Now, Divergent, a film based on another international bestselling YA franchise, and which opens today at theaters area-wide, has found its own star-on-the-rise in Shailene Woodley. Woodley was a revelation of adorable-ness in last year’s The Spectacular Now. And with her performance as Tris Prior in Divergent, she rescues and then vaults a film which could have been an utter disaster.
Let me explain:
Wild success notwithstanding, Divergent-the-novel wasn’t all that great. It was written by the young, gifted storyteller Veronica Roth. (Full disclosure: I was in the Northwestern Creative Writing program with Roth a few years back, and in college she was writing solemn, super-emotional short stories about families, stories which sometimes contained children but were always for adults).
The world Divergent envisions, however, a dystopian and pretty-explicitly Orwellian future-Chicago where society is segregated into five factions based on virtues, is total kid’s stuff. The novel doesn’t withstand even surface-level scrutiny w/r/t the world’s history and politics, and it begs way more questions than it answers. The architecture of “the world” (a central task for writers of speculative fiction) is mostly gloss. Furthermore, Divergent’s central conflict, that the heroine doesn’t “fit in” with any of the factions and thereby represents a threat to society, is both cliche and confusing in context.
That said, for the plot junkies of the YA crowd (upon whose registry I’ll cheerily inscribe my own name) Divergent is a more-than-adequate fix. Its bonkers domestic sales should be evidence enough, but allow me to paint the picture more vividly: Divergent (and its sequel Insurgent) were two of less than 10 titles in translation in a bookstore in Sarajevo, Bosnia, where I stumbled upon it in the autumn of 2012, and audibly gasped. People are crazy about this series: It’s a page-turner chock-full of all the PG-13 romance and sequential low-stakes thrills we’ve come to expect from the genre.
In Divergent, though, it must be noted, the stakes are sometimes improbably — and I’d argue almost cartoonishly — high. One of the factions, “Dauntless” (the goth kids tasked with the defense of the city) assert their bravery by climbing all over skyscrapers and jumping on and off El trains, which I guess just never stop because otherwise, why the hell are they jumping? These are situations where survival is honestly a 50/50-type prospect. Death always seems like a viable outcome in many of the scenes here, and this is unsettling outside of the established narrative parameters in something like The Hunger Games, where death is the whole idea.
Case in point, the ultimate Final-Solutionish conflict of Divergent is that the implacable head of the Erudite faction — you know, the smart ones — (Kate Winslet) wants to eliminate not only the “Divergents” (people who don’t fit in) but also, via mind-control of the Dauntless foot soldiers, an entire faction at large: Abnegation, the civil servants who are all about self-sacrifice and modesty and stuff. This is what’s known as genocide.
So the book has some issues.
But one of the reasons why, in important ways, Divergent succeeds even more so than The Hunger Games as an adaptation — say what! — is that the imagination of the physical world is so much better and more complete. I cannot overstress how much I'm irritated by every scene that takes place in The Capital in the film versions of The Hunger Games. What on earth are these people wearing? Who, excuse me, decided on these dumb futuristic props? Other than Stanley Tucci’s Game-Show style interviews as Caesar Flickerman, which were superb, the whole visualization of the Capital stuck me as random, incoherent, and moreover substantively irreconcilable with the realist squalor of the outlying districts.
In Divergent, the physical world is awesome. Chicago is a striking and brutally realized setting as a recovered metropolitan hub after some nonspecific global conflict. Though the Factions’ outfits look way more like costumes than, you know, clothes, the design choices made to differentiate the various groups and their various locales seem, at the very least, to have been choices, i.e. made by a creative team.
In the best examples of YA speculative fiction — looking at you, Harry — most of those choices are already essentially pre-determined before they're adapted into movies. Because they're written. The problem with many recent entries in speculative YA is that so much emphasis is placed on plot that film directors and production designers don't have a ton to work with elsewise in the source material. As readers, we unconsciously measure the success of these books by how well the construction of their worlds are integrated in the actual forward momentum of their plots. (We measure the success of their movie versions in the same way, except a lot of the world construction doesn't need to be explained. It's just there, on screen).
In Divergent, so much of the plot is simply existing in this broad-stroke universe until something bad or specific happens. And that’s fine, except that means you’ve got Tris Prior defecting from Abnegation to Dauntless within the first ten minutes of the film, a la The Giver, and then learning warrior skills like boxing and Capture the Flag for a solid hour, under the tutelage of the dour Four (Theo James). This is like 250 pages in the book and it's a real struggle.
I’ll return, though, to the notion that Woodley rescues the film. The premise here is weaker than The Hunger games, by a pretty substantial margin. But Woodley, never mind the situations she's put in, demands that we care about her. The anxiety of choosing to abandon the Faction she grew up in, the hardship of not fitting in, the thrill and fear of falling for her superior, the thrill and fear of taking on conventions and then ALL OF SOCIETY, the pain of losing (or dispensing with) someone close to her, are all rendered in exquisite nuance and depth in Woodley's watery, wonderful eyes. This girl can act, ladies and gents. She’s got a few tear-jerking scenes which should make all of us seriously consider stocking up on tissues for The Fault in Our Stars.
Go for the production design. Stay for Woodley. And don't ask too many questions.