Quick background: Wendy really liked the first book, though Kate was more middling about it. (Here’s Wendy’s Divergent review if you’re curious.) We both also chose not to refresh our memories with a reread to see how the film held up if we weren’t clear on as many details. Spoilers abound for book and film, so read on at your own risk!
Wendy: Going into all such films, I have two questions: how good is this as an adaptation? How good is this as a film that stands on its own?
I’m just going to say it: I think the Divergent film adaptation was better than both The Hunger Games and Catching Fire. As books, I liked THG more, but as films, I think Divergent trumps them both. While I thought that the more action-oriented plot of this book would lend itself well to a movie, I am still surprised, but very pleased, by how much I liked it. Such a promising start to this franchise!
Kate: I agree. When I read the first book, I gave it a tentative 3.5 stars, thinking I would bump it up if the things I found to be problematic (My number one peeve here, even above the anti-intellectualism and religious stuff, is that the factions’ names are not parallel. Two are adjectives and two are nouns. Drives me up the wall.) were fixed in the next book. I very much did not enjoy the second book, and I did not read the third one. I am shocked that I loved this movie as much as I did.
Wendy: I wasn’t a huge fan of Insurgent either, and have yet to read Allegiant, though I know what happens. Just as they do in the first book, the Dauntless kind of run around in the film doing reckless things for no apparent reason, but the film actually helped me to accept them a little more. I liked that you saw how exhilarating taking risks could be to a daredevil personality, and some of the scenes were really fun to watch.
Kate: Yeah, in the book, Dauntless felt like a little boy’s idea of what is cool. And the things that bothered me about the book were what bothered me in the movie, but not nearly as badly. Shailene really grounded it with that super-expressive face.
Wendy: I turned to you at one point after seeing tears well up in those gorgeous eyes of hers and whispered, “She is SO good at that.” Her performance felt so focused and sincere and natural, both in the parts where she had to be stoic and in the parts where she had to be emotional. And as much as I like Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone and as an utterly delightful public figure, I think Shailene had all the tools in place with this project to really connect with the audience on a level that J.Law did not, at least for me. She also physically inhabits this role in a way that makes Tris seem very real.
I was also dreading the trials, because I thought that was going to be really difficult to portray in a way that didn’t feel goofy or forced. But they did an excellent job! They showed us an enormous amount of back story and it felt urgent and surreal enough without being dumb. Or spending too much time on it, which I think is a mistake a lot of filmmakers would have made.
Kate: This is true of a lot of things from the book—they managed to touch on pretty much everything without getting bogged down. The thing with the dog and the knife (in the movie she’s shown a hunk of meat instead of cheese) was perfect. This scene was the point where I realized that this movie was really going to be something special. And I loved when she figured out that the fear simulator wasn’t real and broke the glass by tapping on it.
Wendy: I wasn’t sold on these actors in these roles before I saw the film, but I also really liked Theo James as Four. I was bit worried he was too mature for the role (he already seemed a little older as Mr. Pamuk in Downton Abbey), but in changing their approach to Four somewhat, the filmmakers and his performance really made it work.
Kate: I think I’m actually the only person alive who WAS sold on Theo James ahead of time, because he has an intensity that I find very, um…appealing. Sexually. He’s only like six years older than Shailene. I also like the way that his eyes are so close together, because it makes him look a bit like a dinosaur, and you know how I feel about dinosaurs.
Wendy: I…think this is probably the first time he’s ever been compared to a dinosaur. But yeah, he’s clearly older and more experienced, but the dynamics didn’t feel creepy, even though he’s her mentor.
Kate: Those costumes were great, huh? This movie is a good example of something that I could never do as a costume designer. Everything from the silhouettes to the fabric textures was so distinctive from faction to faction. It’s so much harder to costume a movie like this, because you have to make everything for all the extras, and I think they did an unusually good job of not dressing the extras in second-rate, undetailed costumes. They looked like they really belonged in the world. And they didn’t sex the costumes up! Tris looks like a dumpy lump in her Abnegation dress, and no one ever really has cleavage or anything.
Wendy: The costumes and sets were very well done, and they clearly spent some time and money on this film. I mean, basically they did everything that we said Vampire Academy should have paid attention to.
