The spine of nearly every popular young adult novel is the idea of personal identity; that journey of self-discovery in which the protagonist, usually a teenaged girl, finds her inner strength while saving the world. This typically means bucking the societal norms of some dystopian future, and if there's a cute boy to make out with then even better! Veronica Roth's Divergent, the first of her best-selling trilogy (aren't they all best-selling trilogies, though?) takes an overly simplistic, somewhat absurd approach to the theme of self-discovery but benefits by fully developing the world in which that idea is explored. However, it's that world which is left sorely lacking as the transition is made to the big screen, leaving the rest wide open to some harsh scrutiny.
Blandly directed by Neil Burger and based off a photo-copied script by Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor, the world of Divergent is so bereft of stakes, momentum, and originality it becomes as taxing as the aptitude tests suffered by the lead character. In a future version of Chicago (an element hidden in the novels but freely revealed in the film, for simplicity's sake), humanity has been divided up into five ideological factions in the wake of a post-apocalyptic event. A somewhat muted Shailene Woodley plays Beatrice Prior, born into the faction known as Abnegation, noted for being selfless and extremely dull. The other factions are Candor (honesty); Amity (um, they're kinda friendly); Erudite (intelligence); and Dauntless, known for their bravery. At the age of 16, everyone must take an aptitude test to help decide which faction to choose. The system, installed mysteriously by the government, comes back inconclusive for Beatrice. Turns out she's a "divergent", someone with many attributes and thus unfit for any single faction. But Beatrice has always had her eye on the Dauntless because they run around, climb stuff, wear tight clothes, and get tattoos, so when the time comes to choose, that's where she goes.
The decision to switch factions is apparently a really big deal, the kind that breaks up entire families, but we are never really clued in why. The structure and rules of this society are poorly explained and full of logic gaps. A tension between the factions exists because the plot demands it be so, but the flimsy explanations for it leave much to be desired. Kate Winslet rocks a mean pantsuit (it's all she does) as Jeanine, an Erudite leader fomenting hatred against Abnegation and specifically Beatrice's family. She's also on the hunt for divergents, presumed to be dangerous because they think for themselves or something. It's worth noting that, despite the separation into factions, each person can still think and act of their own accord. It's frowned upon but it happens, and that fact makes the whole divergent thing in desperate need of clarification.
Re-christened "Tris" after joining Dauntless, the majority of the film is how she acclimates to her new group. Becoming an official member of Dauntless is no picnic, requiring weeks of combat and mental training. Coming from Abnegation, she's nicknamed "Stiff" and must prove her mettle in any number of crazy tasks. With the exception of best friend Christina (Zoe Kravitz), the douche bag Peter (Miles Teller, Woodley's The Spectacular Now co-star), and hunky trainer, Four (Theo James), most of the other initiates might as well not exist. It proceeds pretty much as one would expect it to with little in the way of surprises. Tris starts off lousy, and then goes through a quick montage where she starts improving her scores. Meanwhile, theoretical sparks fly between her and Four, who helps Tris hide her divergence while keeping his own secrets close to the vest.
While every adaptation should stand on its own, it's tough to look at the changes made and not get a little frustrated. Roth offers some good ideas to work with that may connect with younger audiences, namely how making those first adult decisions can be an alienating experience, judged by family and friends alike. Forging one's own destiny, even if it leads far from those held dear, is a rite of passage most teens can relate to. But the film removes any complexity, especially in Tris' relationships with her parents and Four. A big part of her character is the conflicted feelings she feels over leaving Abnegation, and the fear she has of losing her parents' love. It comes back up towards the big finale but without the proper context. Her budding love affair with Four could have been ported over from somewhere else and nobody would notice.
At 140 whopping minutes the pace is sluggish at best, only ramping up towards the end as a sinister plot comes to a head in a hail of gun fire. Woodley is no action star, and lacks the physical presence of Jennifer Lawrence, but she makes Tris' transformation from uncertain girl to confident leader believable and at times enjoyable. Even if her performance is a tad reserved it fits with her character's humble origins. If there's a reason to anticipate further sequels, it's her. While James' booming voice will have women swooning and guys jealous, that's pretty much all he has to offer as a romantic lead. Winslet rarely signs on for blockbusters like this, and hopefully the one-dimensional character she was given will remind her why.
Ironically, Divergent is meant to celebrate individuality yet there's nothing special about it to separate from the rest of the YA pack.