Genre: Dystopian/Sci-fi
Premise: (from IMDB) In a world divided by factions based on virtues, Tris learns she’s Divergent and won’t fit in. When she discovers a plot to destroy Divergents, Tris and the mysterious Four must find out what makes Divergents dangerous before it’s too late.
About: The next attempt at a YA novel franchise debuted this weekend to about 55 million dollars. It wasn’t quite Hunger Games numbers, but it’s probably enough to ensure a full trilogy. Divergent was adapted by Evan Daugherty, who broke out a few years back with a screenplay contest win that eventually led to a 7 figure sale and ended with the hit film, Snow White and the Huntsman. Possibly because Kristin Stewart starred in that film, the godmother of the female-driven YA franchise, the Divergent folk brought Daugherty in to script another success story. Coming in to give the script some female sensibility was Vanessa Taylor, who wrote the Meryl Streep film, Hope Springs.
Writer: Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor (based on the novel by Veronica Roth)
Details: 139 minutes!

DIVERGENT

When you invest in a franchise these days, you don’t have any choice but to cram it down the world’s throat. So competitive has this business become, that it’s better to blanket the world with advertisements and make them HATE your movie, than display a respectful number of billboards and remind everyone that you exist. Hate is irrelevant. What’s important is that they KNOW.

Divergent is the latest film to get the “blanket your eyeballs” marketing treatment. And it’s unfortunate. Cause I’m one of these people who’s been wishing for the death of the female-driven YA novel franchise. I shall not fib. I came to Divergent ready to split the movie in two and send the halves back to the literary world, where they would remain hidden inside the minds of whoever picked them up. But that didn’t happen. My reaction is more…divergent than expected.

The “Divergent for Dummies” plot breakdown goes something like this. It’s Chicago at some point in the future, after war has decimated the world. In order to make sure this doesn’t happen again, the good people of Chi-Town have divided their population into five factions. These factions have names, but they’re way too complicated for the sake of this review. So we’ll just call them the Borings, the Smarties, the Exercisers, and two others that are irrelevant to the plot.

Tris is our hero. She’s part of the Borings, the unofficial ruling group of the city. Her life is dedicated to doing boring things like helping others. But her Choosing Moment is coming up, where she chooses the faction she’ll join for the rest of her life. Why someone is born into a faction but has to choose a faction is beyond me. But that’s this world for ya.

Luckily, it gets more complicated. Before you choose, you get tested to find out which faction you’re a part of. After you find out, you’re supposed to choose that faction. But you don’t have to. You can still choose any faction you want. Which begs the question – why the hell do they need this test in the first place?

It probably has something to do with what happens during Tris’s test. Tris isn’t picked for ANY of the factions. She’s a DIVERGENT! Which is a huge no-no in this society because Divergents can’t be controlled. Luckily, the tester decides to keep this a secret. So Tris is safe. For now at least.

I say “for now” because Evil Kate Winslet, a part of the Smarties Faction, is set on rooting out all the Divergents and killing them. To think, it was only a few years ago she was flying with Jack on the front of the Titanic.

In a surprise move, Tris joins the Exercisers on Choosing Day, who are known for NEVER WALKING. The Exercisers are the chosen defenders of the city, which means Tris has decided to train and become a soldier.

Towards the end of her training, Tris learns of a plan by the Smarties to take over the city, killing the only faction standing in their way, the Borings. The worst part? The Smarties are going to use mind-control on the Exercisers to do their dirty work. The irony! Tris’s current faction is going to kill her old faction! Ah but remember, Tris is immune to mind-control. She’s a Divergent. The question is, is that enough to thwart this plan and save the city?

If you should ever stumble into a showing of Divergent, you may feel like you’re in an alternate dimension. Soon after you sit down, you’ll be bombarded with a dozen scenes of the Exerciser Faction running around, smiling, high-fiving, jumping, cheering, all to an annoyingly catchy tribal beat. It’s one of the weirder things you’ll ever experience in a theater.

But here’s why Divergent survives the nuclear bomb that sent it to its dystopian reality in the first place. This story is almost exclusively focused on character development, and it does a pretty good job of it. Tris is confused about her place in the world, not unlike all of us after our institutionalized years, and therefore must find herself. She joins a faction where she’s the underdog, and that choice is the main reason why this script works.

