In the world of young adult book adaptations with a fantasy/science fiction edge, “Divergent” is one of the few to actually fall in between really good and intolerable. It’s no “Hunger Games,” but director Neil Burger (“Limitless”) and writers Evan Daugherty (“Snow White and the Huntsman”) and Vanessa Taylor (“Game of Thrones”) do a respectable job bringing the Veronica Roth novel to life with maturity and actual filmmaking talent.
Having read the book, it’s kind of in the same boat. It’s not as good as the first “Hunger Games” book but it has that same adult, ultra-violent tone with romantic subplots that don’t overtake the plot but rank a clear second to it. The dystopian world of “Divergent” is far more complicated than “Hunger Games,” which widens in scope as the trilogy continues instead of turning the whole world it has built on its head in book one as “Divergent” does. Essentially, “Divergent” the movie is as good as the material allows it to be, meaning its faults run as deep as those of its source material.
That said, “Divergent” is an intriguing and engaging story, even if it feels unpolished at times. Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley) is a teen living in one of society’s five factions in dystopian Chicago. She has reached the age when young people are tested to find out which faction (all of which are based on different virtues) they are best suited to, though in the end they are given a choice no matter what the results say. When Beatrice takes the test, her results are inconclusive. This means she’s divergent; she doesn’t belong in just one faction, and in a world where everyone is supposed to fit in a specific place, this is dangerous. She chooses to leave her selfless faction, Abnegation, for the bravery and free-spiritedness of Dauntless.
Woodley’s talent and career trajectory suggests that Summit Entertainment was going for the next Jennifer Lawrence-type to play Tris and she’s as good as it gets. With the book being told from the Tris’ perspective, it’s incumbent on her to communicate the many feelings that Roth so excellently expresses in the book and she does. The rest of the cast isn’t too bad either, though only Theo James as Four, Tris’ Dauntless mentor-turned-love interest, gets much of a platform. He’s every bit of mysterious, dark and handsome as the part necessitates.
“Divergent” sacrifices these side characters in the name of bringing all the memorable plot points of the story to life and explaining Roth’s highly intricate dystopian world. There’s nothing simple about the faction system for those who haven’t read the books, so it eats up some screen time. And with so many scenes and moving pieces, there’s little breathing room in the screenplay. The other initiates that Tris befriends (or tangles with) in Dauntless who keep the story grounded in a lot of ways don’t develop in the film so that parts including Tris’ experiences in the fear simulations, the capture the flag scene and more can all have space in the final cut. “The Hunger Games” took a similar philosophy, to let the main character be the real emotional focus of the film and to shut others out, but again, “Divergent” is more complicated, and the story doesn’t have emotional turning points in the same way “Hunger Games” does.
Artistically, however, the adaptation does a nice job, even if it borrows on the “Hunger Games” aesthetic a little. Burger nails the test and fear simulation scenes, in which Tris experiences a lifelike simulation induced by a serum. He gives them the eerie, larger-than-life quality they require but in a natural way that outdoes the average film’s creepy nightmare sequence. The adrenaline rush of Tris’ dauntless adventures also comes through. Speaking as a Chicagoan, it would have been nice to see more of the city’s actual aesthetic in the film, which is essential to this series, but there’s more potential for that in the sequels.
So many young adult novel adaptations have been made, and maybe barely 10 percent manage to become “Twilight” or “The Hunger Games.” It isn’t and won’t become those (even though it’s better than “Twilight”), but “Divergent” proves there is room for a successful middle ground in this genre, something it desperately needed.
Directed by Neil Burger
Written by Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor, Veronica Roth (novel)
Starring: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Kate Winslet