It seems to be a rule that to write about Divergent, you have to mention Hunger Games, so let's just get this out of the way: Divergent is no Hunger Games. It's what gets made to capitalize on the wild success of Hunger Games, and it will do well partly because of Hunger Games (which I think is an excellent, well-made film).
But Divergent remains good on its own. I was hooked from the first scene. It doesn't feel derivative, though it has a lot in common with its cousin. Both are based on bestselling YA novels that take place in a dystopian future. Both feature strong, intelligent teenage heroines, and both have love stories that take a back seat to the business of overthrowing oppressive regimes. Both also offer biting (if incomplete) critiques of various sorts of political and social problems that confront us today. By my lights, these are all positive things, especially for teenagers, who are plenty smart enough to get it if they're led well.
But while pretty much everyone besides the few wealthy citizens of Panem's Capitol know that the whole spectacle where they make teenagers fight to the death is a bad thing—a sort of fascist-socialist hybrid in which some are very wealthy and others are very, very poor and everyone is under the government's thumb—Divergent's post-apocalyptic Chicago walled-in enclave seems at first to be a happy place, though it's just straight-ahead fascist.
In this society, the "founders" segregated citizens into five "factions," a word that seems to have been stripped of its negative connotations. Factions are a sort of enlightened caste system, with all factions supposedly equal and membership based on what business types would call your "core competency." Your faction defines what you do with your life: service (Abnegation, the public servants), intelligence (Erudite, the scholars), peacefulness (Amity, the farmers), honesty (Candor, the lawyers and judges), and fearlessness (Dauntless, the protectors). Those who belong to no faction are the factionless—poor, hungry, homeless, dirty, to be pitied and feared.
Teenagers take aptitude tests that tell them which faction they're best suited for, and then they're allowed to choose which to join. Many end up in the faction their parents raised them in. Others choose based on their aptitude, or on the one that interests them most. Once the teenager chooses—in a ceremony witnessed by the entire community—they're not allowed to reverse their decision. They've chosen for life.
(A brief aside here: these tests rather clearly correlate with the career tests, and personality tests, and even those "which season/sandwich/celebrity/Disney Princess are you" Buzzfeed quizzes that we youngsters seem to endlessly take which seek to categorize us so we can "find our place" in the world. No accident that this occurs in a story written for teenagers.)
Our heroine, Beatrice (Shailene Woodley), was raised in Abnegation by her loving and competent mother (Ashley Judd) and father (Tony Goldwyn), who is second in command to the leader of the society. But her test results are inconclusive, a point that freaks her tester out enough to make her usher Beatrice out the back door and warn her to tell no one, not even her family. Beatrice has always admired Dauntless, she tells us, but she's as surprised as anyone.
On choosing day, then, Beatrice isn't quite sure what to do. Her parents assure her and her brother—who is choosing as well—that they will love them no matter what they pick. Beatrice picks Dauntless and is whisked away to her initation, where she discovers that not everyone who chooses Dauntless gets to be Dauntless. There are a series of training exercises and rankings to tackle, both physical and mental. Those ranked "below the line" will be kicked out and factionless.
Beatrice—who renames herself Tris—initially ranks quite low, especially after a disastrous first fistfight. But she works tirelessly and slowly climbs the ranks, prompted and mentored by Four, a handsome Dauntless with an awesome tattoo. Four seems different than the others, and he and Tris grow closer, especially after the second stage of training begins, in which initiates must overcome their greatest fears in a mental simulation while their trainers watch them do so on screens.
The thing is that Tris overcomes her fears (birds and fire and drowning and such) in a way wholly unlike Dauntless: she beats the simulation by recognizing it isn't real, something a Dauntless would never do. Four realizes Tris isn't ordinary Dauntless at all. She's Divergent—someone whose competency is in multiple areas, someone who can't be neatly categorized and boxed up.
This is a problem because (for mostly vague reasons, though we can guess), Divergents are a threat to the society's leaders and are getting systematically picked off. And as they catch wind that the Erudite are planning to overthrow Abnegation as leaders, led by Jeanine (Kate Winslet), it seems Divergents are in a particularly precarious place.
I should say that I didn't wind up reading the novel before I saw the movie, so I'm not sure whether the film hews closely to its source material. What I can say is that Divergent is a solid movie, far better than most fare for its demographic, and one that most parents and teens could see together and discuss afterwards profitably. But it's not a great film. I can't say for sure whether fans will be pleased. I suspect they will.
That faithfulness to the novel may be what keeps Divergent from being as good as the Other Movie. It focuses so closely on plot (and there is a ton of plot here), and on Tris's transformation into a kickbutt fighting machine, and the romance, that it ignores some of the political and emotional weight it could have had as proper dystopian scifi. (For starters, it's a bit tricky to sympathize with a teenager who apparently does love her parents, but doesn't suffer angst about leaving them behind, apparently forever.)
