Review: 'Divergent' an ideal take on less-than-ideal book

Posted at 03/21/14 8:17 PM

Just finished reading the book "Divergent" by Veronica Roth before the movie opened today. It was a quick easy read. There was obvious inspiration from various other futuristic young adult books I have read, like "The Giver", "Ender's Game" and the "Hunger Games" books. Compared to the others, the treatment of the story in this book was likewise cold and very much more violent.

The setting is the walled city of Chicago after a great war. Their society is divided into five distinct Factions based on personality traits: Dauntless (brave), Amity (friendly), Candor (honest), Erudite (intelligent) and Abnegation (selfless).

At the age of 16, a child takes an examination to help him choose which one will be his faction for the rest of his life. He may follow the suggestion of the exam results, or he may decide on his own. Those who fail to be accepted into a faction becomes factionless, hopelessly poor and destitute for life.

Our heroine Beatrice Prior has been born to the Abnegation faction with their grey clothes and disdain for any form of vanity. However, her examination results are revealed to be inconclusive, so she has to make her own decision. Meanwhile, an uprising is brewing in Erudite against the government run by Abnegation.

I had some problem with the book and the way the author tried hard to make the Factions distinct from each other, when it is easy to see that overlapping does happen. These traits simply cannot be mutually exclusive from each other. It is also disturbing the way the author describes the Dauntless. Does being brave mean jumping off running trains, having piercings and tattoos, beating each other up mercilessly, or even killing yourself? This may give immature readers the wrong ideas about courage.

The film

The film was a perfectly conceived interpretation of the book. The first few scenes, where they show the walled post-apocalyptic Chicago with people wearing color-coded clothes distinguishing each faction, were done with visual clarity. How director Neil Burger showed us most of the memorable scenes in the book, like the choosing ceremony, the jumping on and off the trains, the "capture-the-flag" game, the fear landscapes of Tris and Four, and the invasion of Abnegation were all very well done.

There were some parts which were reinterpreted in the film. Most did not really affect the story-telling, like changing how Tris meets her Mom during Visiting Day, or glossing over a particularly violent episode where Peter stabs a fellow initiate in the eye. The role of Four in Tris' fear simulation was funny in the book, but turned violent in the film. There was one big change towards the end about how a climactic surprise rescue transpired. I thought the version in the book was so much more better set-up and exciting than the less-dramatic altered version we saw onscreen.

As I suspected, the tall and striking Shailene Woodley is definitely not the small and mousy Tris we imagine while reading the book. However, I thought Shailene gave an excellent portrayal of Tris' character, how she developed from a shy dependent girl to a confident fearless warrior. For people who have not read the books, they will not be aware of any discrepancy at all.

Theo James as Four had that strong quiet mysterious guy stance the whole film. However, he had very easy romantic chemistry with Shailene, so his character Four never really felt like a threat to Tris, unlike the initial parts in the book. The director gave James a lot of lingering close-ups for the benefit of the teenage fan girls.

Ansel Elgort, who played Tommy Ross in "Carrie" recently, plays Tris' brother Caleb here. His Caleb is less dynamic than I imagined him in the book. Coincidentally, Elgort has an upcoming movie with Shailene Woodley later this year called "The Fault in Our Stars" where they play boyfriend-girlfriend.

More up and coming actors play other more minor characters. Zoe Kravitz, who was in "After Earth" last year, is not exactly how I envisioned Tris' best friend, but she won me over as the film went along. Miles Teller, who was recently in "That Awkward Moment", plays bad boy Peter, whose role in the film is much diminished compared to the book. Jai Courtney, who played Bruce Willis' son in "A Good Day to Die Hard" last year, plays Tris' vicious tormentor in the training camp.

Among the senior stars, Ashley Judd makes a nice comeback of sorts playing Tris' mother, who had major secrets of her own. Maggie Q played Tris' examiner and tattoo artist Tori with the mysterious compassion. Kate Winslet plays the cool and calculating Erudite uprising leader Jeanine Matthews with icy perfection.

Overall, I thought this film was a very good interpretation of a book that was less than perfect in itself. So, whatever things the film might show us which we might not like, like the slow pace of action progression, and the questionable motives of the characters, are actually because the book told it that way. While still with violent scenes, the film mercifully dials down the violence levels in this film when compared to the book, for its PG rating.

Fans of the "Divergent" books will find this film version generally faithful. While it cannot compare to the high standard set by the "Hunger Games" film series in terms of cinematic quality and character casting (Jennifer Lawrence is a class of her own), "Divergent" definitely has its own entertaining appeal going for it. Sequels "Insurgent" and "Allegiant" already in pre-production, scheduled for showing in the next two years. 7/10

This review was originally published in the author's blog, "Fred Said."