Saturday, April 12, 2014

"Divergent" - You keep using that word...

If it seems like there have been a lot of young adult (YA) books turned into movies lately, it's because there have. Last year alone saw seven such movies (The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Ender's Game, The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters, Tiger Eyes, The Host, and Beautiful Creatures) and this year will see five more, including Divergent. What you also may have noticed is that most of these films are not doing well at the box office, prematurely ending franchising dreams by the major studios; The Hunger Games and Percy Jackson being the only two that will continue on. Some folks have postulated the reason for the failures is that most of the series' don't appeal to adults and that teens are more likely to stay away from movies that don't have good word-of-mouth. In fact, you can draw a direct correlation between book sales and box office sales to measure real and expected success and confirm that the more books that were sold the higher the box office receipts. The one exception to this rule is Ender's Game, but Ender's Game was published thirty years ago when the term "young adult" hadn't been invented yet and was only lumped into that category recently as a marketing ploy.

(Side note: the term "young adult" was not invented to make kids feel older, but to make books written for children seem more acceptable for adults to read and, most importantly, not be embarrassed to admit they read. These are the same types of people that are too uncomfortable in their own skin to go to a movie or a restaurant by themselves.)

So, how does that bode for Divergent? Currently, book sales of the trilogy have passed 18 million copies, which is far better than most of the titles mentioned earlier, and has translated to over $100 million at the box office and counting. Interestingly, according to an interview with the books' author, Veronica Roth, the movie rights were purchased before even a single copy was sold and the sequels were greenlit well before Divergent actually opened in theaters. So, what is it about Divergent that made the studio so confident? In a word - dystopia.

The first two successful YA series were Harry Potter and Twilight - two series dealing in magic and the supernatural and nothing similar since has been even remotely as popular (see: Beautiful Creatures, Vampire Academy, and The Mortal Instruments). Then came The Hunger Games, introducing the dystopian future to young adults as if it hadn't been a common theme in science fiction for decades. Instead of being stuck with magic or vampires/werewolves, it simply created a setting in which everyone can relate and many successful films have used in the past. Drop in some younger characters to draw in the younger crowd, give them an underdog to root for against a repressive regime and - BINGO! - box office gold.

Divergent takes place in a near future, post apocalypse Chicago in which nearly everyone is part of one of five factions that now make up society. When each person reaches the age of 16 (why is it always 16?), they undergo a personality test to determine which faction they are best suited to join. The factions (whose names are words you have only ever seen on an SAT test or spelling bee) are Abnegation (selfless and also those govern the city), Amity (peaceful), Candor (truthful), Dauntless (brave and also the military), and Erudite (intelligent, though nobody in the film actually pronounces the word correctly; instead, pronouncing it Ir-ee-oo-dite and driving people like me crazy). Those that are not in a faction are referred to as the factionless, forcibly kept out of the factions and living on the streets (and begging the question, why are they not executed considering the society was designed to make sure everyone served a purpose?). But, as our heroine, Beatrice (Shailene Woodley), finds out, there is another group of people whose tests come out inconclusive and are referred to as Divergent, of which she is the latest.

According to her tester, Beatrice must never tell anyone that she is Divergent or she will be in "grave danger." The only explanation we get for the danger is that “Divergents can’t be controlled,” but we are never given any context or historical precedent for such a thinking. All we know is that the head of Erudite, Jeanine Matthews (Kate Winslet), wants to the kill them all. Luckily, the test results are only suggestions as each person has the right to choose whatever faction they want to join. This seems like a contrivance to allow for people like Divergents to hide, but this society seems to be somewhat lenient on certain things. Beatrice chooses to go to Dauntless, thus alienating herself from her Abnegation parents and revealing another odd and illogical trait of this society – parents whose children choose a different faction are looked down upon and essentially disown those children. Just don’t ask.

For much of the movie, the focus is on Beatrice (who changes her name to Tris) going through Dauntless boot camp, trying to make the cut while enduring insults from other trainees and abuse from an instructor (Jai Courtney). Because the movie spends so much time on character development, hardly any time is devoted to any real narrative and we’re left wondering where any of this is going. We’re shown a wall around the city, but no explanation of what is being protected against. We’re shown a ruined Chicago, but nobody bothers to explain what happened to make it that way. We’re shown that the factions are competitive with each other, but are left wondering why when it’s in their best interests to work together. And, you already know about their homeless, er, factionless problem. Eventually, a romantic subplot involving Tris and another instructor, Four (Theo James), develops, as well as another subplot in which Jeanine is going to take over the government, but they seem like distractions compared to the unanswered questions throughout the film.

I’d like to tell you that the book is better, but it suffers from the same problem. Everything is about Tris and we’re supposed to care because she is Divergent, but we aren’t given any real reason to care, any real narrative to invest ourselves in, or even why being Divergent is something of importance. The one saving grace is that everyone loves an underdog and we all want to see Tris beat the odds and make the cut at Dauntless. I just hope that the sequel (Insurgent) sheds some light on those questions and that the actors stop mispronouncing words.

Rating: Ask for four dollars back and a dictionary.

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