Film Review: Divergent

Full disclosure before we start: I had read (and loved) the book last year, so wasn’t an unbiased audience member going in. For the uninitiated, Divergent is based on a book of the same name, by Veronica Roth, which is the first in a trilogy (naturally). This is the first film adaptation (followed quickly by the news that – yawn – the final book would be split into two; as per) to be made of the series.

Our protagonist is Beatrice Prior – Tris. She is 16 and living in a future, dystopian (of course) Chicago, totally unrecognisable to us. Society has been divided into five factions: Abnegation (where Tris lives) which emphasises selflessness and a removal from the desires of the self, Erudite which emphasises intelligence and the pursuit of truth, Amity which promotes good humour and kindness, Candour who value honesty and transparency and finally Dauntless, who require fearlessness, courage and umm…recklessness, frankly, of their faction members.

Every year, all 16 year olds must take an aptitude test that will determine where they belong. They must then make a choice at an official ceremony, apparently their only opportunity to exercise free will. Tris takes the aptitude test – a sort of simulated dream thing – but her results are inconclusive. She shows equal aptitude for Abnegation, Erudite and Dauntless. This ambiguity alarms her test administrator, Tori, who tells Tris she will fake the result for her and that she is a Divergent – someone who doesn’t conform to regular thought patterns – and that she must never tell anyone the truth.

At the choosing ceremony, Tris, who feels uneasy and unsuited to Abnegation, unexpectedly chooses Dauntless. She must leave her family behind and align herself with her new home: ‘faction before blood’, competing with the other initiates to win a role in the Dauntless community. Failure to assimilate properly results in ejection and joining the factionless, a desperate, destitute group who belong nowhere. Tris must find a way to survive in Dauntless as well as protecting herself against the Erudite, who begin actively looking for the Divergent.

I really enjoyed Divergent. It was fairly long, but like Catching Fire, didn’t feel like it to me. A lot of the book’s exposition and action was crammed in and I couldn’t think of too much integral to the plot that was left out (aside from perhaps the knife in the eye incident…). I went with friends who had also read the book and they weren’t sure it was that easy to follow without being familiar with the plot. I didn’t have this issue, but it might be something to bear in mind if you haven’t read the book.

While the casting could have been more diverse/interesting, the acting was excellent. I had no preconceived ideas of how Four should appear on film (I am terrible at picturing characters), but Theo James really worked in the role for me. His mannerisms, body language and attitude all chimed perfectly with the way Four comes across in the book.

In terms of supporting roles, Ashley Judd was great (she will always be great in my book: Double Jeopardy and Where the Heart Is are amazing films) as Tris’ mother, Natalie, who is harbouring some secrets of her own. Tony Goldwyn and Ansel Elgort as Tris’ father and brother weren’t really in it enough to make much of an impression (though the part was tiny, Tony Goldwyn’s kindly, gentle performance as Andrew Prior still managed to make me forget how much I want to punch him on Scandal). Zoe Kravitz was just how I imagined Christina and had plenty of toughness, despite being physically tiny. Ben Lloyd-Hughes and Christian Madsen were effective as Will and Al, although again, they hardly appeared (film time means needs must, I guess). Miles Teller was appropriately snarky as Peter (my friends thought he did a good job of being hateful) although I found his casting a little distracting; he has so much charisma and personality, he’s a bit too enjoyable onscreen for a more minor antagonist.

I loved Shailene Woodley as Tris and her performance was stellar throughout, anchoring the film and injecting some real vulnerability and visceral emotion in amongst the action. You absolutely rooted for her and she was totally convincing as a bad ass. She went comfortably toe-to-toe with Kate Winslet and created believable chemistry with Theo James. The role of Jeanine had been expanded significantly for Winslet and though she looked great, I didn’t find her performance to be cold or uptight enough. I found Jeanine’s smug superiority and arrogance to be genuinely chilling in the book and Winslet wasn’t quite nasty enough for me.

Overall, I thought it was an excellent page to screen adaptation that captured both the intensity and action of the book. It’s another great example of a tough, uncompromising and independent filmic heroine and – in some contrast to the Hunger Games – Tris was shown to be warm, well-liked and gentler than her fellow dystopian counterpart, while still being just as tough. Good for a blockbuster-y-action-film-Saturday-night-watch!

Side note: I found (like many people) the following two books, Insurgent and Allegiant to be disappointing in comparison to Divergent. I’m very interested to see if the films are able to resolve some of the narrative problems in those books and whether they take a little bit of creative licence, as they have the potential to be a rare example of a film surpassing the source material. For those that know the stories, Vulture has an interesting article on this problem here.

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