The film adaptation of Veronica Roth’s best-selling novel “Divergent” has received an immense amount of media hype in recent months and will finally hit theaters March 21. Following in the wake of young adult series such as “Twilight” and “The Hunger Games,” “Divergent” caters to those who don’t mind seeing their favorite characters adapted to the big screen. Like its predecessors, it quickly becomes clear that “Divergent” is intended as the first installment in a number of novel-to-film transformations that target a ravenous audience. The first film in the “Divergent” series, however, cannot stand on its own.
“Divergent” follows protagonist Tris Prior (Shailene Woodley) as she selects an identity from her futuristic society’s restrictive options of Abnegation, Candor, Amity, Erudite and Dauntless — which, in plain English, equate to the selfless, the honest, the peaceful, the intelligent and the brave, respectively. Tris cannot resist the mysterious appeal of the Dauntless and falls in love with one of her faction leaders, Four (Theo James).
Unfortunately, the film begins by bombarding the audience with information about the story’s world in a manner too overt and forced, giving the sense that the initial actions and dialogue have been contrived solely to deliver facts to the audience. While Tris is born into the Abnegation faction, she essentially expresses that she doesn’t want to be selfless. Such an awkward rejection reflects poorly on her as a protagonist and takes away from her character’s likeability.
Instances of forced dialogue translate onto the screen through the actors, who seem at the mercy of their lines throughout the film. Two characters who consistently dissolve their scripts into reality, however, are the villainous Jeanine (Kate Winslet) and the furtive tattoo artist Tori (Maggie Q). Despite her small role, Winslet delivers a solid performance and easily eclipses Woodley on screen. Woodley, in contrast, succeeds in portraying the mindset of a 16-year-old girl but is overall mediocre in her role, failing to satisfy high expectations when compared to other female protagonists in dystopian worlds such as Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss in “The Hunger Games” series.
Like “The Hunger Games,” “Divergent” is tailored to a young audience and relies on its scenes of action and innocent, young love to retain audience attention. The screenwriting, however, uses awkward, moralizing one-liners that stand out from the rest of the script, such as when Tris asserts after canoodling with Four that they need to wait before engaging in more physical forms of romance.
Despite its heavy-handed moralism, the film often struggles to convey a clear message. For example, though Tris’ mother explains, “If you don’t fit into a category, they can’t control you,” Tris happily conforms and changes herself to join a cult that self-describes as daredevils but whose members often seem more like a petty high-school clique. “Divergent” attempts to build believable character relationships but is too narrow in its vision during this process, fixating for too long on the trials and tribulations endured within Dauntless.
The most redeeming aspect of the film is its rejection of traditional female roles, for Tris and many other female characters like her mother Natalie (Ashley Judd), Jeanine, Tori and the Dauntless Molly (Amy Newbold) present a refreshing Hollywood depiction of powerful women. In fact, all the women in the Dauntless faction are tough and possess traits typically assigned to males.
Throughout the film, Tris takes a leadership role and holds her own in fight scenes against both men and women. In many instances, Tris actually saves Four’s life in an inversion of the traditional damsel-in-distress Hollywood trope. Another example of empowered female action in the film is when Tris’ middle-aged mom sheds her domestic shell to reveal a fearless woman and teams up with her daughter in a shootout against government forces. While “Divergent” is slow to start, clunky in its rising action and superfluous in its runtime of nearly two and a half hours, the film offers some redemptive symbols of female strength and independence.
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