‘Divergent’ fails book-to-film translation

Despite being filmed and set in Chicago, Divergent feels like a manufactured product churned out by the Hollywood system.


Divergent
Rating: PG-13
Running time: 106 min.
Stars: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Ashley Judd

With the booming success of the The Hunger Games trilogy in the peripherals, Summit Entertainment seems to be attempting to duplicate a piece of art unable to be duplicated.

Adapting from Veronica Roth’s beloved young adult novel of the same name, Neil Burger’s translation from page to screen is a whopping swing and a miss.

Opening in a deteriorating city 100 years from now, future citizens of this planet live in relative squalor by today’s standards, divided into five factions predicated on virtues.

We have the Erudite, hoighty-toighty intellectuals who sport blue button-ups. The Amity are peaceful hippie farmers who help others and keep to themselves.

The Dauntless are the de facto soldiers of the city, a wild pack fueled by the exhilaration that emanates from jumping off L trains. The Candor run the judicial system and are expectedly abrasive and forthright.

And lastly, we have Abnegation, heralded for their unabashed selflessness — as a result, this is the faction elected to rule.

Tris (Shailene Woodley) is our entry point into all this madness.

It’s that time in her life where she and many others are forced to take a test that will determine which faction you belong in.

Although her origins lie in Abnegation (both of her parents are at the political forefront of the group), she doubts her own identity. It’s a conflict anyone who’s ever been a teenager can relate to.

The exam serves as the catalytic agent of the film as Tris is deemed a Divergent — someone who, for some inexplicable reason, doesn’t fit into the five factions provided.

When it’s time for our perplexed protagonist to make a choice, she chooses to enroll in Dauntless against the will of her parents.

Divergent quickly segues into Tris desperately attempting to fit into her chosen faction. Her Abnegation upbringing didn’t prepare for the dangerous life of the Dauntless soldiers. The inductee process in this faction is one paved with exhausting mental and physical tasks few could endure.

As the film moves from our protagonist weathering the Dauntless’ bootcamp to her spearheading a covert coup, combat sequences are designed with grating familiarity: the good guys are outmatched by the bad guys, the latter of which will battle the good guys 1 vs. 1, securing their defeat.

Since time immemorial I’ve been baffled by this method of action. Surely no one believes that people physically assault one another in this idiotic manner.

Time after time the odds are stacked against Tris and company as they attempt to prevent Jeanine’s (Kate Winslet) malevolent mind-washing machinations from coming to fruition. And time after time again, our heroes come out of these situations favorably, albeit with a few inevitable casualties.

Of course no one expects Divergent to conclude somberly. We’ve grown accustomed to seeing our heroes prevail, no matter the nefarious threats posed against them.

But at least Burger could’ve imbued this dystopic universe with a drop of tension. Instead we’re given middling action to the tune of imperceptible and jagged cuts, ensuring complete obfuscation and indifference.

In hindsight, it’s clear Burger’s two finest efforts, The Illusionist and Limitless, were quality examples of American Hollywood films that effectively balanced art and commerce. Both pictures juggled provocative concepts with a healthy amount of intellect.

Divergent is not different from the rest of Burger’s filmography, as it too dabbles with the prospect of being a smart film about defying categorization in an age where labeling is ubiquitous.

Unfortunately, dabbling is the closest the film ever gets to being something of substance or intrigue. Even in the film’s few cerebral bright spots in which Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor’s middling script examines the illusion of free will and the inherent flaws of factions, Divergent comes up short.

Too often Burger punctuates these ideas — all of which run through Tris — with the aforementioned discordant action.

But I suppose the main letdown of Divergent is the material given to Woodley. Aside from her endearing eccentricities off camera, her charisma and talents as an actress have been confirmed in both The Descendants and The Spectacular Now.

Sadly, the dialogue she was forced to spew here is outright laughable. Perhaps the hackneyed narration and the grating platitudes in which characters interact will work for fervent fans of the novel (of which I have not read).

That said, it’s difficult to envision a universe where moviegoers will find the screenwriting here compelling. 

Considering this will undoubtedly be elongated into some sort of franchise, one can only hope Divergent improves upon expansion.