Sunday, December 28, 2014

Divergent (Summit Entertainment/Lionsgate, Red Wagon, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Divergent, a 2014 release from Summit Entertainment (identified with its own logo but also as “A Lionsgate Company”) and Red Wagon Entertainment based on the 2011 novel by Veronica Roth. It’s not surprising that Summit was interested in this story property because they’d already had mega-successes with the sequences of films based on Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series and Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games cycle, and Divergent promised more of the same: like The Hunger Games, it’s a cycle of three books set in a dystopian future. The story opens 100 years after a series of devastating wars laid waste to the U.S., and in order to prevent future conflicts, the rulers of the unnamed society (which is centered around what is now Chicago — Roth is a Chicago resident and filled the book with familiar geography, though she was ambiguous about just how far beyond Chicago’s current boundaries her society extends) divided its population into five Factions. The idea is that there were five different ideas about what had caused the conflicts and each of the Factions was formed to control the particular bad side of human nature its founders believed was at fault. As Roth explains it herself in a speech on page 42 of the novel, given by Marcus (the society’s overall leader), “Those who blamed aggression formed Amity. … Those who blamed ignorance became the Erudite. … Those who blamed duplicity created Candor. … Those who blamed selfishness made Abnegation. … And those who blamed cowardice were the Dauntless.” (When we read the book, both Charles and I were mildly annoyed that Roth didn’t make the names of the Factions all the same part of speech; instead we have three abstract nouns and two adjectives.) I’m not sure whether Roth intended this (the book comes with a long series of afterwords including an “interview” with Roth — I suspect she wrote both the questions and the answers — along with quotations from previous works of literature that inspired her and an aptitude test that is part of the book’s reality in terms of how people are assigned to the various Factions) but the Factions seem inspired a great deal by the traditional caste system of India — though theoretically the Factions are equal and it’s only the so-called “Factionless,” the people who fail the initiation rituals of the various Factions and thereby wash out of the system, that are the society’s underclass, very much like the Indian dalits (“untouchables”).

The entire idea that a society could willfully salami-slice the human personality so its members are allowed to express one and only one aspect of it is pretty preposterous, so it’s not surprising that the book’s heroine, Beatrice “Tris” Prior (Shailene Woodley), turns out to be a so-called “Divergent,” a person who has qualities of more than one faction and therefore resists being made to fit into just one. Beatrice is the daughter of Andrew (Tony Goldwyn) and Natalie (Ashley Judd); Andrew is a member of the Council that runs the whole place and which is chaired by Marcus (Ray Stevenson), all of whom are members of the Abnegation faction because the founders decided that the only people who could be trusted to govern were the selfless whose whole mission in life was relentlessly to put the interests of others ahead of their own. Nonetheless, both Beatrice and her older brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort) pick other factions when they have the once-in-a-lifetime chance to do so: at the Choosing Ceremony, which is both an initiation into adulthood and an opportunity for the young people either to sign on to their parents’ Faction (as 95 percent of them do) or transfer to something else. What makes it difficult is not only that they have to make a once-in-a-lifetime choice about their entire destiny when they’re just teenagers, but they’re not allowed to know the requirements of a different faction before they join, they’re not allowed to reconsider their choice and if they wash out of their Faction training, they’re going to end up Factionless, shut out of society and forced to scrounge whatever sort of living they can on the streets. (In Roth’s book the Factionless were allowed to do odd jobs; in the script by Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor they seem to do nothing but wander around in scruffy black clothes and survive on whatever food they can pick up off the streets or what’s delivered to them by a charity run by Abnegation — though we never actually see the charity in action and the question of whether or not it even exists is a major plot point as the story develops.) Both Caleb and Beatrice quit Abnegation; Caleb goes with Erudite and Beatrice, as our spirited and plucky heroine in the Bella Swan/Katniss Everdeen mold, naturally picks Dauntless, the warrior class. (When I read the book, cognizant that it had been filmed and that when Roth was writing it she had probably been aiming for a movie sale because that’s where the big money in pop-fiction writing is these days, I thought, “Of course she picks Dauntless! That’s the only Faction whose training is going to be at all interesting cinematically!”)

In Dauntless Beatrice — or “Tris,” as she re-christened herself because her given name is way too Abnegatory for her new comrades — is subjected to the familiar rituals of military boot camp plus a few new ones out of Veronica Roth’s imagination, notably a series of drills done out of what looks like a dentist’s chair that involve the plebes being injected with a serum that gives them hallucinations that force them to confront their deepest fears. At first Beatrice is at the bottom of her class, mainly because as an Abnegation kid (a “Stiff,” as the others in Dauntless refer to her and Abnegation people in general) she’s never actually hit another person in anger and she’s immediately plunged into no-rules hand-to-hand fighting with her classmates, but her resourcefulness and willingness to work herself hard pushes her up the ranking. So does her Divergent status, which though she’s been carefully instructed not to reveal it to anyone because being Divergent is practically a capital crime gives her the ability to control the simulated fear scenarios and thus make it through the exercise faster than anyone else in her class. The story is basically the account of her training — governed by two people, a sadistic psycho named Eric (Jai Courtney) and a sympathetic character called “Four” (Theo James) to whom she’s drawn romantically, with a subplot involving Erudite leader Jeanine Matthews, who’s working on a plot to get rid of the Abnegation faction and install Erudites as the society’s leaders because she, like Plato, believes that the intellectuals should rule. To accomplish this she puts out propaganda that Abnegation’s leaders aren’t anywhere near as selfless as advertised, and the money they’re supposedly collecting to help the Factionless is actually lining the Abnegation leaders’ own pockets and giving them more consumer goods than everyone else. (In the book she actually puts out newspaper articles to this effect, but the film eschews any such retro technology as words on paper!) She also works out a special serum — here is where these comments are going to get into “spoiler” territory — by which she’s going to hijack the Dauntless troops to wage a genocidal war on the Abnegation Faction, thereby wiping out the existing leadership class so she and her fellow Erudites can replace them. In the end Tris and Four — who turns out not only to be Divergent himself but also a former Abnegation and, indeed, Tobias, son of overall leader Marcus (who denounced him as a scapegrace in the opening pages of the book) — manage to foil the plot by finding and destroying the computer program that’s running the simulation and making the Dauntless believe they’re merely fighting a simulation instead of waging an actual war, and a genocidal one at that.

