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Divergent

March 21, 2014

A lot has been said about the Divergent trilogy in terms of the books, the way they’re written, their author, and so on and so forth. Most of what is said about the trilogy isn’t necessarily good, though it is exceedingly popular despite highly critical reviews and angry assholes shouting about it on the internet. I recently read the series, and I feel the need to share that I was not necessarily pleased. The first book actually did suck me in and I was greatly enjoying it until it takes a turn in the third act and things seem to stop making much sense. The second book kept me going on the promise that all of the many questions regarding its setting would be answered and the third book…

Well, the third book had me repeating the MST3K mantra.

Of course, a book’s quality doesn’t necessarily imply anything about its adaptation. In fact, my expectations regarding this movie picked up after reading an interview with Neil Burger (its director) yesterday in which he described some of the choices he made, and the things he fought for. Most important in my opinion was his decision to film in Chicago, because if he didn’t I think something would have been irrevocably lost. Those of you who aren’t familiar with this quirky YA phenomenon are probably wondering, what is Divergent about?

The film follows Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley, who will be all of the young female protagonists in all movies) as she confronts her pseudo-dystopic society in a seemingly post-apocalyptic Chicago. I say pseudo-dystopic because the society as presented functions quite well, people are separated into one of five factions based on qualities they believe to be important, with the factionless (people who don’t fit) providing an ‘untouchable’ caste to help the society function. Following a mental simulation to determine which faction she fits into best, Beatrice learns she is ‘Divergent’ someone who doesn’t fit easily into society.

Already dissatisfied with her place in Abnegation, a faction obsessed with selflessness, she joins Dauntless, a faction of brave daredevils and soldiers. Dauntless initiation is brutal, made more difficult by her distant yet later we learn tragic instructor Four (Theo James) and the ruthless sadistic leader Eric (Jai Courtney), but through hard work and montage scenes she starts to persevere. Not all is as it seems though, and tensions between Abnegation (the de facto leaders of their society) and Erudite (the researchers/scientists) threaten to boil over into full scale conflict with Dauntless being used as pawns.

In some ways, I feel like the film lost a lot of the book’s early charm. If there’s one thing Veronica Roth did well it was digging into the mindset and day-to-day minutia of Tris (the name Beatrice takes on joining her new faction) during Dauntless initiation. It helped sell the chemistry between Tris and Four a bit more, since Four is basically every brooding male lead in a genre fiction anime, but Woodley and James have enough on screen chemistry to let it slide. While the film might have sacrificed some of the book’s charm, it did tighten the story, fix one of the most glaring of plot holes, and make the ending seem more triumphant and less “this is clearly the first book, stick with me here, guys.”

Neil Burger does a fantastic job as director. He clearly cared about doing the source material justice, and while I might not agree with all of his choices (I thought the Dauntless were more Punk Rock and less Farscape Peacekeeper) I think his dedication really shines through. Even if it only shines through in the colors blue and orange. The score was a little predictable at times with some strange forays into electronic rock tracks that I found somewhat distracting but not necessarily at odds with what was happening. The performances are solid, and I think the parts were well casted.

Sadly some of the dialogue was God awful at times but then again that can be laid as much at the source material’s feet as it can be the screenwriters. The books aren’t as terrible as my rage while reading the last two makes me wish they were, but I don’t think anyone can say they’re perfect. They’re solid first showings for Ms. Roth and she should be proud of them, but some of their flaws were dealt with in the film while others got amplified.

Fans of the books will be supremely satisfied with this film, but I think if Summit was expecting another Twilight or the “surprise” success of The Hunger Games they will most likely be disappointed. The box office will still be good, and the movie is enjoyable but I’d be surprised if it became a runaway hit. Ultimately, your mileage is going to vary on this movie, but I can say that it was better than I was expecting and I enjoyed it a bit more than the book.

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