Of late, the young adult novel (or YAN) has become something of source material in Hollywood, with former efforts providing powerhouse production companies with the knowledge of what to aim for: a success of Twilight proportions if you’re lucky, yet recent miss The Host (2012) if not so. The latest to step up to the plate is Divergent, and with it comes a hugely loyal fan base to appease – one which partitions Veronica Roth‘s trilogy as the One Direction of the YAN.
Divergent immediately sets to introducing its very own dystopian universe – only here it’s our world with some glaring differences. Based in a walled-off Chicago, this world divides cities into factions based upon an individual’s personality. All 16-year-olds must take an aptitude test which in turn reveals a group that best matches their characteristic; we have Abnegation (selflessness), Amity (peacefulness), Candor (honesty), Dauntless (braveness) and Erudite (intelligence). Think Hogwarts houses, only permanent; once picked, a change is not permitted.
So, with an intriguingly futuristic setting introduced, it’s time to tick off another YAN trope: our heroine. Luckily the leading lady baton is snatched up by Shailene Woodley, a capable actress denied the opportunity to show her stripes for too long (it’s been three years since she shone bright in The Descendants). As Beatrice Pryor, she is a 16-year-old Abnegation longing for a life away from all that she has known – represented well in an aptitude test which appears inconclusive. Beatrice discovers she is a rare blend of all of the groups, branding her Divergent. At her Choosing Ceremony, Beatrice picks Dauntless, a factor made up of reckless adrenaline-loving thrill seekers who jump out of moving trains as readily as eating breakfast, and Beatrice (re-naming herself Katni- er sorry, Tris) learns that being Divergent comes at a very dangerous price.
As a stand-alone stab at the genre, director Neil Burger (Limitless) has crafted a decent, if flabby, attempt at bringing this world to the fore – and carving it out as memorable despite a slew of dystopian settings shading the world of this young novel adaptation. The location is fixed, the characters familiarised and the overarching conspiracy pitted, ready to provide danger for characters that teenage girls the world over will undoubtedly care deeply about.
The supporting cast make passable attempts at putting stamps on their assigned roles, with Maggie Q’s tattooist Tori and Theo James’ male lead, Four, setting the benchmark for what are sure to be roles they will both return to for sequel Insurgent. James especially being commendable for being one part of a love interest that doesn’t completely irk. As for Kate Winslet (here playing antagonist Jeanine Matthews), you can probably spot the Oscar winner counting her salary out if you look close enough.
Seeing this film as the first of a trilogy works well, as this is effectively Tris’ origin story. Relentlessly trained up by the Dauntless honchos, she is pushed to the brim, skirmishing death and locking heads with her drill Sergeants in entertaining segments. Engagement is made all the easier by these well executed set-pieces (all you’ll want to do once the credits roll is ride a zip wire home…), however what remains inescapable is the feeling that we are simply re-treading ground already covered by another set of films; films which succeed on a far bigger level than Divergent manages to.
You know which we’re talking about.