As an allegory Divergent is hardly a patch on The Hunger Games, which though farther removed from the world in which we live is closer in terms of its social arrangements; the dystopia of The Hunger Games, in which a handful of elite people at the top extract surplus value from everyone else and exploit the masses relentlessly, is a logical extension of the increasing levels of economic and social inequality we see throughout the world today (and the ultimate ending of the cycle — the old order falls but the new one is just as vicious and oppressive, and Katniss and her partner Peeta end up literally growing their garden together, isolated from both their unwelcome celebrity as Hunger Games contestants and the roles they were impressed into both by the rebels and the authorities they were rebelling against — is a profound expression of the modern Zeitgeist among young people, if they think about politics at all, that the system sucks but any attempt to change it is futile at best and counterproductive at worst). As Charles pointed out, aside from mentioning that the Amity are the farmers (why?), Roth never explains how work gets done or whatever industrial production there is in her city-state happens; there are functioning cars, buses and trains but no explanation of how they are powered, and the trains seem to exist only so the Dauntless can show their pluck and courage by jumping on and off them while they are moving — we don’t see any signs of train stations or ordinary people moving either themselves or freight on them. Though the story is supposed to be set at least a century from now, the buildings and vehicles are those of our time; the cars are a bit dowdier and the skyscraper buildings are either in ruins or have been abandoned, but the Erudite have an elaborate computer network (which they’ve shared with the Dauntless but not, apparently, with the Abnegation even though the Abnegation are supposed to be running everything) and an incredible variety of mind-altering chemicals used in the Dauntless training and the final Erudite attempt to wipe out the entire Abnegation. At the same time there’s a parallel to The Hunger Games in that Divergent, too, is about an attempt to improve humanity that goes terribly awry — though in Divergent that’s happened in the backstory instead of during the cycle — and creates a new regime more oppressive than the one it replaced. Divergent the novel is compelling entertainment, and there’s a Rorshach-like aspect to the whole idea of the Factions — I don’t think anyone could read the novel without asking themselves which Faction they would be in if they lived in its universe (and Roth’s inclusion of a written questionnaire like those used by her characters to determine where everyone belongs just encourages her readers, or at the least the ones that get that far, to do precisely that!) — but it’s nowhere near as interesting as The Hunger Games and Veronica Roth is a talented writer but hardly at Suzanne Collins’ level in both dramatizing the conflicts in her world and creating thrilling action scenes.

Surprise — Divergent the movie, though working from inherently weaker material, struck me as a better piece of filmmaking than the two Hunger Games movies I’ve seen, despite a few annoying deviations from the novel (in the book there’s a formal Visiting Day in which Tris’s parents are allowed to visit her; in the film her mom has to sneak into Dauntless, and the film leaves out the key instruction Tris gets from her mom to ask her Erudite brother Caleb about the serum; also the film leaves out the romance between Will and Christine, two of Tris’s fellow Dauntless plebes, and therefore reduces the poignancy when Tris has to kill the mind-controlled Will in the final fight; also the scene in which Peter, one of the psycho plebes, stabs another one named Edward in the eyes, blinds him and sends him out of Dauntless because he was worried Edward was doing better in the training than he was, was shot but had to be removed from the film because that would have pushed it beyond PG-13 rating territory and stuck it with an R, cutting off a lot of its intended audience), mainly because director Neil Burger is simply a more talented filmmaker than the hacks who’ve done the Hunger Games movies (Gary Ross the first one, and Francis Lawrence the next two, Catching Fire and Mockingjay — Part 1). Throughout the film he shows off a flair for suspense evoking Hitchcock comparisons (literally in the scene in which, as part of one of her fear simulations, Tris is menaced by a flock of crows and Burger almost inevitably shoots the attack the way Hitchcock shot The Birds) and manages to juice up Roth’s story by making the action genuinely exciting. It also helps that, even though Roth wasn’t involved in scripting the movie (as Suzanne Collins has been in the Hunger Games films), it tracks the novel quite closely (the few arbitrary changes mentioned above notwithstanding) and has a satisfying enough ending it works as a self-contained movie whether Lionsgate and Red Wagon choose to produce the sequelae or not. According to the box-office numbers on, Divergent cost an estimated $85 million to make, had a gross of $54,607,747 on the all-important opening weekend in March 2014, and a total gross as of July 4 of $150,832,203. Given the rule of thumb that a film has to earn twice its production cost before it turns a profit (the extra is the cost of advertising, promotion and distribution), these numbers suggest Divergent did well enough for Lionsgate but was not so sensationally successful as to merit continuing the cycle — though lists the second film, Insurgent, as being in post-production and two films based on the third book, Allegiant (the business of splitting the last book in one of these cycles into two films began with the last Harry Potter novel and has continued with the final Hunger Games book, Mockingjay) have been “announced.”