There is no shortage of talented up and coming actresses coming through Hollywood, and since everyone needs a franchise these days, lucky for them there is also no shortage of young adult books with female leads still being adapted. But in Hollywood, timing is everything, and every franchise (or potential franchise) is not rated equally. Shailene Woodley and Saoirse Ronan both auditioned for the role of Katniss in “The Hunger Games”, famously going to Jennifer Lawrence. Saoirse went on to score the lead in the next big hot property “The Host” (from the author of “Twilight”) and Shailene got “Divergent”. While “The Host” didn’t fare so well, how did Shailene do with “Divergent”? Not bad. Not bad at all.
Like a sister world to “The Hunger Games”, this time in futuristic Chicago, people are divided and categorised according to their (one) defining virtue, poverty reins, cities have fallen and The Powers That Be are only interested in maintaining their power. While people of the 80s might be disappointed that the future they were promised through “The Jetsons” and “Back to the Future” of flying cars and robot maids hasn’t come to fruition yet, it seems the only future the children of the 00s have been promised is one of post-apocalyptic dystopia, which, let’s face it, is probably more realistic. While robot maids would definitely come in handy, at least in this future women have a larger role to play.
Tris (Shailene Woodley) is like any teenager trying to find her place in the world, but unlucky for her, she’s Divergent, which literally means she doesn’t below anywhere. Also unlucky – The Powers That Be want all Divergents dead, because if they can’t categorise you, they can’t control you. Yes. Subtlety has never been a YA trademark.
Disguising her threatening status, Tris leaves her (intelligent) brother and (selfless) parents, and chooses the (brave) Dauntless faction, where she meets fellow recruits Christina (Zoe Kravitz), Al (Christian Madsen), Will (Ben Lloyd-Hughes), class nemesis Peter (Miles Teller), and her very sexy and intimidating instructor Four (Theo James). Here they begin a high stakes training regime of intensive physical and mental tests, where if you don’t succeed, you’ll become factionless (because being an outcast is worth than death). This isn’t the only test Tris will be put through however, as she manages competitive classmates, heartless management, a bourgeoning romance, and eventually, all-out war.
As someone who hasn’t read the books, I was pleasantly surprised with the journey. A lot of emphasis is placed on the Dauntless initiation and training, but it serves Tris’s character well, if not providing a holistic picture of the world in which they live. A wooden actress in the lead role would be this film’s undoing, but Shailene and is warm and relatable, showing strength of character and believability, not to mention impressive chemistry with co-star Theo James. All of the performers embody their characters neatly, and Kate Winslet provides a powerful presence in her first villain-esque role.
The story beats are simplistic and familiar, but hold within them enough heart to keep you invested. While this is no doubt a film for teenage girls and teenage girls in spirit, the themes of questioning authority and forced identity will always be relevant, and like Katniss, within Tris there is another role model for young girls to look up to.
Following a very profitable box office performance the series has already been given the franchise tick of approval (even splitting the final book into two). While the future may not be bright for young adults (in entertainment or otherwise if the IPCC report is an accurate predictor), “Divergent” has restored faith in the money making abilities of YA adaptations following some non-starters (“The Mortal Instruments”, “Beautiful Creatures”), and if it means more interesting young characters and exploring powerful themes, I’m all for it. Lord knows we have enough super heroes.