Friday, February 6, 2015

Film Friday: Divergent (2014)

The formula for success in Hollywood (and the publishing industry) is simple: when you find something that works, do it over and over and over until it stops working. The Hunger Games worked. So what happens when you apply the formula from above? You copy it. That brings me to Divergent. I actually liked this film a good deal better than The Hunger Games even though it was clearly a knock-off. Let’s discuss.

The Plot

As with The Hunger Games, Divergent is the film adaptation of the first book in an international best selling young adult science fiction series. Also like The Hunger Games, Divergent is the story of a reluctant heroine living in a dystopia who gets called upon to save her people. There are key differences however. For example, in Divergent, the government isn’t evil, like it is in The Hunger Games. For another, the heroine, Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley), isn’t presented as a hopelessly naive outsider who struggles even to grasp the world around her. Instead, Beatrice is a rather savvy young woman who understands the world around her, but just hasn’t found her place in it yet.
Indeed, the reason the film is called Divergent is because Beatrice has divergent traits from the rest of her society. In the future in which she lives, the world somehow has been destroyed and the survivors now live in Chicago, behind a massive electrical fence. Their society is organized into different factions, based on different dominant personality traits: Abnegation (the selfless), Amity (the peaceful), Candor (the honest), Dauntless (the soldiers), and the Erudite (brainiacs).

When a child reaches their appointed age, they are tested to discover which faction fits them best. Then they are asked to declare which faction they choose for their affiliation for the rest of their lives. Most people have the traits of their parents and go into their parents’ factions. But some small percentage have the traits of other factions and switch factions when asked to choose. Still a smaller percentage are what is called “divergent.” Basically, these people have different traits than everyone else and they don’t fall into any one group when tested. These people are considered threats to society because they are independent thinkers.
Beatrice’s parents are part of the Abnegation faction and it’s expected that she will follow them. But when she gets tested, she learns that she is a divergent. Fortunately for her, this is kept secret from the government. She is then asked to choose a faction and she unexpectedly chooses Dauntless.

Following the selection process, Beatrice joins her new faction and must pass a series of tests to be accepted. In the process, she meets another divergent who guides her and she uncovers a conspiracy that threatens her entire society.
Why This Worked Better Than The Hunger Games

This film was a total knock-off of the Hunger Games formula, but I liked it a lot better than The Hunger Games. Why did I like this better? A couple things come to mind.

First, unlike The Hunger Games, this film doesn’t feel like it’s merely setting up sequels. Throughout The Hunger Games, I felt that much of what I saw had no real purpose in that film, but would become relevant in some future film. This wasn’t as bad as other films, such as The Golden Compass, where they introduced characters and story arcs that vanished from the present film with the narrator all but telling you that they would matter in the sequel, but The Hunger Games still felt like an introduction only to the real story. Divergent does not. Up until the very ending, Divergent feels like a complete story. It’s only in the last few minutes that you get the sense they are setting up for a sequel.
Secondly, I like the fact that Beatrice takes control over her own destiny from the beginning and never chooses to give up that control. Katniss from The Hunger Games, by comparison, is essentially a passive heroine who only responds to everything that happens and never chooses to take control over her own life. To me, this makes Beatrice a genuine heroine whereas I see Katniss as simply an accidental heroine. I prefer Beatrice for two reasons.

First, it makes the character feel more worthwhile that she is charting her own course because it means that she is showing traits like courage, strength, nobility, compassion, etc. because they are part of her nature. By comparison, a reactive heroine shows none of those things as she acts mainly out of fear and the need to survive, e.g. any bravery she shows is forced upon her events. Moreover, it gives the story a much stronger adventure feel because the heroine is out looking to achieve her goals. This brings a level of excitement and enthusiasm to the story which makes you interested to see what will happen next and what hurdles Beatrice must jump. A reactive heroine, by comparison, is merely pushed by the waves and the story has a rudderless feel to it. Indeed, a reactive heroine gives you little to cheer about because the heroine tends to wait helplessly as crises toss her where she needs to go to win the film.
The third thing I liked better about Divergent was the messages it sent. Some have argued that The Hunger Games is a conservative political tale about an oppressive, tyrannical central government, with Katniss playing the macho-Libertarian heroine who stands up to the elite of her world. As I’ve noted before, this is largely wishful thinking as none of that can really be found in the film. And even if it can be read into the film, contrary messages can be read too. Not to mention that this muddled message has rather limited application, especially combined with her being a passive heroine.