Like I’ve told you guys in the past, an underdog character goes a long way. And Tris is so far down this ladder (everyone tells her she’s toast – she’ll never make it through the training) that you can’t help but root for her. I loved how they made the odds so impossible (always make your odds impossible!) that you’re never sure if she’s going to succeed or not.

Now because this movie was about character development, much of it is Tris being challenged, having to overcome her fears and her flaws. The problem was, they got a little carried away with that. I wasn’t counting, but 70-80 minutes of Divergent is dedicated to training. I kept waiting for a more concrete story goal to emerge (a danger outside the city they would have to battle perhaps?). But that never came. So I wondered where this was all going.

When I realized this wasn’t The Hunger Games, with its big fancy goal of the Games at the end, but about a secret uprising, I found myself fascinated by the choice. Because it’s the much more dangerous choice of the two. With The Hunger Games, your audience is always looking forward to that juicy goal of trying to win the games.

Divergent’s plot is happening underneath the surface, not unlike The Shawshank Redemption, where the main plot is being kept from the audience. The reason that’s a dangerous move is because it’s easier for the audience to lose interest. If they can’t see the endgame, what’s motivating them to stay interested? Audiences usually need that clear finale (those “Hunger Games” if you will) to stay committed.  Think about it.  If I told you we were going to your favorite restaurant at the end of the day, your whole day would be great.  You’d be so excited for later.  If there was no restaurant visit, however, your day would feel kind of boring. There’d be nothing special about it.

This finally helped me realize why the trailers felt so confusing – why every time I saw them I didn’t know what the movie was about. They couldn’t reveal what the movie was about because the whole plot is the third-act twist! It’s the secret uprising plot that was invisible for 2 hours.

Did this work? Sort of. The twist itself was kind of cheesy. We have serum-centric mind control going on, and whenever you throw in serum-centric mind control, I’m sorry, but it’s going to be cheesy. The thing was, you liked Tris so much, you wanted to see her win. You wanted to see her take down Evil Kate Winslet.

I give it to the Divergent writers for keeping the plot focused, despite its long run time and all the weird things they had to include from the novel. The training was long, but they constantly reminded us how important it was. That’s what you have to remember when it comes to adaptations. The writers have to find ways to make things work even though they know they don’t work. If you’re lucky, someone will be paying you to do that some day.

I mean why the hell does this Exerciser Faction never walk? Why are they always cheering? And the biggest question of all – WHY THE HELL DOES THE TRAIN IN CHICAGO NEVER STOP??? There’s no way to get on the train in this movie unless you run and jump on it.

You’d think that one of the many engineers in the city would figure out a way to solve this problem (I hear brakes still work in the future). It was weird stuff like this that gave Divergent a schizophrenic feel. But Daugherty and Taylor found a way to include just enough of it to sell the world, but not so much that we rolled our eyes (well, okay, I rolled my eyes a couple of times).

Did Divergent benefit from extremely low expectations? Yes. Am I recommending you all go out and see it? No. But if you’re walking around on a Saturday afternoon with nothing to do and you can get a matinee ticket, you may find Divergent not nearly as bad as you’d expect it to be.

[ ] what the hell did I just see?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the price of a matinee ticket
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: There should always be a sense of doubt that your main character will succeed. If there isn’t, why would we care? There would be nothing to worry about.

  • drifting in space

    First?

    I am all for developed female protags but I am getting burned out on YA movies. I admit, I like the Hunger Games. Read the books after taking my wife’s word that they were pretty good. I wasn’t disappointed and the movies are mostly entertaining.

    Another issue I have with these movies is their length. I understand you’re trying to cram an entire book in the running time, but so many scenes run way too long. They also miss important parts of the books and instead full the screen with useless “marketable” scenes.

    In the end, these movies profit and that’s what keeps Hollywood going. I don’t see any end to that in sight.

    • kenglo

      I hate how in Hunger Games it screams ‘teens kill each other’ but then
      in the 2nd one, there are not really any teens killing each other,
      mostly the forest kills them. No ‘promise of the premise’…..but they
      are still ‘okay’ films.

      • drifting in space

        I was more emotionally invested in the books as they are more about character (not just the love triangle) and less about killing each other. But that’s usually how books go anyway.

        I agree. They are “okay” films. Entertaining at least.

      • Nicholas J

        Catching Fire didn’t even have teens really.

