Young adult dystopian romances. They’re everywhere. Hollywood has been throwing these things at us since the success of The Hunger Games, and maybe even before that. None of them seem to come close to The Hunger Games series, but at least we can say they try. Or at least they try to earn enough money. What makes them so distinct from each other? The Hunger Games conveys an interesting commentary on society and politics. Yes, it has a YA romance sideline and yes, it involves three people. So what? At least that series knows what it wants to do, as the second film forcibly made clear. Now we arrive at Divergent, based on, you guessed it, a YA romance novel. But don’t fret too much. Once you get past the Hunger Games similarities (similarities, not duplicates) and the formulaic romance side-plot, you may just find yourself intrigued, and even entertained by the world author Veronica Roth has set up.
Roth’s first novel in this trilogy was released in 2011, and it was only a matter of time before Hollywood got its hands on it. And for good reason. I found the novel to be a very good, fast paced, and non stop thrill ride. Perfect material for a motion picture. Roth serves as an executive producer on the movie, and some would say it hardly shows. The film takes certain turns that some would say should have stayed faithful to the books. and by “some would say,” I’m referring to the fans of the book. And it’s a bit understandable. However, I feel that if straying from the book makes the movie more entertaining, go for it. I don’t feel that’s the case here. I’m by no means outraged that certain changes were made, but I understand the fans. The movie would have had the same affect on me either way.
Shailene Woodley, fresh off her critically acclaimed but Oscar snubbed performance in The Spectacular Now, takes on the role of Tris Prior with an iron fist, giving a very good performance. This is the second of three YA books adaptations to star Woodley in a matter of a year. The first being The Spectacular Now and the third being the upcoming The Fault in our Stars. Looks like she’s the quite the hit with the young adult crowd. In Divergent, the first few scenes were rough to adjust to, as I felt her acting seemed a bit uncomfortable and forced, but as the film progressed, she adjusted and became something special. Jennifer Lawrence has the upper hand right now as Katniss Everdeen, but I’ll say this: there’s a dramatic scene that includes crying in the finale of the film that proved Woodley to be a better handler of the emotional material than Lawrence. She actually brought me to tears with her acting in that scene. Watch out for this girl, she could reach Katnsis level as these films progress. Unfortunately, there isn’t much to talk about in regard to those supporting her. Her Spectacular Now co-star Miles Teller has some fun as Peter, who serves a bit of a bully to her character, which was fun to watch. Kate Winslet is thrown in the mix and given virtually nothing to do. Ray Stevenson, whom you may know from Thor: The Dark World or the seventh season of Dexter, is just standing around most of the time. Theo James is the main supporting star for this film, and it’s a bit unfortunate that he serves to be wooden. Not as a character, because I loved him in the book, but I didn’t feel what I thought I should have from Theo James. Hopefully it’s something like a Peeta situation where Hutcherson improved immensely in Catching Fire. I would like to care about Tobias more.
Writing is where this movie has most of its flaws. Compared to most movies in this genre, it has very interesting ideas and it is much better than the others. However, it still struggles and sometimes almost suffocates under the YA romance movie cliches. As far as the story goes, I was on board. In a post apocalyptic Chicago, society is divided into five factions, each holding individuals with the same personalities. Tris Prior’s day has come to be inducted into one of the factions (think of the Sorting Hat in Harry Potter, except this induction test only serves a recommendation, so those tested have the right to choose. Weird, right? I know. Just roll with it.) When Tris discovers she is “Divergent,” a rare breed that doesn’t belong in any one particular faction, she must keep it a secret because officials are hunting down Divergents. Why? I won’t dare spoil it, but it makes the third act of the film riveting. Up until then, there’s the script to deal with, which includes some cheesy dialogue you would hear on a show airing on the CW (don’t take it personally Arrow; I love you!) The romantic cliches are abundant, but once the third act kicks in, I was okay to look past it. I started to like the idea of where these characters are going, and given that I haven’t yet read Insurgent, I really don’t know what awaits these characters. Looks like it’s time to read it.
FINAL THOUGHTS: Divergent is one of the few post-apocalyptic-YA-romance-novel-turned-movies that is actually good. Not tremendous, and not without its flaws, but it’s still enjoyable, and as the third act ensues, even intense. Director Neil Burger gets a few epic shots of the new Chicago, including one scene involving a zip line over the city that was pretty spectacular. It trips on its romantic cliches, but I’m not complaining too much. This is a nice little movie that doesn’t quite do its source material justice, but serves as an entertaining ride on its own.