Count me as one of the adults who picked up Divergent thinking it was going to be the next big Harry Potter or Hunger Games-style YA series and then realizing, as I closed each successive book by Veronica Roth (Insurgent, Allegiant) with an exhausted shudder, that they were not in the same class of transcendent reads. I would still very much like to receive back, wrapped in a box with a flashy cover, the ten or so hours I spent flipping those pages.
Genre fiction can be sublime. It can also, in the case of these books, be extremely derivative. Combining the treacly love story of Twilight with the initiation aspect of Harry Potter‘s Hogwarts, and borrowing nearly everything else from The Hunger Games, Veronica Roth’s series is morally and logically muddled, with a dark ending that doesn’t feel earned — and caused a fan revolt.
The second film, Insurgent, out now, is getting a big studio push. The ads are ubiquitous, the young stars are huge. There was even free popcorn at the screening I attended, which was packed to the brim with press and fans. One superfan informed me upon exiting the screening that the film diverged (see what I did there?) a lot from the book, and she was still processing these choices on the part of director Robert Schwentke and his crew. Between her assessment and mine, my verdict is that casual viewers may be mildly entertained but might as well just wait for the DVD, while avid fans will have to weigh the middling qualities of the film against the liberties it takes with the plot.
That plot, such as it is, involves a revolution among the “factions” that post-apocalyptic Chicago has been split into. Abnegation has been slaughtered by the central authorities, who are hanging out in Erudite. Dauntless, the faction of our protagonists (Dauntless equals Gryffindor meets the X Games basically), has scattered in retreat, and our heroes, now outlaws, end up hiding amongst the humble agrarian folks of Amity, the no-nonsense Candor crew, and the terrifying factionless punks, who look like they walked off the set of the Green Day musical, but with actual weapons. Why are they refugees? Tris and Four are “divergent,” which means they have the traits of more than one faction. And that status makes them a threat, and also a tool, for the powers that be. They are being hunted down.
In between each faction-hopping interlude, we are treated to a ton of fistfights and knife-fights and an alarming number of gun battles, including some sadistic killings that make one long for the poetic, meaningful violence of The Hunger Games. The setpieces in a ruined Chicago, surrounded by a blinking wall, are perhaps the best thing about the series. Both the source material and the film’s depiction of a futuristic ruined metropolis robbed of greenery, a mixture of rubble and high technology, offer a visually evocative backdrop, even if Suzanne Collins did it first.
The all-star cast certainly tries its best with the material. Kate Winslet is cold and forbidding as the ice-queen ruler, Janine, but it’s Whiplash star Miles Teller as the snide, side-switching Peter — the Snape or Gollum figure of the thing — who provides the best laugh lines (and not just because he said the film made him feel dead inside). As for our lithe young stars, Shailene Woodley plays Tris as convincingly tough, and tortured. She’s wonderful to watch, if not quite the new Jennifer Lawrence, sorry. J-Law holds on to the title for this round, in the tourney of ass-kicking girl PTSD sufferers. Love interest Theo James is a serviceable Four, well-built and angry, but (though I hate to keep repeating this trope, it’s impossible to avoid) watching him might make you yearn for the subtle and dynamic facial expressions that Robert Pattinson musters, in his portrayal of a sparkly vampire.
I enjoyed the film better when it morphed, in its final third or so, from being The Hunger Games lite to being the Matrix lite, as Tris — who it turns out is the ultimate divergent — is put through a series of simulations at the ruthless behest of Janine. Janine thinks Tris’ divergent powers can open a box with a message from the city’s founders. As hokey as this long simulation sequence may be, with fractured reality visualized as slow-shattering glass, it’s the one time the otherwise plodding story takes imaginative flight. It’s also the one time it stays rooted in the unabashedly moral and philosophical realm that makes YA great. To sacrifice your life for the greater good? That is the question. To punish your enemies or not? That is the other question. It turns out that love, mercy and forgiveness and honesty can look just as awesome as badass courage, given the right special effects.
In case you were wondering about the message in the box: Well, it holds so much promise as a plot point. Too bad the third installment is waiting in the wings to dash that potential to the ground.
I will say this for the film over the book: I didn’t particularly feel cheated, or regret the two hours I spent in theater seats — except as I suffered through the long, silent, and completely deadening love scenes between Tris and Four. These dull offerings may have elicited some exasperated sighs from the vicinity of your humble reviewer, as she munched her free popcorn. I’ll just have to wait for the Fifty Shades sequel, I guess.