Feb 20, 2020
Breaking! ‘Divergent’ Isn’t as Good as the Book, Also Sky is Blue
The game “Was the Movie as Good as the Book?” is a dangerous yet tempting one to play. Why it’s so tempting is unclear, because there’s only two answers: a) Of course it wasn’t and b) It doesn’t matter. Dipping in and out of a 350 page book over the course of a few weeks is an incredibly different experience than sitting in front of screen for two hours. And with a book like Divergent, which is wildly popular with the vicious little wolverines in the tween set, you are definitely playing with fire.
Which is probably why Divergent is a faithful adaptation of the book by Veronica Roth, but also a strangely bloodless one. There’s bloodlessness in the literal sense of course (they have to maintain the precious PG-13 rating) but also in a sense that you’re just watching plot go by without actually experiencing any of it.
Part of the problem is there’s so much in Roth’s world to explain. Divergent centers around a post-apocalyptic Chicago, which is run as it’s own society based on a formal caste system or “factions”. People are filed into factions based on their personality traits: the selfless go to the missionaries of Abnegation, the brave go to the warriors of Dauntless, the brilliant to the intelligentsia, Erudite, the honest to the law guild of Candor, and the hippies to Amity to farm. If you are kicked out of your faction, you are required to live as the factionless (a sort of untouchable), and if you fit into more than one faction you’re “divergent” and need to be eliminated altogether.
Telling us all of this near the beginning of the film is our heroine, Beatrice (Shailene Woodley), who’s getting ready to take her test to determine what faction she should be in. There are even more rules and parameters that need to be explained as we continue, but thankfully (??) all the characters are very good to make sure we’re aware of everything that’s going on. You know, just like how real people explain the rules of their own culture to each other for fun over the dinner table.
Instead of clarifying, all this over-exposition does is dull the creation of a fully-realized world. That creation shouldn’t be all that difficult, considering the entire world fits into downtown Chicago. Demonstrating how a universe works doesn’t have to be difficult or require a ton of dialogue; one glance at Bruce Willis’ bento box-like apartment in The Fifth Element tells you everything you need to know about both that movie’s vision of the future and Bruce Willis’ character.
The cast works with what they have, however, with the appealing Woodley cementing a three-picture deal as the obviously-going-to-be-divergent Beatrice (later Tris) and relative newcomer Theo James as her love interest Four. Yes, his name is “Four.” Their romance is thankfully pretty cringe-free — more Hunger Games side-story than Twilight — and there’s something vaguely approaching chemistry between them. Ashley Judd is lovely as Tris’ Abnegation mother.
But for sheer fun factor we have to turn to Kate Winslet as the nefarious Jeanine, head of the Erudite and wearer of fabulous blue skirt suits. Her performance is one of constantly pleasant condescension; she reminded me of a theology teacher at my Catholic high school who would smile indulgently and patiently explain to us how we would be baby murderers if we took the pill.
But their obvious fear of upsetting the tween-verse meant that the story plods along without enthusiasm, giving us an abbreviated and faithful version of events without ever letting us sink into it. It felt more like a series of tableaus: Here’s Beatrice getting her tattoos. Here’s Beatrice and Four on top of the ferris wheel. Here’s her being told that her divergence will get her killed.
Aside from Winslet no one appears to be having any fun. Everyone in this picture from director Neil Burger down to the extras seem to be just going to work, half-heartedly doing their jobs, cashing their checks and going home. This might make for a satisfied 12-year-old readership, but it doesn’t make for a lot of soul.