      • Linkthis83

        Yep. At least Battle Royale delivered…and thensome.

      • BennyPickles

        For me, the first Hunger Games was brilliant because it did something only a few other films have ever managed to do. I still remember watching for the first time, and seeing that moment when the kid gets his head pounded in with a brick. My heart started pounding and my mind suddenly went “Oh my god, this is real, for her!”

        It’s like when you find out that a loved one is in the hospital. You think “well that sucks,” but it’s not until you actually show up in the ICU and see them lying unconscious in a bed that you realise it’s actually happening.

        We’re so used to seeing characters in danger, it’s very rare that it actually hits you like that anymore. And I don’t have a clue how they managed it.

      • JakeMLB

        Catching Fire was really quite bad IMHO. I can’t figure out why the critics liked it so much. Don’t get me wrong, the premise and world are excellent, but I don’t see how this second film gave us ANYTHING different from the first. It conveniently ended on some contrived plan that doesn’t really make any sense. And am I the only one sorely disappointed with the actual execution of the Hunger Games contest in both films? Felt like much potential was wasted.

      • jamison

        Both Hunger films were truly awful with lousy acting performances – especially from the awkward and wooden Jennifer Lawrence .

    • Linkthis83

      I was extremely disappointed in how the handled the Katniss/Rue relationship. That was some strong/powerful stuff in the book. In the movie, it was like they had to cover it so they did. What a waste. Stories are about relationships. I thought everyone knew that already. Lol.

      Although, it is obvious the movies still make plenty of coin when they focus on whatever they want.

  • mulesandmud

    My oh my.

    Star Wars Week couldn’t kill it, Veronica Mars couldn’t kill it, but finally it was the unlikely tag team of a Tracking Board coupon and a teen bestseller that put the SS comments section in the ground.

    I can usually spot a twist ending a mile off, but this one I didn’t see coming.

    • kenglo

      It’s Monday…normal folks are working LOL….

      • drifting in space

        Isn’t this what people do at work? It’s what I’m currently doing instead of audits.

        • Linkthis83

          I’m totally here if I’m in the office :)

        • kenglo

          Hey, did you get a writing group?

          • drifting in space

            I was already in one and most of my time is spent writing or playing video games. I don’t know if I could take on another commitment.

          • kenglo

            Yeah, it is tough to do that and write too, everybody wants notes….LOL

      • Linkthis83

        I don’t really have anything to truly offer today. Not even any poor attempts a humor. Plus, I will be traveling for work this week. You guys hold down the fort!!

        • BennyPickles

          “Because, as you know, it’s an inflatable hover fort and might foat off into the sky…”

    • ArabyChic

      Half the people couldn’t read the sign up top and scroll down, more than likely.

  • ThomasBrownen

    I’m glad Carson decided to review this! I agree that the trailer wasn’t very good. I couldn’t find a plot to it, and it looked rather generic. But when I read the book, I realized that wasn’t so much the fault of marketing, as it was the fact that the high-concept plot doesn’t show up until the last fifty pages of the book!

    And while Carson gives much credit to the screenwriters who adapted the book (and appropriately so), I think the author, Veronica Roth, deserves a lot of credit for writing a story that could be easily transferred to the screen. The first fifty pages of the book were quite gripping–the girl had to choose which faction of society she would live in for the rest of her life. I’m not sure I understand why that had to be the case, but it was clear that the stakes were really high. Lots of pressure, all driven by the character’s choice! I could see this making an easy first act.

    Most of the book (until the last fifty pages) was then about Tris’ growth into a fighter in the Dauntless faction. There was good character development here, even if the plot was rather slow, and very, very derivative of Ender’s Game (which the author seemed to acknowledge in the back of the book). But still, the underdog growing up to become a vicious fighter is a common and relatable character arc, so I could see this being a good second act.

    Finally, the last fifty pages of the book are about the battle with the mind-controlled fighters. It was ok, I thought. Somewhat generic, somewhat cheesy, maybe. But it would play well on the big screen. At the same time, it nicely sets up the first movie as the first act for a larger trilogy.

    I also read the second book, but I didn’t think it was quite as good. It was rather unfocused in the first half, and the character’s arc is less organized and a bit more confusing. It’s mainly about Tris deciding not to be depressed and no longer wanting to die, but that’s a tough arc to show up on screen, and a hard one to make relatable. The writers have their job cut out for them on this one, but if done well, it could be fun.

