The second a filmmaking team takes on the task of adapting a hugely popular series for the silver screen, they are faced with a simple question. Whether to make this movie with the fans in mind, or to try to woo a wider audience, and by extension more bank at the box office? Oftentimes, the most successful adaptations will find a balance in the middle of those two extremes--think of “The Hunger Games” (which actually manages to improve on Suzanne Collins’ text) and “Harry Potter” franchises, faithful adaptations that pleased hardcore fans, but made necessary adjustments to their respective arcs to ensure that the narratives were palatable for the cinema, as well as casual fans and newcomers to the story.
Unfortunately, in trying to do as much as possible to please existing fans and bring new fans into the fold at the same time, Neil Berger’s adaptation of Veronica Roth’s “Divergent”, which hits theaters March 21, often feels flat. This clunky translation tries at once to cram in all of those “must-have” moments that fans have been waiting to see and at the same time to break down Roth’s complex world into something simple and easily digestible that can be spoon fed to the masses who neither know nor care what colors the Amity faction wears or that people in Erudite often wear glasses even if they don’t require a prescription. The result is a film with a tremendously talented cast stuck in a vast, rich world, but only allowed to move through it as if in an old-school platformer video game, when the story clearly begs to be something much more akin to an open world game. Allowing the characters to expand beyond their plot points and explore this fascinating, but unilluminated world would also give them the lived-in feel that breeds rounded and dynamic characters Instead, despite a 140-minute run time, viewers are instead rushed through an awful lot of story with very little depth, texture and development. For all that happens on screen, those who aren’t already acquainted with Tris Prior’s dystopian world may find the experience shallow, while those who have poured over the pages will be left to fill in the bits that make Roth’s narrative feel alive from memory.
And yet, a cast that includes the likes of Shailene Woodley, Miles Teller, Ashley Judd, Kate Winslet and Mekhi Phifer as well as a host of promising new faces manages to lift the film above these shortcomings, if not to the dizzyingly high heights of Katniss Everdeen and company.
Shailene Woodley stars as Tris Prior (nee Beatrice), a 16-year-old girl who lives in a post-apocalyptic Chicago where society has been divided into five factions, each of which serves a function and is defined by a dominant trait and set of characteristics. Children in this society are given an aptitude test at age 16 which is designed to tell them where they belong, so that they might make an informed choice when it comes to choosing a faction. Tris is born into Abnegation, a faction defined by its selflessness. However, when she takes her own aptitude test it is revealed that she does not fit into one faction, but rather that she holds an aptitude for three, a rare phenomenon that is referred to as being Divergent. Advised never to reveal this truth to anyone--for Divergence is deemed dangerous--and hide herself in a faction, Tris decides to leave her home and family in favor of Dauntless, a faction defined by bravery. The film follows her immersion into Dauntless and quest to understand what it is to be Divergent, and why exactly that’s so dangerous, which naturally leads to much bigger things.
Woodley has proven herself a more than capable actress and she doesn’t disappoint here, showing that she is diverse and compelling enough to shoulder the burden of a franchise. She enjoys a solid chemistry with Theo James, who takes on the role of Four, the resident hunk and love interest of the series. Though watching her spar with Miles Teller’s Peter, her nemesis, is often more entertaining, which shouldn’t come as a surprise given their great work together on “The Spectacular Now”. Kate Winslet--who, let’s be honest never ceases to be exceptional, even when stuck in a film that’s just mediocre––isn’t given all that much to do, much she makes an impact with her time as the big bad, Jeanine Matthews, resonating malice and the distinct sensation that though calm, she is dangerous. Ashley Judd enjoys even fewer scenes, which is a shame as what action she does get crops up in some of the stronger scenes in the film.
Devoted fans may well lament the stripping down and simplification of supporting characters like Al, Will and Christina and the seeming lack of trust in the audience that becomes apparent for the third act when big, climactic moments become rather rushed and presented in such a way that they can feel more like summary than action––something those who have never read a page of the novels will pick up on as well.
“Divergent” is far from a lost cause. It has a cast that’s stacked with talent and some moments that show some real glimpses of greatness and potential, but as a whole, it is uneven. Instilling more substance and allowing this talented cast to bring more complexity to their characters would do much to make “Divergent” the movie it can and should be. We can only hope that will be the case with the next installment; but, for now, the larger risk is that the film could receive nothing more than a lukewarm reception from hardcore fans and the uninitiated alike.