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MANILA, Philippines – In the future, society will have devolved into one large high school. At least, that is our fate according to Divergent. Based on the best-selling series by Veronica Roth, Divergent joins the bandwagon of young-adult film adaptations that aim to replicate the success of The Hunger Games and The Twilight Saga. But while Divergent mixes all the familiar elements that have made the young adult genre such a bankable success, the film also fails to evolve past its teenage trappings.
Set in a dystopian future, Divergent sees survivors of a cataclysmic war are categorized into 5 factions, Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Dauntless, and Erudite. Each of the factions is assigned own roles and responsibilities, but it’s their highlighted virtues that ultimately distinguish one from the other. As a way of categorizing its citizens, society conducts a test to find the most suitable faction for each young individual.
But test results for teenager Tris Prior (Shailene Woodley) turns out to be inconclusive, and she’s secretly labeled as Divergent, an individual who doesn’t fit neatly into any of the 5 factions. As a Divergent, Tris possesses skills and talents beyond those of her peers, and ultimately becomes a threat to faction leader Jeanine Matthews (Kate Winslet). When Tris discovers Jeanine’s plot to overthrow the government, she teams up with her instructor and budding love interest Four (Theo James) in order to take down Jeanine.
Divergent beats heavily on the war drums of individualism. The story lionizes differentiation and celebrates those willing to stand up against conformity. But while rebellion and self-discovery have always been tent pole themes of young adult fiction, their shallow depiction in Divergent make them more caricature than real. Divergent may have the ambitions of grand, world-molding science fiction, but the film ends up feeling more like another year in high school.
An oversimplified world view
In Divergent, the five factions are designed more like cliques than functioning classes of society. This only punctuates the school-like setup of the film’s fictional civilization. While caste-based systems have been a large part of human history, their cartoonish depiction in Divergent make it difficult to lend them any real credence. (READ: Jennifer Lawrence has tips for ‘Divergent’ star Shailene Woodley)
The military-minded Dauntless are overly reckless and undisciplined, while the remarkably altruistic folks who belong to the Abnegation faction are subservient to the point of impracticality. The Erudite are snobbish intellectuals, those of the Candor faction are tactless truth tellers, and those from the Amity faction are peace-loving pacifists. In the future, there is no median. There is only the extreme. In a way, Divergent oversimplifies civilization into a collection of soldiers, scientists, farmers, lawyers and missionary workers.
When compared to the jocks, nerds, hippies, and prudes of any school ground cliché, Divergent doesn’t stray very far. It’s the dystopian equivalent of a high school campus, making it difficult to look past the film’s glaring naiveté and over simplified world view.
Superficial, shallow, particularly petty
At the onset of Divergent, Tris’ problem is a personal one. Her lack of direction, identity, and place in society make her an awkward fit in her world’s rigid framework. But since the original novel was written in first person, the book allowed readers to experience the world of Divergent through the eyes and thoughts of Tris herself. This allowed Tris to communicate her fears and apprehensions in a world where, she felt, she didn’t belong.
But since the nature of cinema removes us from subjectivity of language, we are forced to experience the film through our own eyes and with our own thoughts. In this case, we rely on director Neil Burger and screenwriters Vanessa Taylor and Evan Daughtery to bring Tris’ world to life. And, unfortunately, it’s a world that is superficial, shallow, and particularly petty.
The problems that plague Tris don’t provide any real weight. And though Shailene Woodley does a commendable job of capturing Tris on screen, the inability of the film to substantiate her performance with a world that is both credible and believable pulls the rug right from underneath her.
Simple teenage troubles
Fans of the book should see view these faults as squarely those of the film. And while the adaptation is fairly loyal to the book, its execution lacks the passion to try to provide anything more than that.
Like most young adult fiction, Divergent champions individuality and youthful rebellion. But because of its failure to give credibility to its unbelievable world, the film ends up feeling more shallow than it should be. Instead of the science fiction epic that the film aims to be, it simply devolves into a larger-than-life depiction of simple teenage troubles.
Summit Entertainment is determined to make the Divergent trilogy its next block buster franchise after the Twilight Saga. With the other two films already slated for production, and the first film already projected to conquer the box-office, Divergent may have its destiny written out for it. But maybe this is where youthful rebellion becomes that much more important. And instead of blindly supporting the next big young adult adaptation, maybe it’s time to graduate from them.
Watch the trailer for Divergent here:
Zig Marasigan is a freelance screenwriter and director who believes that cinema is the cure for cancer. Follow him on Twitter at @zigmarasigan.
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