Welcome to the YA Movie Countdown, our resident expert’s biweekly guide to young-adult book-to-film adaptations.
The first film in a potential young-adult book-to-film franchise is always a challenge. Not only do you have to convey a compelling narrative, but you also must establish an entire world around it, and in Divergent’s case, that’s quite the undertaking. The concept of a society being divided up into five factions is a strong starting point, but what makes the book a particularly engaging read is how that lifestyle sparks interfaction rivalries, family strife, personal problems, ethical issues and more. Director Neil Burger and the folks behind the screenplay do a standout job building this world and then filling it with meaningful details that newcomers can understand, appreciate and enjoy, but what about those who are already familiar with the ins and outs of this realm?
The first thrill for those who’ve read the book is simply seeing everything in a physical state. The movie is essentially your imagination coming to life. There are a couple of elements in the book that aren’t thoroughly explained, namely the reason why Chicago is in a dystopian state, but then in other instances creating a comprehensive visual of Roth’s work while reading is only natural. The balance between the two serves the film exceptionally well because while you’ll be thrilled to see the Choosing Ceremony play out just as you always imagined, there are certain elements that are far more fleshed out, like the incredibly thoughtful and highly detailed functionality of the city. The costume and production design is above and beyond in every respect, and they’re both pivotal to making this world believable.
Yet another make-or-break component of the film adaptation is Shailene Woodley. Similar to Jennifer Lawrence and The Hunger Games, without Woodley it’s highly unlikely Divergent would work so well. Every role deserves a capable actor, but Beatrice Prior absolutely requires it. At the start of the film, she’s meek and unassuming, but by the end you need to believe that she’s got the ability and willpower to fight back and take on a far stronger enemy. Not only does Woodley nail both ends of that spectrum, but she also manages to connect the two, making Beatrice/Tris a totally cohesive character.
She also has incredible chemistry with each and every member of this cast. In fact, sometimes it’s overwhelmingly powerful. For example, Ashley Judd delivers a fine performance as Natalie Prior, but it’s seeing Woodley react to Judd’s actions that makes Natalie a particularly memorable character. As one might hope, Theo James also makes quite the impression as our main man Four. He finds great success working with Woodley, but he also establishes a good deal of his character on his own. He firmly establishes Four as an all-business instructor with a heart, and he plays off Woodley beautifully as Tris slowly chips away at his hard exterior and reveals his soft spot.
The problem with some of the other key characters is that there’s a lot of them. Zoe Kravitz manages to hold her own as Christina, partially thanks to a rather unique zest, but also simply because she’s got more speaking lines than anyone else. Ben Lamb’s Edward is completely lost in the mix, and even though Ben Lloyd-Hughes does get a significant amount of face time, he merely comes across as any old transfer from Erudite and that’s all. When fans of the book hit his big moment in the movie, you will feel a twinge of remorse, but odds are, for newcomers, the importance of the moment won’t register much.
Maggie Q and Ansel Elgort also feel the effects of minimal screen time, but in their cases they still manage to make Tori and Caleb come across as fully formed people and prove that they’ll have loads to offer in future installments. It's also a thrill to know that Jai Courtney will be back for more because he turns Eric into a particularly bold, dynamic villain. Miles Teller hits it big as Peter, too. Even though he isn’t quite in line with the character from the book, the choice to blend Roth’s version of Peter with Teller’s strong suits proves to be an ingenious move. Peter still comes across as a despicable person and serious threat, but Teller lets just enough of his familiar charm to slip through to give Peter an unexpected, but appealing edge.
Kate Winslet is also a big winner as Jeanine Matthews. Having read the book, I was well aware that Jeanine is pure evil through and through, but oddly enough I still couldn’t help but be swayed by Winslet’s performance at the beginning of the film. There’s something about her poise and wholehearted dedication to the faction system that does manage to get in your head and that serves as a highly effective jumping-off point for Tris’ determination to make it through Dauntless initiation. Once we hit the tail end of the film, Jeanine is rotten to the core. Even though Winslet successfully establishes Jeanine as a severe threat, some of her more impressive moments come when Tris starts to disarm that threat and Winslet gets to show off a degree of vulnerability.
Divergent’s only significant flaw is that there are so many story elements that not all of them are fully developed, but there was really no getting around that. You need space to build the world and then you need some time to actually do something with it. Then again, you just can’t have a film like this come close to the three-hour mark. A runtime like that will undoubtedly test even the most enthusiastic fan’s patience and also run the risk of turning off newcomers. The only possible solution to this scenario would be to trim some of the main players, but by doing that the world would feel noticeably thin to those familiar with the book and also inhibit the progression of the plot in subsequent films.
It isn’t perfect, but this is the best possible feature adaptation of Divergent. It’s loaded with top-notch performances, rocks a slew of stunning visuals, and a remarkably engaging narrative. Divergent has all the necessary elements to be a highly entertaining cinematic experience for both fans and newcomers alike. It’s time to stop calling Divergent yet another YA book-to-film adaptation and recognize it for what it turned out to be – a quality feature film, period.
The YA Movie Countdown runs here on Movies.com every other Wednesday.
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