And this is not a very interesting screenplay, nor a very good one. It feels, at times, perfunctory: hitting all the plot points just fine, but without a ton of imagination, especially as it concerns dialogue. (The moment when Tris delivers the line "I'm not Dauntless, I'm Divergent" had to have been written expressly for the trailer, right?)
Yet, one big reason the movie largely succeeds is its heroine, Shailene Woodley, with whom I've been enamored since her stunning turn in The Spectacular Now last summer. (Her co-star in that film, the very talented Miles Teller, has a sizeable role in this movie too, and it was great fun watching them, especially in a scene where they have to take swings at each other in the boxing ring.) Theo James as Four is a worthy leading man, and any supporting cast involving Kate Winslet and Ashley Judd is always going to be good.
(By the way, one sign that YA dystopia has graduated completely beyond the "genre fiction" category is the quality of its adaptations' supporting casts; add Divergent's to Hunger Games', which includes Donald Sutherland, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz—his daughter Zoe is in Divergent—Stanley Tucci, and the great, great Philip Seymour Hoffman.)
But Divergent left me wishing it more carefully dealt with its political and social implications—teenagers know keenly the feeling of fighting to find one's identity against categories, sure, but the story's answer seems to be "just face your fears and you'll be okay." Okay. Bravery is important. But what about a sense of the danger of social engineering based on "science"?
One political fear the story touches is also worth mentioning. The trouble really begins when one faction—Erudite, the learned, who essentially stand in for the intelligentsia—plot to overthrow the selfless faction in charge of public service, a task they would accomplish by subjugating the strong soldier faction.
This is where we first catch a whiff of something truly sinister. It's effective largely because it taps into a widespread fear in our age of populist movements on the right (Tea Party) and left (Occupy): that our political systems are being overtaken by people who are groomed for that spot their whole lives, and who are not in it to serve the population, but rather to exert a Nietzschean will to power.
That fear is strongly reflected—and reflected upon—in our many, many political television shows, like House of Cards, Scandal, Homeland, The Newsroom, and more (I've written more about this here). I don't know where Divergent is headed, but it seems the factionless may have something to say about all this. (If they don't, it's a failure of the books.)
That said, seems relentlessly positive for teenagers to imagine themselves into a role where their intelligence and empathy and courage and honesty and peacefulness might bring about justice for the oppressed.
One other plot point seems worth mentioning here: those raised in Abnegation are expected to always think of others, rather than themselves. And so they also are raised to avoid mirrors, to not think about themselves, to not think about their own talents and skills and strengths.
The movie uses this to develop Tris's character, as she looks at herself more and more as she comes into her own. As I watched, I thought this may especially ring true to many Christian teenage (or formerly teenage) girls who, like me, were raised in a culture that encouraged them to ignore their looks—and, to a large extent, their gifts, if they didn't fit a mold.
Of course, caring for others is at the heart of Christianity. But so is standing up for the truth, being wise, exercising courage, and fostering peace. There's something to Four's idea that he'd like to be all of those things—and something dangerous and even sinister when, in our zeal to help people discover their "unique" gifts and talents and personalities, we ignore the fact that it's just those things we're not naturally good at that we ought to work at.
But back to the movie: Divergent is worth watching, if only to see our next Hollywood princess in action, and because it taps into something we're feeling these days. It's worth watching as another warning against social engineering and fascism. And it's worth watching because, on the whole, teenagers (and former teenagers) need stories that call them to bravery and intelligence and peace and honesty and service to others, and we can be glad this is yet another.
One thing that Divergent may have over Hunger Games for many audiences, particularly CT readers, is that it's simply not as dark. It is apparently far less violent thant its source material, and there's no equivalent of the Panem arena. The teenagers do have to confront their fears, which are fairly conventional—birds, drowning, heights, wolves, even having to shoot an innocent person—but two fears may be triggers for some viewers: rape and/or objectified sex (we see nothing graphic, but clearly know what the fear is) and physical parental abuse.
Tris tells Four that she "doesn't want to take things too fast" when they first kiss, and he readily assents, agreeing to sleep on the floor while she sleeps in his bed. There is of course violence, and people get shot, including some key adult characters. A character gets stabbed through the hand with a knife. Many people get beat up in hand-to-hand combat. There are intimations of genocide. Profanity is kept to an almost unnoticeable minimum. Teenage boys and girls live in the same dormitory, but that's all we see or know.
My only real fear is that teenagers may miss the overall menacing nature of the kind of controlling society that Divergent faces us with, which is up to parents and wise teens to discern and discuss.
Alissa Wilkinson is Christianity Today's chief film critic and assistant professor of English and humanities at The King's College. She tweets at @alissamarie.