With the recent success of the Hunger Games franchise, Hollywood has been quick to try and find the next line of YA novels that will bring them an even bigger pile of money. That sad line of thinking has brought us “Vampire Academy”, “City of Bones: The Mortal Instruments”, “Beautiful Creatures” and, coming later in 2014, “The Maze Runner”.
Though better than those listed above, “Divergent” is the latest YA film to come up short against Katniss Everdeen.
“Divergent” is the story of Tris (Shailene Woodley), a young girl who lives in a dystopian Chicago separated into factions of people. At the age of 16, all children are tested to see which faction best suits their personality. Since this is an attempt to control the population rather than create a better society, those who don’t fall neatly into one category are labeled as Divergent and are dangerous to the powers that be.
After inconclusive testing points her in the direction of Divergent, Tris joins up with the Dauntless faction, a group of daredevil soldiers. The rest of the film pertains to her training there under the leadership of Four (Theo James) and Eric (Jai Courtney). The further she gets into training, the more she realizes how dangerous being Divergent is and how important it is for her status as such to remain secret.
Most of the problems with “Divergent” can be traced back to its source material and author Veronica Roth. The book itself is plagued by pacing issues that the film tries to fix by changing nearly every scene in some shape or form. Many of these changes, like the film’s finale, are for the better but book purists may be a little disappointed. One of the most noticeable things about the film is how strictly Neil Burger enforces the PG-13 rating on the book’s material. In order to make the film as light as possible, Burger and writers Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor cut out much of the weight of the book and, as a result, lessen the stakes. Several characters are killed or maimed in the Dauntless training process in the book, but the film shows almost none of this.
As you can probably tell, I’m not the biggest fan of the book. It isn’t terrible by any means, but there are much better books out there that cover similar topics. In the case of “Divergent”, mediocre source material makes for a mediocre script. The main problem with both the film and the book is that this story feels like an introduction to a series rather than a first installment. Compared to “The Hunger Games” or “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”, “Divergent” doesn’t really have a narrative to call its own. It’s simply a prequel, a teaser.
What makes the film worth watching are the talented young actors onscreen and the world that they interact in. Woodley and Miles Teller made a lot of headlines last year with “The Spectacular Now” (and rightfully so) and Jai Courtney is slowly moving up the ranks of young action stars with roles in films like “Jack Reacher” and next year’s “Terminator: Genesis”. Throw in a couple of veteran actors like Kate Winslet and Ashley Judd and you’ve got something to work with.
Though it still leaves much to be desired, “Divergent” is a marked improvement over most of today’s YA novel adaptations. Time will tell if the series picks up from here, but feel free to let time pass before seeing this one.