Based on Veronica Roth‘s young adult dystopian novel and directed by Neil Burger, Divergent is set in a world divided by factions that are based on virtues. Daughter of a family in the selfless Abnegation faction, Tris (Shailene Woodley) is faced with the decision of remaining with her family or transferring to a new faction, in an annual event where all sixteen-year-olds must take an aptitude test and choose their future. But when Tris learns that she is a Divergent, meaning that she will never fit into a single group, she is forced to change the way her mind works and attempt to fit in with the rest of her new faction, the ruthless Dauntless, and to hide her secret from her leaders who see being Divergent as a threat.
The following post is a review of the film only. You can read my review of the book on its own here or my comparison of the film to the book here.
Set in a dystopian post-apocalyptic version of Chicago, Divergent begins with a beautiful shot spanning over a run-down city, as Tris narrates the city’s history and how its government formed, explaining the five factions and commenting that she doesn’t know where she belongs. It’s a really great opening; the calm narrative and fluid camera movements contrast with visually striking imagery, giving you all of the information needed to introduce you to this new world without being too over the top or confusing.
The structure of this film works so well, having the aptitude tests, choosing ceremony, and then the initiation processes, slowly building up to something much bigger as we take our time understanding the dystopian premise and the characters’ place within it. The revelation of Tris being Divergent happens only ten minutes in, so the pace is set quite quickly and it all gets more action-packed from then on.
Divergent exceeded my expectations for many reasons, but what gripped me most of all was the way it explored the emotion of fear. A dystopia is defined as an imagined, unpleasant place, typically a totalitarian or environmentally degraded one, so fear has to play a big part in the society to make it believable.
George Orwell‘s 1984 has the infamous Room 101, whereas Divergent sees members of the Dauntless faction tested in a ‘fear landscape’ to see how well they deal with their personal fears. Having the constant threat of Tris’ indifference being discovered running through the whole plot, as well, gives us something to fear for ourselves, engaging the audience from the very beginning.
Roth doesn’t sugar-coat her dystopia. The book is notably more violent and some of the characters are much more threatening, but her story doesn’t shy away from conflict. Unlike The Hunger Games franchise, Divergent has a less violent premise in general, but the harsh realities are shown to their extremes with proper fight scenes and the use of blood.
And that’s how it should be. Totalitarian regimes try to act as if they’re doing things for the greater good, but maintaining control comes with many sacrifices. Here, people have their alternative motives, and they’re not nice to others just because they want to be in the same faction, showing that even friendships can be torn apart when people are fighting for what they want.
Of course, being based on a young adult novel, there’s the romantic distraction, too, seen here between Woodley and co-star Theo James (Four). The romance fits in quite well, however, as Four is unlikable for a large part of the film. Seeing Tris and Four’s relationship develop in this way means that, whilst the romance is to be expected, it never feels too sentimental or unnecessary.
All of this is complemented by a brilliant soundtrack, especially with the use of the track ‘Woodkid by Run Boy Run’ throughout the whole film, and excellent visuals. Many of the scenes from the book may have been changed in this adaptation (all of which I will go into further down), but many of them look pretty spectacular on the big screen. The scene of Tris zip-lining across the city, especially, is amazing.
As for the performances, Woodley is exceptional. We all saw how brilliant she was in her breakout role in The Descendants, but she proves herself even more so here. She’s definitely one to watch out for, whether it be in another action, a drama, or with a better focus on romance.
The only casting choice I found a little odd was that of Ansel Elgort as Tris’ brother, Caleb. It’s great to have Elgort involved in the series but, with the two having led the young adult cancer romance, The Fault In Our Stars, as lovers, it was slightly uncomfortable to see their brother-sister relationship here.
Nevertheless, Divergent also boasts excellent performance from the brilliant leading ladies, Kate Winslet and Ashley Judd, as well as up-and-coming teen actors Zoë Kravitz, Miles Teller, Elgort, and Skins star Ben Lloyd-Hughes.
This is definitely another young adult franchise to keep an eye on. I would suggest that you read the books first because there’s a lot that the film misses out on, but it’s an excellent franchise to get into, nonetheless.