Not long ago, young adult book-to-movie adaptations were a hot commodity in Hollywood. The supernatural teen romance “Twilight” and its sequels made millions at the box office, and the post-apocalyptic thriller “The Hunger Games” made a star of Jennifer Lawrence and generated huge amounts of buzz.
However, recent film adaptations of young adult books have struggled to reach those same heights. Remember “Beautiful Creatures,” “The Mortal Instruments” or “Vampire Academy”? All three posted disappointing box office returns, and Hollywood’s enthusiasm for the genre seems to have cooled.
That’s why there is so much pressure riding on “Divergent,” a post-apocalyptic drama about an oppressive society in futuristic Chicago. Early tracking indicates the film could pull in $50 million+ its opening weekend, and studio executives hope it will launch a new franchise. However, how does it measure up against the critically praised “Hunger Games,” to which it has been compared?
In the world of “Divergent,” society has been divided into five factions, based on different character traits. There’s Abnegation (selfless); Amity (peaceful); Candor (honest); Dauntless (brave); and Erudite (intelligent). Sixteen-year-old Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley) was born into the Abnegation faction but never felt like she truly belonged there. She sees “Choosing Day” — the day when young adults get to pick what faction they want to spend the rest of their lives in — as an opportunity to redefine who she really is. However, a test that’s supposed to tell her what faction she’s most suited for comes back as inconclusive, and she learns she’s “divergent” — she doesn’t fit neatly into just one faction. Faction leaders find this label dangerous because it means Beatrice can’t be as easily controlled, and she’s warned her life will be in danger if anyone finds out she’s divergent.
At the Choosing Ceremony, Beatrice — who later goes by just “Tris” — decides to pick the Dauntless faction but later comes to regret it. The training in Dauntless is grueling and sometimes borders on cruel, and she finds it increasingly difficult to keep her divergence a secret. She also fears her trainer, the mysterious “Four” (Theo James), sees through her. Tensions between the factions continue to build, and Tris finds herself at the center of a conflict that could collapse the fragile bonds holding society together and ignite a rebellion.
“Divergent” currently is ranking right at 40 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, a number which is, I think, unfairly low. Some of the problems critics have found aren’t necessarily the film’s fault and actually trace back to the source material. The original young adult novel is a fast-paced read, but it isn’t as strong in terms of plot or character development as the similarly-themed “Hunger Games.” Even though the Capitol-controlled world of “The Hunger Games” is more extreme (teenagers are forced to kill each other in a televised death match), it feels more realistic and fleshed-out than the world the author creates in “Divergent.” “The Hunger Games” delivers more of an emotional punch and the author (and film makers) never let you forget just how high the stakes really are.
However, I think “Divergent” director Neil Burger did improve on the source material, and I enjoyed the film overall. I liked the cinematography, which presented a post-apocalyptic Chicago that was recognizable enough to feel familiar but also eerily foreign. He does a better job than the original book clarifying why people have been divided into factions and why the powers-that-be find “divergents” so dangerous. The soundtrack also fits well with the tone of the film, featuring a collaboration between famous film composer Hans Zimmer and electronica artist Junkie XL. The film does a good job bringing to life some of the best scenes from the book, including a late night “capture the flag” game through the streets of Chicago and an adrenalin-rush zip-line trip above the Chicago skyline. The dream-like sequences designed to serve as psychological tests for Tris are genuinely creepy.
There are places in the film you could be picky. The middle portion of the film features a number of training sequences, and it might have been nice if Burger had tightened these up and left more time for building the background political drama (as Francis Lawrence did in “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire”). I would have liked to see more screen time and character development for Kate Winslet’s icy Erudite villain, Jeanine Matthews. Still, if you’re a fan of dystopian sci-fi, the film is worth checking out. I hope it does well at the box office, because I’d like to see another film featuring this world.