The story of Divergent celebrates bravery, compassion, and above all, accepting an emotional complexity that goes beyond a single characteristic. Unfortunately, Neil Burger‘s adaptation of Veronica Roth‘s best-selling novel is constantly softening that emotional complexity or dodging it altogether. The director is more focused on recreating the world of the novel, but rarely does he concern himself with fleshing it out and making the character relationships more than superficial. The result is a staggeringly safe picture in what’s supposed to be a dangerous setting.
Set a dystopian, post-war Chicago, citizens are divided into five factions, each one emphasizing a particular personality trait: Abnegation (selflessness), Amity (kindness), Erudite (intelligence), Candor (honesty), and Dauntless (bravery). Each one is assigned certain jobs, e.g. Abnegation runs the government because they’re public servants, Erudite handles science, Dauntless are the soldiers, etc. Every citizen must choose their faction on their 16th birthday, and are given a test to see, which faction suits them best. When Abnegation citizen Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley) takes the test, she comes up as “Divergent”, which she has to hide because it will make her a target for some mysterious reason. She decides to reject her family, chooses Dauntless, renames herself “Tris,” and finds her initiation exhilarating, but discovers that there could be larger conflict brewing between Erudite and Abnegation.
It’s a rich, interesting world, but Burger makes a bizarre choice in how to capture it. He seems enamored with the big, empty, dilapidated Chicago, and the living quarters of the factions. This sometimes results in clever touches like how Beatrice’s Abnegation family eats dinner around a single, tiny light bulb. But for the most part, he chooses to go with wide, open shots, which is strange considering that the story is about how factions constrain and divide citizens. Perhaps it’s supposed to be juxtaposition, but the approach fails because it doesn’t help us get a sense of Tris’ feelings.
We’re also kept mostly at arms’ length from her relationships. With the exception of her love-interest/instructor Four (Theo James), there’s not much depth between Tris and her stock friends and foes. There’s the spunky friend Christina (Zoe Kravitz), the asshole rival Peter (Miles Teller), and the brutal instructor Eric (Jai Courtney). Fellow initiates Will (Ben Lloyd-Hughes) and Al (Christian Madsen) barely exist, and the movie doesn’t have to be this way. While there’s a lot of story to get through, Burger manages to find depth and connection between Four and Tris through brief shots of their incidental touches, and its disappointing that he doesn’t apply those kind of touches to the other relationships. It’s mostly up to the actors, and while Woodley is good and has strong chemistry with James, she also makes some strange choices.
I’ve become a big fan of Woodley from her work in The Descendants and The Spectacular Now, but she has a difficult time managing Tris’ balance between her Abnegation and Dauntless personalities. There are moments when her eyes well with tears, but the character should be strong, and there are moments where she gets steely, but the scene calls for tenderness. She plays both emotions well, but they’re deployed at odd moments. She’s a good actress, but she and the film can’t hit the emotional depth the story requires.
Tris is a member of Dauntless—a faction that requires toughness, attitude, and a willingness to court death. But in Burger’s adaptation, they’re not even willing to embrace much in the way of pain. Their piercings are moderate (Eric has an eyebrow stud…Oooh!) and even their tattoos are easy. Instead of using a needle—you know, the thing that’s supposed to hurt—they just use a little patch that sprays on the tattoo. When the initiates fight in the ring, it’s a lot of feinting and maybe a bruise. The movie requires a PG-13, but Burger could have gone a lot harder and still gotten it. There are a few moments where the movie does find some real darkness (especially when it shows one of Tris’ fears), but for the most part, it uses kid gloves. I don’t think making a movie gritty automatically makes it better, but that attitude is inherent in Dauntless. And yet it doesn’t manifest itself on screen.
Perhaps Divergent‘s problem is that it’s running so fast to get through a lot of story that it misses the details that could make it come alive and the plot points that could help it make sense. Shortcuts are necessary and some aspects of the book obviously need to be excised, but adapting as much of the plot as possible is worthless if we don’t care about the characters in it. Sometimes we get enough like Tris and Four’s relationship, or a clever, snide remark from Peter (Teller is a scene stealer), but these are only hints of a much richer, more daring narrative.
Late in the movie, Tris says, “Be brave.” Burger should have followed her advice.