Kate: Actually, Wendy, that’s a thing I loved about this movie in general: the girls and women in it were never sexualized. There was nothing male gaze-y about it, and Shailene looked (even though she’s in her twenties) like a normal teenage girl. She doesn’t have movie star proportions or anything. (Unlike, say, a Jennifer Lawrence, who is a curvy bombshell of a woman playing a starving teenage girl.)
Wendy: Well, Vampire Academy sexed up those girls, but I think the YA adaptations I’ve seen have been pretty good about not doing that so overtly, even in the heavily romance-focused film franchise like Twilight, except where it’s part of the story. I think this film does handle the relationship between Tris and Four well, though–the tone of their interactions felt right, and there’s undeniable chemistry between the leads. There’s been some chatter this weekend about how one of Tris’ trials includes a scene where she imagines that Four assaults her, which is a little different from the way it’s portrayed in the book. This thought-provoking essay takes the stance that the film sends a message of empowerment, which is an interesting take on it.
Kate: I thought it was interesting in the book that she was afraid of having sex with Four, and I always liked that part, but ramping it up to the point that he attacks her when she says no made it much more dynamic and real and scary in the movie. It also felt more accurate because of how Theo James played his character. He is one intense mother fucker. Also, I was so embarrassed for Tris in the movie that I pulled my cape over my head for a second to block it out. They did such a good job with that scene.
Wendy: It’s funny that you say that, because this is the only YA film where I wasn’t rolling my eyes at the kissy scenes–I think the connection between the characters was really strong, and it was portrayed in a way that didn’t make me want to hurl. Also, maybe because Shailene approached her role with such confidence, and because Theo treats her like an equal? I’m not sure why the filmmakers made the choice they did with that assault scene, but that post really did make me look on it with new eyes. I know there’s also concern that rape and sexual assault are used far too often as entertainment these days, but I don’t feel it was overly sensationalized here, and I would agree with the first essay that the message its inclusion sends is more positive than negative in this case. Probably not necessary though, so it is curious that they included it. I think it worked because they had already established such a good bond between the two characters.
Also, it’s been awhile since I read the book so I didn’t remember the specifics of how Abegnation is portrayed, but Lily reminded me that they aren’t comfortable with casual physical intimacy. While she felt that the movie didn’t explain that well, I actually am glad that they seemed to consciously change this faction a bit. Tris’ mother and father do show physical affection, and I think this looser interpretation of Abegnation’s customs allowed Tris to easily move past the hurdle of her upbringing in a more believable way. She jumps into Dauntless pretty quickly without us seeing very many reasons why, and I was able to accept that better without her having the additional issue of fear of physical intimacy to overcome.
Kate: That’s another reason it made sense to me that in Tris’s fear landscape Four tried to force her–in the book she’s never even been hugged before, so her fear of any physical intimacy at all is pretty acute. When they made the decision to allow affection within Abnegation, they HAD to change her fear of Four. Also, Wendy, how would they show her being afraid of having sex if he isn’t trying to push her? Like, how do you film that? We’re not in her head in the movie the way we are in the book, and I think if they hadn’t raised the stakes it would have looked silly.
Wendy: Well…they probably could have found a way to portray that differently, so to me, its inclusion feels fairly deliberate. I’d be curious to hear the filmmakers speak to that, and if there’s perhaps a message they took this opportunity to send.
Here’s our breakdown of what we liked and didn’t like about the film. It’s fun to be able to lavish praise on this one–our quibbles are very few!
What Divergent Did Right:
- The complex story was clearly explained and easy for newbies to follow
- The filmmakers were faithful to the spirit of the book, but adapted the material to suit their medium. Most of the changes they made (cutting out/down characters like Uriah, changing some background) were smart ones, and made sense for the pacing and dynamics of the story they were trying to tell.
- The acting was top notch. We’ve already talked about Shailene and Theo, but the rest of it was very well cast, too. The kids were mostly great, Ashley Judd and Maggie Q were both fantastic, and there was good energy between all the actors.
- The action sequences were well-choreographed, performed, and edited. They were hugely entertaining, and had some real muscle behind them.
- The film was extraordinarily well paced and well edited–it covered a lot of ground, but took its time with the important moments. Nothing really felt rushed, nor did it feel drawn out–pretty impressive in a film that runs over two hours.
