Be it resolved: Divergent is the new Hunger Games. I will argue in the negative.
Divergent is being endlessly called the new Hunger Games. The similarities are definitely there: strong, female, teenage heroine in a post-apocalyptic, repressive society fighting for her very survival by using her head and her unique skills. But I assure you, Divergent is not the new Hunger Games. And unfortunately, it really doesn’t even come close.
Divergent is about a perfectly-designed society gone wrong. In futuristic Chicago, after a major war, society has been divided into five “factions”: Erudite (the knowledge-seekers), Candor (the truth-seekers), Amity (the peace-seekers), Dauntless (the thrill-seekers) and Abnegation (the, um, selflessness-seekers?). This was done to make living together in peace and harmony easier. Each faction has its own place in society, its own job to do. Erudite are scientists. Candor are lawyers. Amity are providers. Dauntless are protectors. Abnegation are helpers. When children reach a certain age they are tested to see which faction they should become. Most stay with the faction within which they were raised. Some choose something else. But some don’t place on the standard test and have qualities from more than one of the factions. These are the Divergent. And our girl Tris (Shailene Woodley) is one of them. (Chaos ensues.)
I devoured the first two books of the Divergent series in one weekend about a year and a half ago. I loved it–I was totally wrapped up in the world of the Factions and Tris and her rebellion, the heady romance between her and super-sexy Four, her moral dilemmas and internal struggles. I was delighted by the heroine: I found Tris to be stubborn, conflicted, frightened, brave, smart, complex, thoughtful and occasionally infuriating. But I liked her. I wanted her to win. I wanted her to succeed. She had difficult and complicated relationships, to both herself and others. She had an edge.
The Tris of the movie adaptation, however, has none of these qualities. She’s doe-eyed where she should be shrewd; she’s simple where she should be complex; she’s yielding when she should be stubborn; she’s boring where she should be edgy. I don’t know who exactly is to blame for this disappointment: The screenwriter? The casting director? The director? The actress (who I think is the wrong choice to play Tris for a whole bunch of reasons)?
Let’s start with the actress. Woodley’s performance lacked urgency, depth, range, you name it. There was basically one moment of emotional depth from Woodley in the whole movie. It just wasn’t enough. For me, the number one reason that Divergent is not the new Hunger Games is because Shaileen Woodley is no Jennifer Lawrence. Seeing Divergent actually made me respect J-Law’s performance as Katniss Everdeen a LOT more.
Furthermore, the world that the film tries to create just comes across as flat. The conflict isn’t really all that well-explained. The villain’s motives are pretty one-dimensional, as opposed to the book’s Jeanine, who is much more interesting, I think. One of the other villains, Peter, doesn’t come across as a villain at all–in the books it’s clear he’s an actual psychopath, but here, he’s just sort of an ambitious douche. This society should be a lot more interesting. The film version is just kind of dull. I think it’s because it’s explained a bit too much with words instead of shown through visuals and interactions between the characters. The Hunger Games, however, shows us exactly what kind of world we’re dealing with, in vivid technicolor (especially Stanley Tucci’s hair!). It shows us in visceral and brutal ways the oppression the state regime has imposed in the districts.
I was sorely disappointed in Divergent, to be frank. And I’m not sure I’ll continue to see the rest of the movies in the franchise. The only thing that might keep me coming back is the utter gorgeousness of Theo James, who plays Four. He’s kind of perfect. And much more interesting and complex than the movie’s Tris.
Nevertheless, it’s been quite a couple of years for strong teenage heroines, which is super refreshing considering the sad state of affairs the last YA franchise left for us (I’m looking at you, Twilight). Teenage girls have always been major cultural drivers, but it seems that teenage girls are having a cultural moment right now where they are stepping into the spotlight in new and very visible ways. Sure, there are a number of things that even Katniss and Tris don’t bring to the table that would be very encouraging to see in a heroine (racial/ethnic diversity, for example). But it is nice to see young women taking the spotlight in new and exciting ways.