I’m a book person. As is usually the case with my movie reviews, this one is primarily intended for readers of the source book and analyzes the movie as an adaptation. If you’re looking for a movie person’s judgment of it as an independent work, go to someone else’s blog.
(You can read my review of the book here)
As in the book, in Tris’s dystopian futuristic Chicago, society is divided into five factions, based on reverence for courage, selflessness, intelligence, peacefulness, or honesty. People choose their lifelong factions at sixteen, after a test intended to predict where they would fit best. Tris’s test results come back inconclusive, offering no help in her decision to stay with her family or go her own way, and when she selects the brave Dauntless faction and begins to learn about the mounting tension between the factions in the city, she realizes that this may be the least of the trouble her results cause her.
Most of the problems with the movie were present in the book; the nonsensical world building, the insistence that Tris is oh-so-special for having a mind open to multiple virtues and vices (both of which actually make sense if you read as far as the much slower third book but none at all in the first book as it stands).
Unlike the book, however, the violence which makes up much of the backbone of the story is removed wherever possible and made laughably bloodless wherever it’s unavoidable. No eye-stabbing in this version. In fact, Peter might as well not exist, having been toned back from a dangerous psychopath into just kind of a dick, and he blends in with the other secondary and background characters who all look detrimentally alike for drama’s sake.
To fill in the gaps those cuts leave, which isn’t really necessary given the 139 minute final runtime, a rather silly extra wrinkle is added in which Tris is briefly cut from Dauntless consideration and somehow changes management’s mind by catching up with a train.
Jeanine, who was mostly a behind-the-scenes villain until book 2, is clumsily shoehorned into the final action scene, making her evil plot and her use of Four to execute it make a lot less sense, and the Abnegation faction’s hang-ups about physical contact are completely removed, making Tris’s intimacy phobia in her final Dauntless test look more like she’s just scared that Four is secretly a rapist, which adds some unnecessarily confusing and disturbing overtones to their romance.
The cast does a fantastic job, with none of the bland-pretty-people-phoning-it-in vibe I always fear in YA screen adaptations. Tris and Four are both alive and believable and have strong chemistry, and Tris’s actions feel a lot more sane and logical without the flaky, unpredictable internal monologue of the book. There’s one moment where Tris is crying over a particularly dramatic and important death scene, realizes she’s still being shot at, and screams “Stop it!” as if she can take a time-out due to her world being turned upside down, which just about ripped my heart out.
The relationships are altogether stronger in the movie, Will’s portrayal is stronger, the importance of which should be clear to readers of the second book. Al’s descent in to madness, which never felt adequately set up to me, isn’t cleared up much, but it’s minimized to the essential points and works in a more chaotic, “shit happens” sort of way that I think captures the intended original spirit.
Some of the streamlining changes actually fill some of the plot holes of the book. Four lets Tris into his own fear simulation not simply as part of their courtship but to teach her how to imitate a non-Divergent mind in her own simulations so she won’t be discovered in her public final test.
This is how it should have happened.
The way Tris gets away with using her Divergence to cheat her way through her final test by manipulating the images, with no consideration for the fact that her thoughts in the test are on display for all the Divergent-hunting Dauntless higher-ups to see, was quite possibly the most irritating of all lapses in the book’s logic, and I love the movie’s fix.
In book or movie form, Divergent remains a fun, action-y, mostly intentional bit of entertainment not built to hold up to heavy scrutiny.
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