Ever since Harry Potter and “Twilight” became multi-billion-dollar franchises, the world of young adult fiction has been stripmined. A seemingly infinite number of potential film franchises have been launched from successful novels. They’re almost always books I have: 1. never heard of or 2. have no interest in. I mean, let’s be honest here. Most young adult fiction that gets picked for the film treatment is predictable tripe that exhibits familiar tropes. The target audience isn’t grown men for properties like “The Hunger Games.” It’s for teen and tween girls who don’t care if the movies contain well-developed characters or have plots that make a lick of sense. Young adult books tapped for film are the junk food of modern cinema.
I’m assuming there are levels here—that these movies contain good adaptations and bad adaptations. As a critic, it so often feels like grading stains: abstract smears of different colored mess across a thinly pulled piece of paper. I find them all equally terrible in their own way. There are the “Twilight” clones like “Vampire Academy” and “Mortal Instruments,” which play kissy-kissy with horror lore. Now, there are these wannabe “Hunger Games” clones that play around with dystopian sci-fi themes.
“Divergent” shows us a world with very specific rules. Society is broken up into factions based on virtues. At a certain age, people are sorted out and given a choice to join the faction best suited for them, or choose another. Once they’ve made that decision they’re done—and that’s what they do the rest of their lives. This scene stood out for me as I watched the film because it felt really familiar.
“Divergent” feels constructed from the creative palette of “The Hunger Games” and Harry Potter. There are scenes that screen like the bastard-child of the tribute selection or the sorting hat scene in “Sorcerer’s Stone.” Every beat, every moment of attempted tension, and every reaction feels borrowed—like I’m watching someone’s interpretation of a pre-existing piece of cinema. I had this weird feeling watching “Divergent” as I got watching Gus Van Sant’s remake of ‘Psyhco”: I’ve seen it done before, only a thousand times better. Even though it’s well filmed and stocked with some quality actors, we’ve been down this road before. Contrary to the definition of it’s title, my biggest criticism about “Divergent” is that it isn’t different enough.
At the heart of all these stories is a character (usually a girl) who feels different. The entire series of events in the film is engineered to inform us how special they are. The “Twilight” films always spent a weird amount of time telling us how special Bella was; “Divergent has that same weird vibe.”
It also borrows the idea that the lead character in a movie about a dystopian future must have an unconventional name. “The Hunger Games” gave us Katniss. “Divergent” presents us with Tris. Unfortunately for viewers, Tris (Shaine Woodley) is a lot less Jennifer Lawrence and a lot more Kristen Stewart—a very average actress who spends most of the movie under-reacting to various stimuli. Like Bella, she often comes across as a passive witness to her own destiny.
I’m not saying there aren’t good, young adult stories out there; however, the film adaptations are becoming grating. It’s the same damn story in a slightly different package. The out-of-place girl discovers she’s not only unique but has a role in saving the whole word. The wallflower discovers she’s the super-powered prom queen. I don’t want this rant to seem just aimed toward the female protagonists. I started to loathe the Harry Potter movies after three or four installments because Harry was usually the dumbest character in the story. He would stumble from victory to victory and seemed to coast by on his legendary status of being “the one who lived.” Yet, his more resilient, educated friends helped him figure out everything, really. Stories where the hero is immediately designated as “special” are kind of hollow because what did they do to earn their victories? Tris has this gift of being “divergent.” Harry is the chosen one. Katniss gets through the murder world of “The Hunger Games,” without any blood on her hands. She’s the mockingjay because … story reasons.
Starring Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Kate Winslet, Zoë Kravitz
Directed by Neil Burger