Few would be willing to accuse Veronica Roth’s “Divergent” series of being anything close to original. While they’re derivative works that don’t stack up against the best of their peers, the books are proficiently written with a healthy balance of dystopian future, action sequences, and teenage romance. In other words, the film adaptation of “Divergent” has a long way to go to prove its worth, especially in the shadow of the excellent “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.”
“Divergent” tells the story of Beatrice ‘Tris’ Prior (Shailene Woodley) as she navigates the customs of her post-apocalyptic Chicago home. The story begins as each teen is forced to participate in a test to determine the faction where they belong. It’s at this time that Beatrice discovers that she is Divergent, that she maintains qualities that could place her in more than one faction. Being Divergent makes her a target regardless of her faction of choice.
Following the Choosing Ceremony, where Tris decides to make the brave Dauntless faction her new home, she is put through various physical and mental tests to determine whether or not they will choose her. Her training sees her make friends and enemies with various initiates, as well as kindle a romantic relationship with trainer Four (Theo James). Amid all this, it is revealed that there is a much bigger and much more sinister problem brewing, and that the Divergent are not the only targets.
“Divergent” is a visual and aural pleasure. Shot on location in Chicago, director Neil Burger and cinematographer Alwin H. Küchler have created a film that captures a city in the aftermath of the apocalypse yet still full of life. Each group and each section of the city feels unique, despite how little time may be spent in them.
The score, featuring Ellie Goulding’s vocals mixed throughout, is another highlight of the film, and it’s surprisingly fresh compared to other films in this category. Concerns about how well this plan for the score would work in the context of the film are assuaged, as it blends perfectly into the film as a whole, consistently adding to it rather than creating distractions.
The acting is solid across the board, from the leads to each of their supporting players. Ashley Judd and Kate Winslet are particularly good in their supporting roles, while Woodley’s “The Spectacular Now” co-star Miles Teller makes the most of his surprisingly minor appearance as Peter.
To say that “Divergent” is a disappointment seems a disservice to all that it does right, but there is no better word to describe it. The story feels like a mix between adapting Roth’s best-selling novel and applying elements of a formula where they don’t necessarily belong. For every one moment where it feels like it might be on the verge of doing something special, there are two others where it stays on a ‘been there, done that’ path.
Tris and her fellow initiates are not given enough time to develop into anything more than symbols of potential relationships. Best friends and worst enemies alike all come across as nothing more than acquaintances. Despite its 139 minute running time, “Divergent” fails to find the balance between the major set pieces and the character-focused moments needed to make it more than the sum of its parts.
Fans of the series expecting a faithful adaptation will find more problems with the film than those whose first “Divergent” experiences comes in theaters. Plot elements and characters that were major pieces of the novel’s puzzle are diminished, displaced, or simply nonexistent. The entire story is streamlined in a way that seems to be looking to satisfy fans with the inclusion of certain parts rather than to tell the best version of the story possible. While it would be unrealistic to expect a film adaptation to retain everything from its source, some of the changes present in “Divergent” have direct effects on the impact and subtext of events throughout this film and the two set to follow.
There are good films, and there are good adaptations. “Divergent” isn’t really either of them. It is a film which excels in its mediocrity; never bad, but never approaching greatness. This, unfortunately, is a problem that “Divergent” is never able to overcome.