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Young adult fiction done wrong

Divergent

Rating:
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The latest attempt at "the next Harry Potter," falls to a frighteningly low standard. To merely say that the young adult craze, Divergent, is a complete Hunger Games rip off, would be not even fully be describing the extent to which, dare one say, absolutely nothing about this story is original.

Divergent, starring Shailene Woodley, Kate Winslet, and Theo James
Divergent, starring Shailene Woodley, Kate Winslet, and Theo James
Summit Entertainment

That is not to say that a story needs to be entirely original to be interesting or fun to read/see/experience. If that were true, than we'd have a handful of classics from Ancient Greece, maybe some Shakespearean plays, a couple Ancient Chinese writings, and perhaps a poem or two from Emily Dickinson, and that would be our entertainment in the world. What's the old adage? There are about eight or nine "original" stories that are just re-told again and again? Well, sure there may be something to that, but that does seem to be a rather pessimistic view of the creativity of humans over their existence, and frankly, selling human ingenuity short. There is such a thing as making something one's own, and though it may not be entirely an original thought, there are ways to bring something new to the table.

But Divergent is the extreme of imitation. If they were going for the "sincerest form of flattery," then they may as well have bought Harry Potter, Twilight, The Hunger Games, The Giver, and every other young adult fiction series flowers or chocolates or some other platitude, because there may in fact not be one single moment within this film/story that has not been seen or done before. It is the Las Vegas of stories—taking from so many sources, it has no real identity of its own.

To give a general synopsis, Divergent, based on the YA Veronica Roth book by the same name, directed by Neil Burger, is a story that takes place in a dystopian future Chicago landscape, where all people are divided into five factions: Abnegation (selfless), Amity (peaceful), Candor (truthful), Erudite (intelligent), and Dauntless (brave), based on their personality types. Problem number one: what human being is made up of one singular personality trait? It's an absurd premise from which to start, but nevertheless this is what is presented. Factionless people are forced into exile, like lepers of old, and nothing beyond that is actually explained regarding them.

That is just one example of the myriad of ways in which this story lacks any real level of depth. It relies heavily on its audience having an already-established understanding of or inclination towards certain ideas and concepts to a point where it seems to not think it needs to explain anything. "Oh this takes place in a dystopian future? Okay, I'm somewhat familiar with that theme." That's the general sentiment it plays out, leaving the viewer aghast at the nearly nil level of explanation regarding certain storytelling elements.

The tale stars Tris (Shailene Woodley, who despite having proved herself previously to be a good, young actress in work like The Spectacular Now and The Descendants, cannot breathe any life into this incredibly flat and wishy-washy protagonist through whose lens we have to suffer this arid storytelling). Essentially the character descriptions could end right there, as Tris is the only semi-fleshed out person in the entire story. Every other character is a completely flat mishmash of tropes and previously seen "types" from other stories.

"The guy," a trainer in the Dauntless faction, quirkily and ever so mysteriously named Four (Theo James, whose fate as an actor of being in the movie is nearly as bad as the fate of his character, "poor Mr. Pamuk," on Downton Abbey), is nearly indistinguishable from another trainer, Eric (Jai Courtney). Many of the characters are not really distinguishable by anything other than their colored clothing to determine their faction, and their occasional comments that would render the audience to believe the speaker uttering them is representative of whatever faction she or he is from.

Inevitably Tris finds, after the ceremony of her transference into Dauntless, (after having been raised in Abnegation—a one-time, irreversible switch citizens can choose to make in life, once they've come of age), that—surprise!—she's living in a world governed by a corrupt leader and an asinine structural system, and she doesn't fit into this world because even though, for whatever reason, (maybe she just wanted to wear black clothes instead of gray ones), she had an inclination to switch into the Dauntless faction, she herself doesn't fit neatly like a matching ball bearing into her new life's socket. She finds herself to have more of a range of emotion and sensibilities. She is a human being, and as far as one can presume, so are the other personality-less drones in this movie, and all these differences brand her: DIVERGENT.

The big baddie is named Jeanine (whose lackluster name alone indicates what could only be defined as laziness; what kind of evildoer could really be so bad and still be named Jeanine? It just doesn't really seem possible). Yet it is. So Jeanine, (played unfortunately by one of the greatest actresses of our time, Kate Winslet, whose level of talent knows no bounds and whose reasoning for being in this film one can only imagine must be because she was wondering what it would be like to wear hideous pantsuits and have a wig that looks like it was rejected from Hillary Clinton's Halloween attire), is on a mission to hunt down and kill any divergents around the land. And she is not happy with the way that Tris is "misbehaving" by not just blending into the crowd as another lifeless drone.

Inevitably the plot leads to a showdown between the two, after viewers have sat through one too many punches to the face. There is a way in which violence can be depicted on screen where it is essential to the story, and then there is just senselessness. The violence, particularly violence to women, in this film is downright disturbing. Where in The Hunger Games, we are presented with the heart and soul of the story, Katniss Everdeen, a strong, independent woman upholding the virtues of overcoming the evil President Snow and his plot to rule the world unjustly, here you have Tris, a girl who doesn't display real characteristics of heroism, but rather a vaguely archetypal imitation of them, whilst still trying to look pretty, bringing down the advancement of women, rather than uplifting it, as Katniss does. Furthermore, there is an altogether abhorrent scene depicted in a sort of trance-like state Tris undergoes during her trials, wherein she's being sexually assaulted by Four.

Although this scene is, as stated, not actually happening in real time, but rather in a sort of dream, contrary to what Veronica Roth or the filmmakers may think, that actuality negates none of the potency of its repugnant nature. This sort of scene seems out of place in the story being told, (however terribly), and what is worse, it denies the audience ANY follow-up scene of explanation or recognition of what was just shown. So viewers are left with a feeling that what they just saw either wasn't as bad as it absolutely actually was, or that they just shouldn't care as much as they absolutely actually ought to.

This is the kind of idea that feeds, rather than fights against, the very real, very destructive force in our society known as rape culture. Sexual assault is not funny. It's not to be taken lightly or discussed casually. It is a very literal and horrendous reality that is far more commonplace than publicly thought or discussed, and it should not be treated as something given a passing thought then absentmindedly dismissed in a young adult fiction. If it is going to be addressed, then actually address it, don't leave viewers wondering "huh, that was weird," then off to the next thought their mind stumbles upon, as if it's not worthy of one's full attention. In so doing, what is passively being stated is that all victims, past, present, and future, of this atrocity are not really important, that their feelings don't matter, that the damage done to them is not a big deal. This could not be farther from the truth.

For this very big reason alone, Divergent should be called into question as something worthy of one's time. But unfortunately for it, there is so much more beyond just this going wrong with the film; it is surprising that it has grossed as much as it has. And yet, it's not so surprising at the same time, because as aforementioned, its use of imitation is quite abundant, and it has imitated films and stories before it that were far more successful and worthwhile. So if it builds its success leeching off other, far greater, works of art, so be it. But in the end, time will bury this story, for nothing that lacks genuine, artful goodness at its core really lasts.