'Divergent': Did it get trashed for coming after 'The Hunger Games'?

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Image Credit: Jaap Buitendijk; Murray Close

Divergent, whatever you think of it as a movie (I found it to be your basic, agreeably rousing sensitive-teen-in-Amish-linen-finds-her-inner-tattooed-jock-to-fight-the-power formula dystopian thriller), is, like the young-adult novel it’s based on, a piece of pulp mythology that obviously borrows a lot from The Hunger Games. The heroine who hails from a downtrodden district or, in this case, a faction (Abnegnation) that prizes self-sacrifice; the fascist schemers up top; the whole gym-class-on-steroids feeling of a seemingly normal girl who rises to a series of death-defying physical challenges; and, of course, the sense that the heroine can accomplish all this because, while ordinary on the surface, she’s really different, she’s special, she’s a rebel, she’s divergent in her innate superiority. (Why do I feel as if Leni Riefenstahl would have loved these movies?)

Given how derivative it is, Divergent, by all rights, should be a less effective thriller than either The Hunger Games or The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. I, however, liked it more than both, and for a basic reason: The heroine is allowed to show fear. Through most of the movie, there’s a pungent sense that Tris, as played by the petite, forlorn Shailene Woodley, is in over her head and knows it. In my review, I called her “intensely vulnerable and relatable,” and that’s a way of saying that when Woodley is on screen, showing us everything that Tris is going through, she approaches each moment as if its outcome weren’t preordained. The possibility of failure hangs there, with dramatic anxiety. That’s why it’s easy to feel at one with her even if you don’t happen to be part of the film’s market-tested fan-base demo. You don’t have to know the book or care, particularly, about the material; the fretful, cunning tick-tock of Shailene Woodley’s presence is enough. Whereas Jennifer Lawrence in the Hunger Games films, while ferociously spirited and forceful (I think she’s an unabashedly great actress), makes Katniss a kind of regal WASP Amazon who is, without fail, tough, fierce, strong, Olympian, implacable. And, to me, that’s not nearly as interesting as Woodley’s woeful, life-size grrrl-goddess.

The critics, in general, have not been kind to Divergent, and the fact that it borrows so much from The Hunger Games is at the core of their complaints. In a way, that makes sense. Movies are supposed to be original — at least, that’s what we go in hoping for. Yet if it is fair, in theory, to compare Divergent to The Hunger Games, and to find Divergent coming up short, you don’t have to read too far between the lines to see that a lot of critics are really griping about something else. They’re using Divergent to vent their frustration (which is to say, their very adult exhaustion) with the whole YA-movie phenomenon. You could practically hear a lot of them saying, in essence: Another one of these damn things? Enough already! And that, in a word, is unfair. It is also, to me, a little disingenuous in light of the ecstatic reviews that the second Hunger Games film received. Yes, it was far superior to the first one, but it was also a little too close to being the same movie — and so, for most of its two-and-a-half hours, it lacked that crucial element of surprise. These movies are all derivative, and so what matters, really, is how well they play. To beat up on Divergent because it’s too much like The Hunger Games is, in a sense, to penalize it for arriving second, especially in light of the quiet triumph of Woodley’s performance, which is to bridge the two mythical sides of the YA heroine: the crumpled-flower, ordinary-girl side and the elevated, seize-your-destiny side.

When you come right down to it, both the Hunger Games and Divergent series are designed as outsize, action-thriller projections of the agony and ecstasy of teenage life, and both are engineered to flatter their audience. But one of the things I enjoyed about Divergent as a movie is that the high-school allegory is just under the surface; I didn’t have to pretend that I was watching a drama of genuine adult intrigue. The whole division of the society into factions, based on whether you’re smart, or kind, or self-sacrificing, or, you know, a slightly sociopathic train-jumping badass musclehead, is a thinly veiled version of the high-school caste system — the brains and wallflowers and star athletes. And getting to choose which faction you want to belong to is a version of every teen’s perpetual identity crisis: Which group am I in? Which group do I wish I were in? Who am I? The fact that Tris is “divergent” – i.e., self-sacrificial, brilliant, and strong, all at the same time — is, on one level, a hilariously naked attempt by the series’ author, Veronica Roth, to appeal to the closet vanity of her readers. Yet it also speaks to something genuinely touching in the conflicts faced by young adults today: What if you’re searching for an identity but don’t want to be pigeonholed? Divergent serves up the nightmare version of a society in which you’re a demo before you’re a human being.

Speaking of individuality, I’d be a lot more accepting of the largely negative critical reaction to Divergent if I didn’t feel as if youth-movie franchises were now being singled out as either teachers’ pets or lowly delinquents. For a decade, the films in the Harry Potter series, grandly charming as they sometimes were, could do no wrong (even when nothing much was at stake in them); then, for about four years, the films in the Twilight series, even when they summoned a neo-’50s teen-romantic swoon of urgency, could do no right. The Hunger Games franchise, with its second installment, feels like it’s been locked and loaded into mainstream-critical-darling status; whereas Divergent, for all the solid virtues (at least, to me) of this first installment, is the official latecomer that we’re already tired of. If I didn’t know better, I’d say that movie critics were now acting like members of factions, and that when it comes to youth movies that are as colorfully commercial — and ultimately unimportant — as these, there ought to be a little more divergence in what people think.

So how do you believe the movie version of Divergent stacks up to the Hunger Games films? And were the critics too hard on it?

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