The bestselling first book in yet another dystopic Young Adult series, Veronica Roth’s Divergent is engrossing enough to devour overnight, and flimsy enough to forget by morning light. Neil Burger’s film adaptation faithfully reproduces the same effect.
A forceful emoter, but too wimpy with weaponry to take seriously as an action figure, Shailene Woodley (The Spectacular Now, The Descendants) plays an average-seeming girl, Beatrice Prior, living in a post-war, futuristic version of Chicago. Her voiceover narration guides the viewer through a thicket of exposition – namely, how this particular scorched-earth community came to be a walled-off republic split into five temperamentally determined factions: Dauntless protects the republic, Abnegation feeds the poor, Erudite advances technology and science, Amity does the farming, and Candor supplies the judicators. At age 16, teenagers take a test to determine their faction aptitude, though they’re allowed to choose their own destiny; the motto is “faction before blood,” which means that when Beatrice’s test turns out inconclusive – she’s tapped for three different factions, hence the title’s “divergent” – her decision to join Dauntless necessitates a painful break from her Abnegation-rank parents (Judd and Goldwyn).
Divergent lacks the simplicity in concept of The Hunger Games, an obvious influence and brass ring; it takes exactly 10 words to explain “children must fight to the death for the state’s entertainment,” and a heck of a lot more to unravel why Dauntless and Erudite take their names from adjectives, while the other factions warrant nouns. There are other distractions: How come the humble-born Beatrice has on visible eyeliner and mascara throughout – not to mention those supervolumized tresses – when society demands she dress in a sack and avoid mirrors? Also: When all the teenagers do their sorting-hat dance to pick their personal faction and use a knife to leak a few ceremonial drops of blood, is that actually the same knife, because surely Erudite knows a thing or two about the benefits of sterilization? And this: When the Dauntless crowd leaps and bounds and bangs on drums, do the filmmakers know their toughies come off like community college theatre Sharks and Jets?
It doesn’t take too long for the eager viewer to deflate: This is not a first-rate production. And that’s okay. In fact, it’s a relief. It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact moment when the tide turns, but: There are giggles. Giggles are great, once the audience agrees to get loosey-goosey, and those giggles don’t signal a film going off the rails, necessarily – more just an acknowledgment that in the absence of high art, middle-of-the-road enjoyments will suffice. They include the occasional comic-relief aside, a hard-working cast, and some interesting hand-to-hand combat. There’s romantic intrigue, too – between Beatrice and her hard-headed Dauntless instructor, Four (James) – and it has a lightly kinky, hot-for-teacher twist that is entirely appropriate for the PG-13 crowd. The studio no doubt is dreaming of four-quadrant, blockbuster numbers. I’m just glad they gave preteen girls something to chew on.