- The sets and costumes were well-designed, and they didn’t look like copycats of anything else. Chicago looked appropriately like an abandoned wasteland, but the setting still felt both futuristic and organic, like people actually were living there.
- This production also clearly spent money in the right places, both in the film and in marketing.
- Most importantly, this film hit all the right emotional beats. It was able to do that even more successfully than the book did in some ways, due in no small part to Shailene’s performance and the excellent directing.
- The orchestral score was good, but the pop music and vocal parts of the soundtrack were so distracting. We know this is standard for YA and for a lot of action/romance movies in general, but that doesn’t stop it from being cheesy.
- MASCARA CLUMPS. So distracting when most of the hair and makeup was pretty natural looking and appropriate.
- Kate Winslet looked somewhat put out by being there. Did she think she was in VA? It kind of felt like she was phoning in this performance.
- The exclusion of one of the best scenes in the book: the knife through the eyeball scene! It was likely left out to keep a PG-13 rating, but we’re still disappointed about that.
- Also, wasn’t it clearer in the book that Tris’ mother was consciously making the choice to sacrifice herself to die right before it happens? I thought I remembered her deliberately drawing fire away from Tris.
Wendy: Still, I was so impressed with what they did with this film. Every single element was well thought out and executed, and the filmmakers clearly took the time to do justice to the source material and respected the fan base. AND they made an entertaining film that could be enjoyed by anyone. Our control subject, Mr. Darling, who has not read many YA books, said he liked Divergent best out of all the YA film adaptations he’s seen so far. It’s interesting to see the varying negative critical reactions, as I think these projects are still inevitably compared in the most shallow of ways to gigantic properties like The Hunger Games or Harry Potter or Twilight, and that’s not fair to them at all.
Wendy: This chart from Entertainment Weekly is so helpful in giving us a clear picture of how the different series compare–as you can see, the difference in book sales is HUGE. Series that seem very popular like TMI within the YA book community still don’t come close to the numbers for Twilight or The Hunger Games, so it stands to reason that the fan bases that turn out for each film are going to be comparable as well. And not to beat a dead horse, but again, that’s why these filmmakers can’t rely on just the readers to fill these seats, they have to catch movie goers on the most basic “hey, that looks like FUN” level as well. (The Divergent series has sold 10 million copies for all three books, though I wasn’t able to verify more recent numbers for the first title alone. It can’t be as high as THG, but it’s definitely much higher than most other YA series.) It’s nice to see that in spite of the often ill-informed speculation about the “curse” of YA adaptations and lazy comparisons, the Divergent film has proven to be a success anyway, and that Insurgent already has a release date of March 2015. I, for one, am very excited.
Kate: I’m kind of shocked by how good this film was, and I think a lot of people are going to be very pleasantly surprised when they watch it. So much of the critical negativity around properties like this feels like a bunch of old men who have been scared of teenage girls all their lives. And girls and women are definitely the target audience here. Shailene is not sexy; she’s beautiful in a way that makes her appealing to women.
I’m interested in seeing what the filmmakers do with Insurgent, as I’m a fan of that director’s work and there is a lot more filler in that book that can be removed for the movie (so maybe it won’t be eight hours long). I’m also glad they waited for the second movie to bring Uriah in so they could cast the best actor possible. I have really high hopes for Insurgent.
Wendy: Shailene blew me away with her performance, and I’d agree that she portrays Tris in a way that elevates the character. For me, the book rated a very strong 3.5 out of 5 stars, and as a film, I think the movie rates the same way–it’s a good action flick all around, with a solidly entertaining B – B+ rating. However, as an adaptation, I think Divergent merits a full A. Props to the cast and crew for an excellent adaptation.
And the best thing about this is, not only is this a film YA fans can be proud of, but will it get newbies to be curious about checking out the book? Hell, yeah.
Check out these other interesting Divergent discussions around the web, too:
The Divergent “Rape” Scene: Here’s Why It Matters
Is Divergent Sci-Fi’s First Successful Bisexual Allegory?
Book Vs. Movie: Biggest Differences
Divergent: Did it get trashed for coming after The Hunger Games?
THAT Scene in Divergent (from our friend Karen over at Teen Librarian Toolbox)
So what did you think of the film? Tell us in the comments below!
Photos appear courtesy of Summit Entertainment. Chart courtesy of Entertainment Weekly.