    • JakeMLB

      CITY OF EMBER, DIVERGENT, THE GIVER, HUNGER GAMES…

      A lot of these YA novels deal with the notion of DECIDING THE REST OF YOUR LIFE. Kind of like how young people have to choose (or are chosen) a career path after high school. That’s the YA secret sauce. And training. Gotta have training. ‘Cause school is all they know.

      • drifting in space

        The YA novel I’m writing focuses on how great college kids are at beer pong and how unprepared they are for things like buying a house, investing, doing their taxes… and in this world they must decide now if they want to EXPERIENCE ADULT FREEDOM or LIVE WITH THEIR PARENTS FOREVER!

      • mulesandmud
        • JakeMLB

          Hah, timely article.

          The only thing missing from my recipe was an act of courage, but that kind of goes without saying.

          Let’s put this in on our 3-act blender and see what we get.

          YA SPECIAL SMOOTHIE
          1 act DECIDING FUTURE
          1 act TRAINING
          1 act ACT OF COURAGE
          1 pinch of execution

          Tastes delicious.

      • David Sarnecki

        The secret sauce appears to have boiled down to A)Young female protag B) post apocalypse C) Our hero is special in a way nobody else is and D) at least two attractive young men trip over themselves to win the heart of our conflicted heroin. Oh, and never forget E) the most important secret of the entire sauce… None of the worlds rules make any fucking sense in any context.

  • Tailmonsterfriend

    >If I told you we were going to your favorite restaurant at the end of the day, your whole day would be great. You’d be so excited for later. If there was no restaurant visit, however, your day would feel kind of boring. There’d be nothing special about it.

    I am so going to steal this explanation next time I have to explain story goals to someone.

  • kenglo

    Hmmm…ENDER’S GAME had a lot of training too, made it a bit boring. But, alas, 15 yr old daughter wanted to check it out with her buddies, maybe it strikes the right nerves out there.

    • Nicholas J

      I thought the training sequences in Ender’s Game were the best part, while the whole final act didn’t translate from the book very well. Not the most cinematic thing ever.

      • BennyPickles

        In the book, they worked because we enjoyed watching an underdog slowly rise through the ranks. In the film, they worked because they were pretty to look at. There simply wasn’t enough time to give that sense of a slow improvement. He’s just suddenly very good at stuff. So they focused on the VFX and production design, which were both insane.

        But I feel a need to admire the ending, as it does exactly what you’re not supposed to do. We’ve always been taught to make the climax feel as important and dramatic as possible, but the story lies to us and tells us, instead, that it’s not actually as important as it really is. Even though it may not have worked, it’s still a pretty gutsy move. But the kind we’re more used to in a book, rather than in a world populated by Hunger Games.

    • Linkthis83

      Loved the book!!

    • http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/chrismulligan/lunch-meat?ref=live Chris Mulligan

      I could have done with more training scenes in Ender’s. There wasn’t quite enough combat room space tactical goodness.

  • Richard Trenholm

    Now I haven’t read the book or seen the film so maybe they manage to explain it, but what possible reason could there be for a society dividing people by virtues? I appreciate it’s a metaphor for feeling labelled or pigeonholed as a teen, but as a basis for world-building it’s nuts. The Hunger Games has the whole ‘bread and circuses’ thing to excuse how silly it is, but Divergent just makes no sense

    • Dale T

      The author was 21 when the first book was published, so it can be assumed she started developing the series around when she was 18 or 19. Looking back at the stories I was creating after high school I had a lot of high concept but doesn’t systematically make sense ideas. Like most of us at 18 or 19 metaphor was probably all we were aiming for.

  • ximan

    I was surprisingly entertained by the film too, albeit with some eye-rolling of my own. Overall, I bought the love story more than the one in Hunger Games. And Shailene Woodley is sooo fucking adorable, vulnerable, precious, and scrumptious!! More films with her please!

  • Cfrancis1

    Totally shocked by this quasi good review. I’ve read a lot of bad things about this movie. Have zero interest in seeing it. I give up on the Hunger Games two. Just saw Catching Fire… too bad the title is ironic. The only thing I caught while trying to watch it were Zs. Boring as hell.

  • http://www.imdb.com/name/nm1888937/ Rick McGovern

    I liked this movie.