Let’s get this out of the way quickly; I thoroughly enjoy campy, ridiculous Young Adult book adaptations. One of my favorite films of 2013 was “Beautiful Creatures,” and I feel no shame for saying that. I love overly melodramatic books, and when they are lucky enough to be made into movies I tend to enjoy them for what they are – pure angsty fun.
So, of course I was already pre-thrilled to see Veronica Roth’s “Divergent” series make it to the big screen. Despite choosing to skip reading the novel – an experiment I decided to undertake so as to not sway my allegiance one way or another in advance – I was ready to dive deep into a war torn and dystopian Chicago. The potential smattering of violence and teen love appealed to every bone in my body.
Beatrice Prior’s (Shailene Woodley) story begins as many dystopian stories do – with her having to make a choice that affects the rest of her life at the turning point age of sixteen. In this world, the society you are born into does not always stay the society in which you remain. After the war was over and the remaining society built a wall to keep out others, the survivors were split off into five groups, known as factions, supposedly for their own safety. Each faction appeals to a specific personality trait, Dauntless (fearless), Amity (peaceful), Erudite (intellectual), Candor (honest), and Abnegation (selfless). An air of revolution engulfs the people, but they try to stuff it down and hope for a simpler, safer, and more organized life.
Beatrice grew up as Abnegation, a faction known for its selfless nature and natural leadership ability, but she is not so hot to trot for this altruistic grouping. She does not take to it easily, unlike her brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort), who is a natural utilitarian. Woodley embraces Beatrice’s repressed emotions so beautifully in her early scenes, appearing to force down her feelings and desires as if it were a shapeless blob of oatmeal. Her stunning features hidden behind sullen looks and deep sadness. In Abnegation no one is allowed to care about his or her appearance and even stealing a glance at a reflection can cause discomfort.
In these introductory moments Woodley’s Beatrice describes the upcoming selection day process, a two-part event that features a dystopian style Myers-Briggs test and a later declaration of faction alliance. Typically these young people choose to stay in their born factions, but after an inconclusive test that dramatically claims Beatrice does not fit into one box, making her a government hated Divergent, the young woman chooses to keep her results a secret and flee Abnegation for Dauntless. Once she literally jumps from a train and moves into the underground lair of Dauntless the film leaves behind its more melancholy tone and embraces the violence and brutality we expect for a film about government uprising.
Enticingly, the film touches on more adult themes than we have seen in previous YA adaptations. Unlike “Hunger Games,” which is a franchise built around the disgusting spectacle of children killing children, “Divergent” shows a young girl’s transition into adulthood as multifaceted. She worries about falling in love with her superior officer Four (Theo James) just as much as she worries about surviving her training. Beatrice’s self-empowerment is the story here, and her fear that her Divergent nature will be exposed fuels her enough to make for a thoroughly enjoyable and invigorating film.
“Divergent” is special in its ability to put proper weight on the darkness of life after a catastrophic societal collapse, but it is also special in the care it takes to create a full and colorful heroine. The film does not shy away from taking its time to open up Beatrice’s world, and with every second you spend with her you connect and empathize with her struggle and her ability to change, adapt, and amaze her friends, enemies, and herself.