Divergent, on the other hand, has a clear message throughout: it is better to be a truly independent, free thinking individual than it is to be part of the herd. That’s a vital message to send and makes an even stronger, more useful libertarian message than the idea of bringing down a corrupt government through revolution. Indeed, this is the kind of message that leads people to demand greater and greater freedom from their governments, and it provides support to the very people who will make the world better, whereas the idea of finding oneself leading a revolution by chance is a pipedream.

Ultimately, these differences raise Divergent head and shoulders above The Hunger Games. These differences give the story more life, more philosophical punch, and made the story stronger.

Lastly, by way of clarification, let me point out that while this was a film I enjoyed, I can’t say this is a fantastic film. It is exactly what it appears – a Hunger Games knock-off aimed at teens. But is a better film than The Hunger Games.



Lucas Darr said...

Interesting. I dismissed this movie earlier because the book was so terrible I did not finish it. While I liked that the MC was certainly plucky, there were too many things that did not make sense.

If it was on Amazon Instant Video I would watch it, but uh.

Rustbelt said...

Andrew, when I saw the posters, they had "teen hero" this, "dystopia"that... 'Hunger Games parallels yadda, yadda... written all over them.
Glad to hear that there was (at least a little) more to it than that.
However, a few comedians were also quick to point out the similarities between The Hunger Games and Divergent.

Bob said...

Okay....Another film with a beautiful, teen waif who we are supposed to believe can kick a@* and lead men into battle. Sorry. To me this looks like another film in the "Women are Strong!" genre to "support" females efforts in self-esteem. Just like boys liked our super-heroes when we were young, I wonder how many young girls want to be super-heroes and leaders who can beat up men?
Yet, I guess a film showing a young man striking and physically assaulting a young woman to the point she'd be in hospital every time, wouldn't really sell well.
Thanks for the write-up Andrew, but just like Hunger Games and Jennifer LAwrence, I think I'll pass on this one for the same reasons.

.....and stay off my lawn!!

tryanmax said...

Excellent comparison, Andrew. I think you contrasted the two films spectacularly, and I agree, Divergent is a much more involving narrative than Hunger Games. (Though, in defense of Games, I maintain that Katniss being a passive heroine is rather the point--which is a remarkable artistic choice.)

A fourth distinction Divergent has, that you almost touched on, is that unlike the government in Games--which is a cartoonish puppy-kicking evil totalitarianism--the voluntary caste system in Divergent is believable as something that well-meaning people might have come up with to scrabble order back from disaster and chaos.

Overthrowing the Games regime is an obvious choice, it's not even binary as the alternative is death. In Divergent, however, Triss uncovers a coup plot and chooses to defend a system which heretofore persecuted her. Granted, the rising faction would have been worse to Triss, but the choice to defend a system that would not have defended her makes Triss' decision inherently more interesting than any choices* Katniss is confronted with.

(*Choices other than which boy to kiss. Which, in the face of national upheaval, civil war, and figure-heading for the rebellion is like, "Really!? This is your most pressing concern right now?")

djskit said...

I didn't hate this movie, and I think the male lead, Theo James has some real screen presence. I kept thinking I'd seen him in something before, but his IMDB profile says otherwise.

And I agree on the Hunger Games, the first movie was all set up, the second movie paid off and the 3rd movie was more set up. But I did feel that it had a better command of drama and emotional impact than Divergent.

AndrewPrice said...

Anthony, In all honesty, you won't miss this film if you don't see it. It's nothing special or memorable. What it is, in my opinion, is a slightly better film than The Hunger Games and it's interesting enough to watch if you are into those kinds of movies. I enjoyed it, but I don't fell particularly enriched having watched it.

AndrewPrice said...

Rustbelt, Your instincts were right. This is absolutely a copy of The Hunger Games, with only minor differences at various points. That said, I thought this was slightly better than The Hunger Games. So if you like those kinds of films, then this one is worth watching. Our two girls really liked this one (they liked The Hunger Games too, but not as much).

P.S. BTW, that second link (honest trailer for Divergent) is fantastic! LOL!

AndrewPrice said...

Bob, I will respect your lawn! LOL! :)

In all seriousness, I can't disagree with you. The film is ultimately ridiculous if you stop to think about it. These are people who live without visible means of support. They randomly have high tech. Their system of government is nonsense, as is the very idea that people have one completely dominant trait you can classify them by. And, as you note, she could never do the things she does. That said, it's an enjoyable enough film that it's worth recommending to anyone who is into this genre.

