It’s yet another young adult fiction dystopian future fantasy turned into a film series! Divergent (2014, dir. Neil Burger) is based on the popular trilogy of novels by Veronica Roth, and stars Shailene Woodley as Tris, a special young woman with hidden abilities. Its synopsis is as follows:
In a world divided by factions based on virtues, Tris learns she’s Divergent and won’t fit in. When she discovers a plot to destroy Divergents, Tris and the mysterious Four must find out what makes Divergents dangerous before it’s too late.
I must firstly say that I haven’t read the book that this is based on, and therefore can’t comment on whether the film is a faithful interpretation of the original source material, or whether it’s a good adaptation at all. What this film has reminded me of, however, is just how easy it is to alienate viewers who watch a film and haven’t read its original source material. That is, I finally understand how people who didn’t read the Harry Potter books felt when they watched the films. Divergent starts with a big chunk of exposition about the different factions and their responsibilities and interactions, and whilst this was intriguing, it still didn’t make up for the confusion and unanswered questions that followed. For example, why does everyone want to join the faction of Dauntless, when all they seem to do is jump around on trains and get tattoos and get yelled at? Something is missing that perhaps the book is able to explain better.
It’s not that the story is flawed per se, it’s just that the storytelling doesn’t live up to its promises. It starts with a really interesting premise, but it seems like the first two thirds of the film focuses on Tris training to become a proper member of her new faction in a predictable fashion, and the final third involves a middling conflict and conclusion that almost makes you ask, “Is that it?”. I’ve read so much internet hype about the book, so many teenage girls crying abut how amazing and thrilling it is, that I can only assume that the film is a poor adaptation. Because if this is what the book is like, then people need to get on some better literature, stat. And I hate to be one of the people saying it (because many people have made the same point), but The Hunger Games is better than this.
What is great about Divergent, though, is that it gives Shailene Woodley the time and space to show off the impressive acting talents that she’s been getting so much attention for lately. Her signature acting style seems to be all about showcasing a balance between subtle moments, and raw, intense emotions. This shines through against the awkward performances around her; characters which are either poorly explored, or just awkwardly acted, such as Tris’ friend Christina who’s played by the generally deadpan-slash-emotionally-dead Zoë Kravitz. Whilst Theo James is certainly very nice to look at as stoic love interest Four, the romance element of this story is too creepy and emerges too abruptly to ever take seriously. Again, this might be better explored in the book, but it doesn’t really work here.
Divergent consists of some really stellar creative elements, and also some mediocre ones. Firstly, the costume design is fantastic, with superb attention to detail. I loved looking at the costumes of all of the factions and seeing how they differed from one another not just in terms of their general colour scheme, but also the construction of the garments that also told a story about the faction to which an individual belongs. The direction and cinematography is generally quite good, but the most visually interesting parts are the ones where Tris is confronting her fears and being tested to see which faction she should belong to. There are some really interesting camera angles and movements that make the film feel less “young adult fiction”-y and more artistic. Outside of these moments, the direction is just standard and succumbs to action film conventions that can make it feel a bit generic. Finally, the soundtrack has some really great musical choices, but during some moments of drama and/or action the music sounds like mid-2000s synth pop for some reason and it was slightly confusing.
I’ve previously spoken on this blog of something that I’ll now be calling “the vacuum test“; sometimes with a film that isn’t so good, it’s worthwhile to start cleaning the house whilst watching it, so that you don’t feel as if any time is wasted. If you have to clean the house whilst watching a film, it isn’t necessarily a good film, but at least you achieved something productive in the mean time. Whilst watching Divergent, I washed all the dishes in my kitchen sink, and then I cleaned the stove top, and then I cleaned the oven. It wasn’t until the final third of the film when I decided to start watching properly again, just in time to be kind of underwhelmed with where the film ended up.
I didn’t have too many expectations for this film so it’s difficult to say whether I was disappointed by it. I think Divergent is one of those films where if you haven’t read the original source material, it’s difficult to really ‘get’ it or understand the hype surrounding it. Shailene Woodley is quite wonderful in this, and it was interesting to see her play an action heroine as opposed to a purely emotion-led role. I just realised that I totally forgot that Kate Winslet is in this. But the fact that I haven’t mentioned her until now is a good indication of just how memorable she is. Divergent is a flawed film, but as aforementioned, if you need to get things done around the house it makes for some good background noise with an intriguing premise.
Watch the trailer here.
Watch this film on Amazon!