The Heroine’s Journey in Divergent

Shailene Woodley and Theo James in Neil Burger's "Divergent"

Shailene Woodley and Theo James in Neil Burger’s “Divergent”

I will begin this review by saying that I have never read any of the books in the Divergent series upon which the film Divergent (and presumably its sequels) is based. For one thing, the series is for a young adult audience and sadly I am not a “young” adult. But I don’t think my familiarity with the property upon which Divergent the movie is based actually matters; films that are based on books should stand on their own, referencing the original, but never duplicating it. Furthermore, the filmmakers have no obligation to give us the book in movie form. On the contrary, they have an obligation to make a film that is a creative work on its own, despite its original concept coming from another medium. So, anyone who is looking for me to compare/contrast with the book should move on at this point.

Divergent is one of numerous stories in the adolescent coming of age in a post-apocalyptic world subgenre that has emerged over the past few years. Part science fiction, part heroine’s journey, Divergent centers on Beatrice (Shailene Woodley), a young woman who has come of age in a future world where society is broken up into factions: Erudite (the smarty pants set); Abnegation (the do-gooders); Dauntless (the free, wild, risk takers); Amity (peaceful farmers); Candor (those who value honesty and truth above all – curiously made up of lawyers in this film); and the factionless (those who don’t belong anywhere). As Beatrice considers whether to stay in the faction of her parents, Abnegation, she is given an aptitude test that shows she is “divergent”– she can fit into any of the five factions and is therefore a threat to the powers that be. Renaming herself “Triss,” Beatrice chooses to join Dauntless, the faction to which she is most drawn, but she keeps her divergence a secret until it must reveal itself.

Woodley gives a compelling performance here. I’m not sure what to expect from her in the future, but I saw a degree of subtlety and depth in her that could grow into a meaningful career if she chooses her roles carefully. She’s beautiful, but in a dark, intelligent way and she seems to understand how to use her physical presence in a role like this. I look forward to seeing her in something outside of the teen movie phase of her career.

It is no wonder that this film is more popular with audiences than critics (according to Rotten Tomatoes); it is, after all, a fairly standard heroine’s journey, with a strong female teenager finding herself through a host of physical and psychological challenges thrown at her by a society run by power-mad intellectuals. David Edelstein, in his review on Vulture.com, tells us to ignore the underlying message of the film (that intellectuals are ruining the world) in order to enjoy the film, which he agrees is an entertaining one with a very good performance by Woodley, as well as her stunningly handsome costar Theo James, with whom she has great Hollywood chemistry. Kate Winslet plays Jeanine Matthews, the Erudite faction leader who is busy tracking down divergents to kill them because they threaten the order of the system, which in turn protects us all from human nature (a major weakness in her eyes). She plays this role as a stiff, unemotional, and condescending woman, and as I watched this movie, I knew that would be a point of contention for those of us who enjoy looking at subtext, who value education and intellect, and who know that in the real world, the lack of intellectualism is the problem. But at the same time, Winslet’s Jeanine rang true for me. I have worked in academia for over 15 years and I swear, I have met this woman! But more importantly, I don’t think that subtext supercedes the other, more generic one, which tells the audience (presumed to be young adults and teens) to find out who they really are and then be that person no matter what society tells them. It’s standard YA novel/coming of age movie messaging, but it is to this reviewer much more clearly articulated than the anti-intellectualism, especially considering the intended audience.

But even if you do take Edelstein’s advice and shield yourself from the aspects that seem more conservative and even reactionary, Divergent is not bad. Director Neil Burger has a strong visual sense and the dystopian world he creates is delightfully dark. The film’s editing and sound design work well with the neo-Surrealist imagery in a number of sequences involving the unconscious mind as characters face their darkest fears. It all adds up to an overall entertaining, if not particularly groundbreaking, movie.

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