Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Advanced Screening: A "Divergent" Film Review

Don't want spoilers? Fantastic! 
There's a spoiler warning below that will tell you when to stop reading. 

Don't mind them? Plow on through. 

Last night I was fortunate enough to take my husband and daughters to an advanced screening of "Divergent" (in theaters Friday). Our group came in with split expectations: My eldest daughter (Z, almost 13) and I have read the first book. She's read the second and most of the third, too. My husband, Abe, and our younger daughter, (Jace, barely 11) haven't shown much interest in it.

Knowing my family's enjoyment of things like Harry Potter or The Hunger Games, I wanted to see if we would enjoy "Divergent" together. On the way to the theater, we discussed the idea of the 5 Factions in the story: Dauntless, Erudite, Candor, Abnegation, and Amity. Abe and I got the kids thinking about where they think they would be born and where they would choose to live as adults. Jace didn't feel informed enough to make a decision. While we could all agree that Abraham would absolutely have to be Divergent and that I couldn't possibly be anything but Abnegation, the girls couldn't settle on their own fates.

Image property of

As the film started, Jace assumed her "This is going to be bloody and gross" stance: Curled up in her chair with her knees pressed hard against her chest, despite my protests regarding feet being on chairs. I offered her my hand and braced myself for what very well could have been an unbearably long screening.

It wasn't. Despite a couple of jumps and one moment of burying her head into her knees, Jace made it through the whole film and enjoyed it. For those who have read the book: The things you're most worried about your children seeing probably aren't in the movie. A certain training injury sustained to a secondary character's face? Yeah, that's not in there. Take a deep breath. You'll be okay.

This brings me to my only complaint of most movies based upon books: Editing. What makes it in and why? Should these story elements be cut? Does the story still make sense after it's been chopped and stitched over and over again?

Example: Yes. 

...and no. 

Does Divergent still tell the same story? 

Yes. But there are pieces missing. 

It's probably not enough to make most fans of the book cringe, but purists may be upset. Aspects of Tris' relationship with her parents have been changed slightly. The motives of various characters are the same, but are not as well defined or explained. The Harry Potter example above is a strong comparison, possibly stronger than the assumed comparison that will no doubt take place between Divergent and The Hunger Games.

While there are similarities between The Hunger Games and Divergent (strong female protagonist; themes of self defense, war, and violence; a fracturing dystopian society built upon what once was the modern day United States) the differences are more prevalent. Where The Hunger Games pulls it's punches and opts to punctuate the story with the fallout of violent behavior, Divergent rolls into it's violence. It is clearly stated within the story that sometimes you have to take the offensive. Katniss Everdeen is looking for a way to avoid killing anyone else while she tries to survive. Beatrice "Tris" Prior is trying to live; not just survive. Neither finds killing to be an ideal option, but Tris hesitates less, understanding that that which does not kill you may well try a second time.

The similarities in book to film editing between Divergent and Harry Potter (specifically looking at The Order of the Phoenix) are far more clear. As we made our way through Goblet of Fire, it became clear that the length of the later books in the series would pose significant problems for the film team. Things had to be cut. When I think of the space between Goblet of Fire and Order of the Phoenix, I imagine an old fashioned cutting room floor absolutely littered with things dear to my heart. Elegant explanations of teen jealousy, familial betrayal, ANGST ANGST ANGST - all scattered on the floor. Divergent doesn't necessarily suffer the way Phoenix did, but it fails to thrive due to some of the cuts made.

I want to include Abe's review of the film for those who are going into it as he did, having not read the book:

"I feel very lucky that we were able to get into this screening. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and am so thankful to Candace and Rewind 100.7 for the opportunity to go to Divergent with my family.

It was very interesting to feel how the film was affected by my expectations not knowing much about the source material. I felt like there was more to talk about as a family when I had a loose idea of the premise than after I had seen the film. Where the movie really soars for me is before the plot machinations take over for the last act of the movie- when the tension in the script comes from the protagonist's attempts to fit into a rigid, militarist culture that replies total conformity. 

As Tris is being asked to internalize a worldview for her own survival despite her idealistic, intellectual, and moral objections I was compelled. What does a thoughtful person do when they may have made a seemingly irreparable mistake and given themselves over to a culture requiring complete conformity? It made me want to talk to my children about the Stanford Prison Experiment and Stanley Milgram and Adolf Eichmann. I was ready for a very interesting problematizing of the uncertainty you feel in the The Philosopher's Stone when the characters are sorted into houses. What if your personality and moral code aren't internalized at this point? What does Ron become if somehow he gets sorted into Slytherin? What about those that exist on the fringes of a culture, that don't fit in with the core group and try to persist despite being ostracized? Is their commitment as strong? Is it stronger? I'm not going to have my children watch Platoon or Full Metal Jacket anytime soon, but these were reference points I was considering before the action in the movie took over, and while I still really did enjoy the film I found I had much less to say about its premise after it had concluded than before I actually knew what it was about and how it would approach it." 



I would be doing a disservice to fellow parents who want to know what to expect when taking their tweens to this film if I didn't specifically address some of the cuts made to the script.

What's missing:

The film has removed the early friendships with fellow Abnegation students from the opening of the story. The relationship between Beatrice and her family is less strict, but still disciplined. Ashley Judd gives a wonderful performance as Tris' mother, but her urgency is felt throughout nearly all of her scenes.

The early Dauntless scenes are significantly less brutal. The girl who falls during the first jump from the train? Cut from the film. The eye-gouging foreshadowing to the attack on Tris? Gone. Much of the interpersonal connection between Al and Tris is muted or eliminated completely. Do not think that this makes the movie appropriate for your youngest viewers. It doesn't. The first fight between Tris and Peter is still brutal and I must give top accolades to the foley team there: Those kicks sound painful. Nails down a chalkboard painful. By contrast, Molly and Christina's fight is shorter than I expected and less brutal. The impending punishment for begging for mercy isn't nearly as vicious as it had been in my mind, either.

Visiting Day was removed. I know. I hear you. "How does she know to visit Caleb?" She hasn't been told: She just does it. By removing much of the underlying motive behind characters' actions, the film makers have left us believing Tris to have far less doubt in her heart than the book portrayed. This is a blessing and a curse, as it allows her to be the heroine that film audiences crave without changing her so drastically as to eliminate the possibility of the beloved protagonist the reader already knows.

If you haven't stopped reading by now, you're more than ready for the film's release this Friday, March 21, 2014. Enjoy the movie. It's great. I could watch the zip line over and over again for days.


  1. Very smart and thorough review (and I didn't read the spoiler so thanks for including that warning)! I'm looking forward to the movie!

  2. I always cringe when I see book-to-movie adaptations. Even the best of them rarely manage to do the book justice, and I've *never* seen one that kept the story entirely intact. You just can't fit anything longer than a short story into an hour and a half of film! And you can't fit in ANY of the subtext....but I still like getting to "see" the book :)

  3. I read the book so I'm interested to see the movies! I'm so excited to be able to see the trailer.