into different factions based around five personality traits: selflessness, honesty, kindness, bravery, and intelligence.
At the age of 16, right before choosing to stick with their birth faction or abandon it for another more suitable one (an act seen as fratricidal), faction members take a test that tells them what faction best suits them. Beatrice (Shailene Woodley) is a member of Abnegation, selflessness, who feels like an outsider there, and when she takes the test and it turns up inconclusive, or “divergent,” all she remains certain of is that she does not belong where she is. Tris chooses to join bravery, and goes through the rigorous training of the faction while a revolution begins to reveal itself.
In the barest outlines, Divergent sounds similar to The Hunger Games: a strong female protagonist, who is part of a crumbling dystopian future, becomes a leader of a resistance movement. But The Hunger Games is a superior film—Divergent feels less realized, and short on a precise feeling for time, place, atmosphere and character. It also lacks the resonance and subtext of Hunger Games. Divergent’s biggest flaw is its unfortunately slavish devotion to its source material. Much of what made the book compelling translates poorly to the screen, especially when conceived with high levels of literalism and without concern for the given strengths of a visual medium. The film will please any devoted fans of the books, but for those who have no passion for the fandom, the film is consistently clunky and patchy. This is not to say it is bad; it is competent and even fairly entertaining. But it is also just a bit bland and unremarkable.
Make no mistake though: Woodley is one of the finest young talents currently working, but she can only make this story so compelling. At every turn, Woodley subtly and superbly suggests the complex inner life of Tris, and she always seems to be acting like she is in a far deeper, more thoughtful film. The film is content to check off boxes and, in the process, loses sight of its greatest asset, the element that made Divergent such an interesting work in the first place; Tris is a meek, shy person who has internalized aspects of her personality for so long. Her sense of self-discovery, her kick-ass path to being who she wants to be, is what matters, not any glitzy sci-fi, teen-lit or blockbuster designs.
The new route to stardom for up-and-coming young starlets is through big young adult blockbusters and we can only hope that this leads to far more challenging and meaningful films for Woodley. She is committed and captivating, even when everything around her is not.