Alright, I didn’t love Divergent the book (to say the least), so I went into Divergent the movie feeling hopeful. I mean, I could hardly enjoy it any less… could I? I quite liked The Hunger Games movies, which are comparable in almost every way on paper, so it didn’t seem that much of a logical leap. Plus, Divergent pulled in over $289 million after its release in 2014, so plenty of others have found something in it worth watching.

Divergent 2014 Movie Poster - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Watch Divergent (2014) here.
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Veronica Roth, author of the Divergent series, sold the film rights to the first book before she’d even graduated from her Creative Writing degree. When she first saw the script, she said: “Reading a script is a really interesting experience. I’d never read a script before.”

At that point in development, the film was given a budget of $40 million, but that was quickly doubled after the success of The Hunger Games. The production companies, naturally, gave some jargon-y explanation about owning the economics of production, but let’s call it how it is: they realised that young adult dystopian science-fiction action movie adaptations were hot, hotter than they could have imagined, and they wanted to cash in.

To avoid any accusations of a rip-off (unsuccessfully, in the end) they made sure to emphasise Divergent‘s urban setting, and they used a much harsher colour scheme (meaning that some scenes were annoyingly dark, while others were startlingly bright). Devoted moviegoers, however, saw through these token efforts, and called them out on it. Ultimately, what truly separates these film franchises is their quality.

The Hunger Games is a good book that spawned a good series of films. Divergent is not, and it didn’t.

Yep, I was disappointed – once again – I’m afraid. The film starts with a whole bunch of voice-over exposition, and I literally groaned out loud. It was almost as cliche a technique as the book’s opener, which had the protagonist describe her own reflection in detail. And the cliche punches just kept rolling in: they colour-coded all the factions, for instance, to make sure the audience didn’t have to work too hard keeping them all straight. And it was all downhill from there…

Despite all the usual movie-buzz rhetoric around finding a director who was a “perfect fit” to “bring the Divergent world to life”, Neil Burger was an odd choice. By the looks of his IMDB page, he really hadn’t directed all that much before taking on this multi-million dollar juggernaut: a TV movie, a couple series episodes, a couple movies I’d never heard of.

The lead actress, Shailene Woodley, had slightly more experience at least. She starred in the film adaptation of The Fault In Our Stars the same year as Divergent was released, plus she was the original Kaitlin Cooper in The OC years before, so she pretty much covered all the teenage fangirl bases across a couple of generations. She was the only actress they considered for the lead role of Tris, apparently – no one else auditioned for the part. Having seen the finished product, and knowing what I do now about the director, I suspect that perhaps simply no one else wanted it.

I don’t want to sound like I’m shitting all over Divergent indiscriminately. I loved Kate Winslet’s role, for instance. I mean, Winslet is a goddess, whatever she does, but in this film she was particularly impressive. She was five months pregnant during filming, so they had to use the usual strategically-placed props to hide her growing bump; I take particular glee in spotting those on-screen, so that part was fun for me (they used above-the-waist shots, close-ups, positioning, folders, and tablets, in case you were wondering). Winslet is quoted as saying it’s the first time she played a “baddie”. She took the role of Jeannine, the head of the Erudite faction, because she wanted to do something drastically different from her usual roles, and also something her children could watch – mission accomplished! It’s always jarring to hear her speak with an American accent, but she was fantastic (and she rocked the platinum-blonde hair, too).

Another positive note: the train-jumping scenes made me giggle, though probably not for the reasons Burger and Roth intended. It seemed a bit too realistic, much like trying to catch a train in Sydney peak-hour, except their post-apocalyptic service is far more reliable – still running, even in the midst of a civil war.

Divergent was also quite faithful, as far as adaptations go. Most of the differences between the movie and book were purely cosmetic (the content of Tris’s aptitude test, for instance) or changed for clear logistical and practical reasons (they had to cut the scene where the kid gets stabbed in the eye with a butter knife, and the sex scene, to keep the PG-13 rating they needed for their intended audience). A handful of minor characters were cut, no one memorable. I’m sure die-hard fans of the book were mostly satisfied with their efforts.

Yes, I’m scraping the bottom of the barrel for positivity here: this movie was just so bad! It was full of holes and inconsistencies. One that really bugged me was how all the Dauntless initiates miraculously “mastered all forms of combat and weaponry” in, like, two weeks. Tris even got a montage, for crying out loud. Compare that to the real world, where the cast had to be trained in bootcamps for two full months before filming even started, and Woodley had to undergo several days of firearms training to prepare for her role. Plus, there was a whole lot of needle-sharing going on with all these serums being injected every two minutes, which really grossed me out. I guess Hep-C and HIV aren’t a problem after the apocalypse?

Oh, and that apocalypse that they never explain! This was a problem in the book, too: Roth gives the flimsiest-ever back-story, and it just seems unbelievable that no one ever questioned this stupid faction system that was obviously destined to fail. They never explained why or how a society that holds itself out as being destitute, or at the very least resource-scarce, can somehow maintain a huge fenced border, an endless supply of hallucinogenic drugs for training their armies, LCD screens on every available surface in the Erudite compound, and trains that run continuously when only the Dauntless use them (heck, even my relatively well-off city in my relatively well-off country can’t keep much-needed trains running past midnight).

The whole reason I usually enjoy YA film adaptations more than the original books is that they typically cut out all the angst-ridden internal teen monologue narration. That allows the action to come to the fore and the story tells itself. Not so in the case of Divergent; Burger decided to open and close with what may be the cringiest voice-over of all time. Take Tris’s closing thoughts:

“We’re like the Factionless now. We’ve left everything behind, but we found ourselves and each other. Tomorrow we may have to fight again, but for now we’ll ride the train to the end of the line. And then, we’ll jump.”

Tris (Voiceover) – Divergent (2014)

And yet, despite all this, the film was a huge commercial success. I mean, they really needed it to be – the marketing campaign cost at least $50 million, on top of their outlay for all the flashy special effects and a cameo for Veronica Roth herself. If they hadn’t pulled in big audience, someone somewhere would have been very fired.

Luckily, proper film critics aren’t swayed by swanky marketing, and they almost all had much the same opinion as me: Divergent is generic, it’s predictable, and it’s full of holes. One guy even said it was “barely diverting”, which made me laugh more than any of the lame attempted jokes in the movie itself.

Still, $289 million at the box office isn’t to be sniffed at. They went on to produce a sequel, Insurgent, with a new script writer and a good director. It got slightly better reviews than its predecessor, and took a few million more in sales. But they got over-confident: they decided to split the third movie into two, and Allegiant (Part I) was an absolute stinker. Even worse than the first, believe it or not. Critics panned it, universally, and its box office takings were half that of the previous installment. It pretty much scuppered the chance of getting Part II off the ground, because both the star (Woodley) and the new director (Robert Schwentke) quit in the wake of its horrific failure. There’s some reported plans to turn it into a TV movie or some such nonsense, but if there’s any justice they’ll let it die a quick death and spare us any further pain.

So, which was better, the movie or the book?

Ugh. That’s like asking whether I’d prefer to be stabbed in the right eye or the left. I suppose I’d have to say the book, but that’s only because I think it’s great that it encouraged so many young adults to get into reading for fun. Really, it’s the best house on a bad block. The movie wasn’t worth the time I wasted searching for it on Netflix, let alone actually watching the thing.