Divergent is the latest in a long line of young adult novels to be adapted into films, with the hopes of spawning a lucrative film franchise for Lionsgate. Sure enough, the sequel, Insurgent, has already been greenlit for release next year after a successful opening weekend.
Both Veronica Roth’s novel (the first of three in a series, followed by Insurgent and Allegiant) and its adaptation follow Beatrice Prior (later known as Tris), a teenage girl living in dystopian Chicago some time in the future. The world experienced a great war, and Chicago quarantined itself, building a fence and splitting its citizens into five factions in which they could use their natural talents/personalities to serve the good of society. The factions are Amity (peaceful farmers), Candor (honest to a fault), Erudite (knowledge seekers), Dauntless (the brave) and Abnegation (the selfless leaders). Beatrice and her family belong to Abnegation.
Beatrice has reached the age where each of the society’s young-folk must be given an aptitude test before deciding which faction they will belong to for the rest of their lives. They can choose to stay with their families in the faction they were born into, or move to another faction and lose contact with their families forever.
Beatrice takes her test, but her results are inconclusive, making her a threat to society. Individuals who don’t get a clear result in the aptitude test are known as “divergent” — they have traits of multiple factions, Beatrice’s being Abnegation, Erudite and Dauntless. She must choose which faction she will join, face the consequences of that decision and keep the fact that she is divergent a secret in order to save her own life.
I have not been a die-hard fan of Veronica Roth’s book series — in fact, I only read the first book last week! I was curious about the film, and decided I couldn’t see it without reading the book first.
The novel took me a couple of chapters to get into, but by the time I got about a third of the way through it, I couldn’t put it down. I ended up pulling an all-nighter to finish reading it — something that is common practice for me, as an avid reader who finds it hard to stick to the “Just one more chapter!” rule before I go to sleep. I got completely sucked into the series and finished all three books within a week.
I expected Divergent to be a typical young adult dystopian novel with cliche characters, lots of action, some sort of government corruption conspiracy, and a sappy love triangle. The novel does fit well into its genre, with a teenage girl playing a significant role in a major societal shift as the government collapses upon itself. Much to my relief, though there is a romance in the book, the “two angst-y dudes fighting over heroine” trope is avoided.
I quite enjoy the main character of Tris in the novel. She’s strong, but vulnerable. She has a relationship with Four, but it isn’t a relationship that her life completely depends upon. (It’s a part of her story, not the whole.) All of the novel’s characters are believably written for the world they live in and interesting to read.
The world itself that Roth has built is intriguing as well. She focuses on a single city, divided from the rest of the country, leaving the reader wondering what’s lurking outside of Chicago’s gates. Is the rest of the country running business-as-usual? Has the whole country been divided into guarded, isolated cities of factions? These are some of the questions that drive the whole series of novels, eventually being answered in the third book, Allegiant. The first installment focuses largely on Tris’ initiation into the faction she chooses and the beginnings of her society’s breakdown.
After reading the novel, my excitement for the film increased. Mild interest became true anticipation. And luckily, the film didn’t let me down!
I was impressed by the performances in this film across the board. Shailene Woodley exceeded my expectations as Tris, and she has good chemistry with Theo James, who plays Four. It’s also very fun to see Kate Winslet play the villain, Erudite leader Jeanine Matthews. She doesn’t get a whole lot of screen time in Divergent, but she’ll play a somewhat larger role in Insurgent, which I’m excited to see, and her role has been expanded in this first installment from what it was in the book. Her scenes with Woodley are some of the film’s best.
There are a number of differences between the film and the novel. Some scenes are left out, but none too pivotal. Some characters have been marginalized or removed. I mourn the loss of Uriah and wonder whether(/hope that) they’ll introduce him in the second film, seeing as he played a larger role in the second and third novels. But on the opposite side of the coin, I was slightly relieved that no eye-stabbing was involved thanks to the marginalization of Edward.
The film runs at nearly two and a half hours as it is, so it’s easy to see why changes had to be made. The novel is packed, and to create a scene-by-scene adaptation would lead the film to be at least three hours long, if not longer. In a perfect world, I would have liked to see the complex dynamic of Tris’ relationship with Christina preserved in the film and more antagonism between the initiates, as there was in the novel (still minus eye-stabbing, though, because I personally have a zero tolerance for scenes of eye injury). These were the only real problems I had with the changes made from page to screen, and on the whole I thought the adaptation was well-done.
The pace of the story is preserved, with Tris’ initiation taking up the majority of the film’s running time, and much more action kicking in near the end as the society begins to fall apart. The story grips the viewer throughout, though without a doubt the most thrilling scenes occur fairly late in the film.
Just as I finished the first novel dying to read the second, I left this film anxious for the next installment, which we now have to wait a whole year to see! Insurgent is my favorite book in Veronica Roth’s series of novels, so I’m very excited to see it translated for the screen.
Though fans of the book series will likely get more enjoyment out of seeing Tris’ story brought to life, Divergent is an entertaining watch for those unfamiliar with the story as well.* The mixed-at-best critical response has missed the mark on this one, discounting a solid adaptation and a solid film in its own right. The score: 4.5/5
*My dad, who never has and probably never will read the books, can attest to this. I dragged him along to see the film with me and he enjoyed it a lot, though he says his favorite adaptation from the past year of a book he hasn’t read is still The Book Thief, haha.