Set in Chicago, supposedly post-apocalypse but really not that different, society in Divergent is extremely caste-based. The five castes are divided by key personality characteristics, and each group has a role in running the city — the brave ones are the military police, the selfless ones govern, and so on. At age 16, children are given a fucked up Myers Briggs test to determine which caste they should go into, then told to completely disregard the results and “Choose who they really are” with absolutely no do-overs or take-backs. If the children have more than one personality trait — because really, who needs depth of character? — they are deemed “divergent.”
“Divergents” are a threat to “the system.” Don’t ask why.
The film follows Beatrice “Tris” Prior (Shailene Woodley) through this process and into the Dauntless, the military police caste. Prior’s test indicated she had three, count em three! strong personality traits, which is apparently a bad thing. Prior goes through naturalization into Dauntless society, watched over by Four (Theo James), who just won’t stop singing “Somehow I’ll Make a Man Out of You.” While a real movie would make this into a montage, Divergent takes this as its main body and shoehorns a big-kid plot in at the end.
Divergent is proof positive that a bad first act can render the rest of a movie worthless. The first 30-to-45 minutes of this movie are biblically awful. Narration is used extensively, not as a storytelling device but as a replacement for acting, dialogue and other key subjects of theatre 101. It is confusing jumble of images and simple sentences that might begin to make sense if the viewer read the book. Even if the viewer hasn’t read it, it’s easy to tell how much information is being glossed over and when.
Writers Evan Daughtery and Vanessa Taylor and director Neil Burger prove themselves incapable of handling the material, and Woodley is either weak or incapable of carrying the weight of a production no one should have had to star in, probably the latter.
The second and third acts get better, but not by much. The inescapable feeling that this whole thing should be a montage pervades the film. Moments from the book will draw cheers from fans, but that’s about all it’s good for.
The nudity of the film’s and book’s appeal to an audience that really just wants to read and watch The Hunger Games again is astounding. This franchise gets closer than any other to breaking the fourth wall in telling the story every action story tells — “The world is a lie and you are the most important person in that world.” There’s nothing wrong with falling into that pattern, but there is a problem with doing so for its own sake.
It’s not ethical to pass judgment on a book without reading it, so I won’t. But, assuming the book is good in its own right and not just riding the coattails of Twilight hoping to sell movie rights, somewhere between page and screen, something went very badly wrong. Nothing about the diagesis makes any sense. “Divergents” are a threat to “the system.” Why? Why are people categorized the way they are? The lie they live under would be better than nothing. What are the Dauntless protecting Chicago from, exactly? Is the audience honestly expected to believe that, in a city of thousands, having more than one core value is an extreme rarity? In the end of the third book it’s all made clear, but more than 1,000 pages before that, does the book Divergent leave these questions hanging?
The truism that the book is always better comes into play, but that truism is irrelevant. Film is a different medium, and filmmakers are responsible for conveying information in a different way. If they are incapable of doing so, they should not make films.
This franchise is the latest that follows in Harry Potter’s turbulent wake, and this one more than any other reveals a disturbing and hypocritical obsession with categorization. Hogwarts has its housing system, grouping wizards as either courageous, proud, clever or complacent, though the series does a very good job of not allowing these traits to define every character.
In Twilight, characters are defined by their vampirism, lycanthropy or muggle-hood. The Hunger Games splits its characters into a caste system, though this is primarily economic. Divergent’s entire plot centers around which category its characters fall under. In addition to Twilight, The Mortal Instruments and Percy Jackson series carry on the annoying concept of muggles.
Divergent’s theme, and the other series’ themes to a far lesser degree, centers around individuality and breaking out of stereotypes, but those stupid little Facebook quizzes still only give you one Hogwarts house. The truth is if you give humans a set of categories, they will scramble to arrange themselves into those groups. The truth is, these series demonize individuality more than they lionize it, and Divergent takes this to the greatest extreme.
Joshua Knopp is a formerly professional film critic, licensed massage therapist, journalism and film student at the University of North Texas and a senior staff writer for the NT Daily. Man, Honda is really pushing that vaccum. For questions, rebuttals and further guidance about cinema, you can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. At this point, I’d like to remind you that you shouldn’t actually go to movies and form your own opinions. That’s what I’m here for.