This article contains * * * SPOILERS * * *
I finally had the chance to see the movie Divergent based on the novel with that same title written by Veronica Roth. I’d talked to a number of friends about the story—both movie and book—and I had their critiques in mind as I watched Tris and Four and the Dauntless Faction prepare their newbies.
Interestingly, I went to the movie with a friend who had heard no such critique and who also had not read the book. Afterward we talked about what we liked and what we found problematic. We both agreed we were glad we saw it, but also that it had flaws.
For one, there were places where the movie dragged. For another there were parts of the worldbuilding that seemed . . . odd, if not incongruent. Both those things seem like death to a story.
First, if a movie is dragging, it seems to me that’s a symptom that there’s not enough at stake.
During a different action adventure movie some time ago, I remember feeling really bored and checking my watch. There was one narrow escape after another, with bullets flying and cars blowing up, but there was no credible danger. So the next chase was like the one before it and they seemed to run together and drag out into an hour and a half long scene about which you already knew the ending.
In Divergent much of the focus was whether or not Tris would make it as a Dauntless. She was weak and one of the instructors had it out for her. But the possibility of her failing didn’t seem credible to me. The training was interesting and necessary because Tris built relationships during that time, and we as viewers got to know her as a character better. But as far as moving the story forward, the training sequence (most of the movie) didn’t do much.
Secondly, the worldbuilding proved problematic—more on reflection than during the movie. Why did the people take a test to find out what faction they should belong to only to be given the choice to choose the faction they wanted? And who made up that rule? Who determined they had to take a meaningless test?
Why did Tris’s mother know her daughter was Divergent and not just Dauntless as she had once been? If she’d turned out to be Divergent, that whole line of the story would have made much more sense. Instead, her admission that she had been Dauntless opened up the question about why she moved to Abnegation and how she retained her Dauntless abilities though she was apparently not Divergent. Following that line of thought, I had to wonder about the other new Dauntless inductees who also showed traits from their old factions.
Then there were questions about the factionless—were they all Dauntless wipe-outs or did other factions reject people as well? And why wouldn’t they be allowed to return to their old faction or to join a different one rather than become a blight on society and a drain on resources? It seems like a silly, arbitrary rule and there’s no hint as to who instigated such a harsh, purposeless, harmful concept.
Similar to that was the idea that faction is stronger than blood, though clearly in Tris’s family that wasn’t the case. Were they exceptions or did others not realize the strength of their family bond because they belonged to the same faction as their family? Oddly, none of the Dauntless members seemed to be in a family.
Despite these problems which were not exclusive to the movie, I understand the book series was one more hot story that had fans craving the next book and the next. Granted, though the first book opened as #6 on the NY Times best-selling list, it didn’t reach the stature of Twilight or Hunger Games and certainly not of Harry Potter. Still, it had a loyal and avid following, and I’m sure it is making Ms. Roth, her agent, and her publishers good chunks of change.
Why? Why did the story become so popular?
I think one element in Divergent engages the viewer right away: Tris doesn’t feel like she fits well. She sees herself as different from her brother and parents and drawn to several of the other factions. “Not fitting well” seems to be a universal for teens, and to be honest, many adults continue to struggle with fitting well. Some simply accept their “not fitting well” status and become content. Others realize they fit all along and their perceptions were off. Some find a group with which they fit—one they hadn’t discovered when they were younger. The point is, the dilemma Tris faced at the beginning—how to define herself and not knowing how or where she belonged—drew viewers in.
Presenting a character with a dilemma readers (or viewers) can relate to seems to be a great start for a story. Interestingly, the answer came fairly quickly—Tris was not one of the factions; she was the illegal Divergent. So how will she cope, where will she go to find a sense of purpose, can she keep her true self a secret—these and other questions drive the story.
I have to say, I think it’s a good story. All those fans were not flocking to the book simply because it was a hawt romantic triangle between innocent girl and bad boy #1 or bad boy #2.
But was it good writing? On the story level, I don’t think so—not with the worldbuilding problems or with the low stakes. Good writing wouldn’t leave you with so many doubts about the plausibility of the story when you’re finished.
Good writing would also create a greater sense of tension and urgency throughout—not just for the main character, but it starts with her. Perhaps the book did a better job here than the movie, but I’m left wondering, what’s the worst thing that would happen to Tris if she doesn’t make it in Dauntless?
We’re told she’d be Factionless, but why that’s so bad isn’t shown. Not really. Not in the movie. To me the Factionless looked like poor people sitting around with nothing to do. I can’t help but wonder, why? Why couldn’t they make their own Faction and find purpose? I mean, there are more than five character traits in the world. But that’s beside the point.
Rather, being Factionless didn’t seem like the end of the world, maybe because I wasn’t sure what Tris wanted from life. As a member of Dauntless, she’d be tasked with policing the city. Was that what she wanted from life? Or did she simply want to avoid being discovered as a Divergent? But even that purpose doesn’t come with high stakes. If she’s discovered to be divergent and killed, she will die and that would be sad, but what does that outcome mean? People die every day. Why should readers and viewers care about the death of this one person? I think the stakes need to be higher.
And I haven’t addressed other aspects of good writing, which is just as well since I haven’t read the books. Perhaps some of the rest of you can weigh in on whether or not you think the writing in Divergent on the sentence and paragraph and scene level is good. Were there interesting descriptions? Fresh metaphors? Poetic expressions? Quotable lines? Looking forward to your thoughts.