BTW, I should add that I don't think this film has any political intent. I think the only intent was to copy something that made money and hopefully make money too.

AndrewPrice said...

djski, Agreed about the male lead -- he had a very strong presence. I liked him a lot. I also felt he had strong chemistry with Beatrice.

As for your "I didn't hate it," I can't disagree with that either. Like I said, this isn't a great or amazing film, but it's not a horrible film either. It's an enjoyable enough way to pass the time.

Koshcat said...

I haven't seen this movie. I've read all the Games books and saw the first 2 movies. They were ok. I have read Divergent and part of the second book (Insurgent I believe) there are now 4 including Four. I thought the writing was a little better in Games up until the third book.

My daughter has devoured all the books and is begging me to watch this movie so I will probably watch it with her. Obviously, the writers and directors are aiming right at the 10-16 y/o market especially girls so in that respect they are successful.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, Thanks! I think these films compare quite easily with some clear distinctions, seeing as how Divergent is clearly a copy of Hunger Games.

You make a really good fourth point and it's something I wish I'd thought to discuss. The idea of society dividing itself this way is a classic science fiction set up for a social commentary on a great many things. The idea of a cartoon villain government, by comparison, is generally just an easy out to give the hero a purpose. Indeed, as you note, Katniss really has no choice. It's revolt or die. But Beatrice must make some interesting choices.

So in that respect, this film does set itself up for a lot more interesting issues. Sadly, I doubt these sequels will dig too deeply into these issues, but they are there should they wish to. Hunger Games doesn't have anything similar.

Excellent comment! :)

AndrewPrice said...

Koshcat, I watched this because my daughters wanted to see it. Otherwise, I would have skipped it. Ultimately, I enjoyed it. And you are absolutely right about the target market.

Jason said...

I did like the movie, though I’m can’t say I liked it better than The Hunger Games. I liked the ideas THG was exploring: the celebrity culture crossed with gladiatorial games, how Katniss needs to make herself likable so that she’ll draw sponsors, and as I love the short story “The Most Dangerous Game,” I was intrigued by the actual Hunger Games part of the flick.

Divergent felt like it had the more familiar story. We have the young protagonist who joins a school/military force, not unlike Ender’s Game or Harry Potter, rises through the ranks, gains scrappy sidekicks, and proves him or herself usually against bullies or snobby upperclassmen. So it was a bit of a letdown on that front once I knew what kind of story this was going to be; I thought there wouldn’t be much surprise. But I will say Shailene Woodley made for a more believable teenager than Jennifer Lawrence (J Law looked too much like a young woman to me), the mental tests were intriguing, I did like Kate Winslet and the primary male lead, and I think the movie did get better in its second half once it got past the Dauntless training stuff.

I guess I give THG more points for the ideas it presented, but I give Divergent props for its good points. I’ll be interested to see what happens in the sequel.

Anonymous said...

I didn't expect to like The Hunger Games, I was not the target audience and when I saw it I was quite surprised at how much I liked it, even the fact that it ripped off Battle Royale didn't sour me to it. When I heard about THG rip off Divergent I didn't bother seeing it as I thought there is no way it would be any good.

I finally say it last week at a mates house when we had nothing else to see that we hadn't already seen and again I was wrong. I didn't enjoy it as much as THG but it was a pretty good little movie, I will check out any sequels like I did for THG (I really liked #2).


Kit said...

Good review, Andrew.

I probably won't see it. In fact, the trailer interested me very little but a good review, nonetheless.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Kit! I can't blame you.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Scott! I thought both movies were ultimately better than they deserved to be and they were a good deal better than I expected, though I can't say that either was a great film. I would call them "entertaining/interesting enough to be worth seeing."

I too will be interested to see where the sequel goes.

AndrewPrice said...

Jason, Divergent does have a lot in common with Harry Potter and Enders Game. I think ultimately, they are all using the same formula and how enjoyable the films are will depend on the worlds they build and the chemistry the leads develop with the other characters.

I agree with you about liking that aspect of The Hunger Games the most. I just personally felt they didn't do much with it.

Anonymous said...

I'm one that actually also liked Divergent more than the Hunger Games . It's similar with it's settings, but that's where it ends. Divergent is pretty good

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