Is 'Divergent' the next 'Hunger Games' teen film smash?

Posted at 03/19/14 10:42 AM

Cast members Theo James and Shailene Woodley of the new film "Divergent" pose at the 51st annual Publicists Guild Awards. Photo by Fred Prouser, Reuters

LOS ANGELES - The studio that produced "Twilight" and "The Hunger Games" is at it again: "Divergent" is the latest teen adventure saga with a fearless female heroine battling the odds in a post-apocalyptic future.

All eyes in Hollywood are on the box office fortunes of the movie, which hits theaters in the United States on Friday.

Adolescent adventures have made a mint for the Santa Monica-based studio Summit-Lionsgate: the five "Twilight" films earned $3.3 billion globally, while the two "Hunger Games" movies so far have taken in over $1.5 billion, and two more films are to follow.

Studios are keen to find successors to these mega-franchises based on best-selling Young Adult novels.

But some do better than others: Universal failed with "Beautiful Creatures," while The Weinstein Company had a flop with "Vampire Academy."

"Divergent" features many of the main plot points that made "The Hunger Games" a blockbuster success: a future post-apocalyptic world, and a courageous teenaged girl aiming to save the world from tyrants.

Relative unknown Shailene Woodley -- whose credits have so far come in independent films like "The Descendants" and "The Spectacular Now" -- said she asked Oscar-winning "Hunger Games" star Jennifer Lawrence for tips before her leap into the commercial big leagues.

"I sent her an email. I was just curious, she had gone from doing indie films to doing 'Hunger Games,' which is a giant film obviously, and I wondered if it had changed her life in positive ways," Woodley told reporters.

Lawrence's reply? "She said, 'Don't do anything stupid. Don't do drugs. Don't make a sex tape. And don't go to (grocery chain) Whole Foods the day the movie opens'," said the 22-year-old actress.

In "Divergent," set in Chicago, society is divided into five factions: Abnegation for the selfless, Amity for the peaceful, Candor for the honest, Dauntless for the brave and Erudite for the knowledgeable.

At the age of 16, every adolescent must choose their faction for life, helped by a personality test. But Woodley's character Tris turns out to be Divergent -- a rare finding meaning she has the skills of several factions, not just one.

- Finding 'inner voice of Tris' -

This makes her a danger for the established order, and a target for Jeanine (played by Kate Winslet), an Erudite leader seeking supreme power.

"For me, the hardest thing was to get that inner voice of Tris, to get that sense of what she was feeling," director Neil Burger told AFP in Beverly Hills ahead of the movie's release.

In the best-selling book by Veronica Roth, Tris is 16 years old. But Burger deliberately chose to make his heroine older.

"We did that for two reasons: Shailene is a little bit older, and also I felt like the story was a very grown-up story, actually," said the director.

"Even though it's based on a Young Adult novel, I don't think there is anything young about it. I thought all the concerns and themes and issues in it were things that adults of all ages deal with."

Woodley said she drew on her own internal struggles from adolescence to play Tris.

At that age, "my struggle was 'How do I balance the empathetic and being compassionate towards my peers, and also living my life for myself and not basing my decisions on those around me?'" she said.

Apart from Winslet, the young actress found herself largely surrounded by a group of young up-and-coming Hollywood actors including Miles Teller, Theo James and Ansel Elgort.

Elgort, who plays her character's brother, made indie film "The Fault in Our Stars" with her immediately after "Divergent."

"Shailene is one of the great actors of our generation, in our young age group," he told AFP. "For them to put me with her twice in a row is a huge compliment.

"It's saying that I might be of the same caliber, and that's just awesome."

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