Over the last few years it has become increasingly popular to complain about the originality of new releases. Making the blanket statement that “no one makes original movies anymore” is more than a little alarmist, and even if this were true, the argument does not extend to “movie adaptations are never any good.” It can be easy to forget that four of the last seven Academy Award winners for Best Picture are book adaptations including 12 Years a Slave (2013), Argo (2012), No Country for Old Men (2008), and Slumdog Millionaire (2007). Add The Departed, the 2006 winner adapted from the film Internal Affairs, and five of the last eight Best Pictures are adaptations, including the last two.
But while many film adaptations hit the mark, many more fall short, although I would argue that the ratio of good adaptations to bad is about the same as the ratio of good films to bad films overall. Divergent lands clumsily into this second group, and tells the story of a post-apocalyptic Chicago where citizens are divided into five factions based on their personality traits. In this world, order depends on the faction system so “everyone knows where they belong.” Our story centers on Katniss (aka Tris, played by Shailene Woodley) a “Divergent” who doesn’t fit into a single category and her struggle to stay alive in an increasingly corrupt society that rejects Divergents. In my April Flashforward, I credited the writing and acting as being the most suspect aspects of the film. But the problems really lie mostly in plot. Attempting to transform a popular source material into a marketable and modestly timed film, Divergent works itself into a mess. If a movie is built on four legs of acting, writing, plot and visuals (a gross and heretical oversimplification), this film stands only on its polished and exciting visuals with exciting fight sequences and interesting use of color. The other legs are horribly deficient and cannot carry the load of the film.
Determining why the film’s output is so poor, even with a good input, is complex. Without a doubt, the film takes liberties with its source material. I am only minimally familiar with Veronica Roth’s novel and admit that I have not, and likely will not read the book. But the film screams “shoddy adaptation.” Events pass by in the film with almost no weight. Scenes that should pack significant emotional punch whiz by with little buildup, imperceptible significance and almost no followup. Such lack of weight in the plot is a symptom of the adaptation format. We move from one big moment from the book to the next, but only get a glimpse of each. We are not able to see how each event plays out over time and impacts the story. Examples abound. Perhaps this is best seen in the relationship between Katniss and Four (played by the hyper-attractive Theo James), which is never truly fleshed out. Instead, their attraction is shown to us with loud gasps every time they come into minimal contact (Katniss nearly passes out when Four tries to clean her hand, and he reciprocates later when she touches his tattoo). Her other relationships are sacrificed as well. In the book, Katniss is part of a friend quartet, like the Harry Potter trio, but in the film we don’t see them together all that often. Because of this, when one of these friends betrays Katniss the impact is not as strong as it would be in the book. Christina (Zoe Kravitz) talks with Katniss about the betrayal and says “I can’t believe he would do that.” This is not a strong enough reaction. Katniss almost dies and Christina talks about it like someone stole her lunch money. After another character dies towards the end of the film, Katniss cries, her mother hugs her, and the two move on again.
Moving from one sequence to the next distills the writing, forcing what would be a five minute conversation into thirty seconds. The result is a script that feels culled from inspirational posters (e.g. Four: “Fear doesn’t shut you down. It wakes you up”). Overall, the cast is not strong enough to support such a script. There are exceptions, most notably Kate Winslet and Theo James. Many of the lines these two deliver are terrible (e.g. Four: “Take your time. I’m just enjoying myself in this shrinking box”) but their performances almost let us forget about the atrocity that is the film’s dialogue. Almost. Other actors can not disguise the lines as proficiently. Kravitz seems stuck with some of the worst including her second line in the movie: “Are they trying to kill us?” This is likely a mix of bad writing and her less than superb acting. She doesn’t deliver the line well, but the line was already bad on paper. She’s not terrible, but she can’t overcome her character’s role. One of the most comically awful moments in the entire film occurs when the Dauntless initiates applaud Katniss for standing up to Macklemore (aka Eric played by Jai Courtney), and one of her enemies slowly walks up, gives Katniss a head nod and says “Hey
Katniss Tris…that was nice.” I hope that quote is close because this moment was amazing (I forgot my notebook so I ended up taking notes on my forearm. Leaving the theater I looked like a crazy person with scribbles all over my arm and legs. None of which were legible). If you didn’t realize how contrived the lines were yet, there was no confusion after that confusing and out-of-place head nod.
The film is not without redeeming moments. Theo James is one of the more enjoyable presences. His character may be the most endearing and he acts the most like a normal person, even while those around him are behaving ridiculously. Late in the film he brings Katniss into the simulation room to train. She stops at the threshold and appears to be shocked by where they are, even though she had been in the room dozens of times. Four looks at her, confused by her confusion, raises his eyebrows and says “Close the door,” as in “why are you needlessly increasing the tension of this moment. We’ve been here before. This isn’t weird. Stop being weird. Close the door.” Well, maybe he doesn’t say all of that but this is the message I received. Elsewhere you can find some moments with genuine tension. The sorting hat ceremony excellently allows us to feel Katniss’ inner turmoil as she chooses her faction and the anguish of her parents as they await her choice. Four beating the hell out of some minions late in the film is also amazing. He tears his way though a room of scientists like a highly trained, professional soldier fighting lab workers who haven’t thrown a punch in their lives (which is exactly what is happening). But sadly, moments of great bad-ass are drops in a bucket full of “Mom what am I?” and “The test didn’t work on you…it’s not impossible, just extremely rare….They call it Divergent.”
Divergent is never able to figure out how to use it’s source material. The tone feels incongruous and nothing feels as serious as the film would like us to think. The writing is hollow because it needs to take shortcuts to fulfill both the book fan’s desires and fit it into a movie time cut. While I would argue that the proliferation of sequels, book adaptations, reboots and remakes is not as serious an issue as is often catastrophized, Divergent shows that movie adaptations from other media are always a tricky endeavor. Adaptations are not inherently prone to failure but the presence of an established and passionate fan base forces the film to answer an uncomfortable and occasionally unanswerable question: do you stick with the source material to please fans at the risk of alienating newcomers or take liberties that will anger the original fans? Sticking too closely to the source material can make a film confusing as only so many book-pages can be squeezed into around 120 film-minutes and thus bridging details may be lost. Rejecting source material can be equally damning, not just because it angers the fans (as the X-Men film franchise is wont to do), but because the source material usually has the most coherent, well processed content. This tends to be more true in the confusing world of sci-fi/fantasy. The Coen brothers could take liberties with Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men as the story generally can tolerate changes without losing the overall meaning or trajectory. But muck with a fantasy world like the X-Men, break certain canon rules, and things become inconsistent. Divergent‘s film story tries too hard to adapt it’s source and maybe it attempts to add in too many details. The film is like a three week tour hitting all the countries in Europe. Sure we saw all the big sites, but in the end we didn’t really see much of anything.
Rating: 4/10. After I watched the movie the first time, my rating would have been a 2-3/10. If nothing else, Divergent does a pretty decent job of presenting a relatively coherent and interesting post-apocalyptic world. The story within that world however is a little murky. At times I had troubles remembering which faction was which, who all the secondary characters were and whether or not I cared about them. (No one I saw the movie with had these issues).
Rotten Tomatoes: 41%
Where to see it: You can wait on this one. Theaters do not add much to the film and watching it at home would do the film all the justice it deserves. Maybe I’m just bitter because I paid $22 to see this twice.
Check out this review by Oh! That Film Blog, which gives a characteristically spot on analysis.
Thanks for reading!
Trailer (Note: this trailer has a lot of quotes taken out of context here and lines that weren’t in the movie. This isn’t the first trailer to alter lines, but there are a lot more changes here than is usual.)