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Film & DVD

Film version of ‘Divergent’ is a worthy effort

Despite weaknesses of the wildly popular YA book, movie does a good job filling in the gaps

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★★★ (out of 5 stars)

In 2012, The Hunger Games tapped a blossoming Jennifer Lawrence to be its leading lady. As Katniss Everdeen, Lawrence has become an icon. Meantime, she’s cemented her stardom in a bouquet of ambitious mainstream Hollywood roles, winning (in addition to adulation from both genders for at least two reasons) an Oscar in 2013 for her performance in David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook.

Now Divergent, a film based on another international bestselling YA franchise, has found its own star-on-the-rise in Shailene Woodley. Woodley was a revelation of adorableness in last year’s The Spectacular Now. And with her performance as Tris Prior in Divergent, she rescues and then raises up a film that could have been an utter disaster.

Wild success notwithstanding, Divergent-the-novel, written by the young, gifted storyteller Veronica Roth, wasn’t all that great. The world Divergent envisions – a dystopian and pretty explicitly Orwellian future-Chicago where society is segregated into five factions based on virtues – doesn’t withstand even surface-level scrutiny with reference to the world’s history and politics, and it begs way more questions than it answers. The architecture of “the world” is mostly gloss. Furthermore, Divergent’s central conflict, that the heroine doesn’t “fit in” with any of the factions and thereby represents a threat to society, is both clichéd and confusing in context.

That said, for the plot junkies of the YA crowd, Divergent is a more-than-adequate fix. People are crazy about this series: It’s a page-turner chock-full of all the PG-13 romance and sequential low-stakes thrills we’ve come to expect from the genre.

In Divergent, though, it must be noted, the stakes are sometimes improbably – almost cartoonishly – high. One of the factions, “Dauntless” (the goth kids tasked with the defense of the city), assert their bravery by climbing all over skyscrapers and jumping on and off elevated trains. These are situations where survival is honestly a 50/50-type prospect. Death always seems like a viable outcome in many of the scenes here, and this is unsettling outside of the established narrative parameters in something like The Hunger Games, where death is the whole idea.

Case in point, the ultimate Final-Solutionish conflict of Divergent is that the implacable head of the Erudite faction – the smart ones – (Kate Winslet) wants to eliminate not only the Divergents (people who don’t fit in) but also, via mind-control of the Dauntless foot soldiers, an entire faction at large: Abnegation, the civil servants who are all about self-sacrifice and modesty. This is what’s known as genocide.

So the book has some issues.

But one of the reasons Divergent succeeds as an adaptation even more so than The Hunger Games is that the imagination of the physical world is so much better and more complete. Take, for instance, the scenes that happen in the Capitol in the film versions of The Hunger Games. What on earth are these people wearing? Who decided on these dumb futuristic props? Other than Stanley Tucci’s game show-style interviews as Caesar Flickerman, which were superb, the whole visualization of the Capital seemed random, incoherent and moreover substantively irreconcilable with the realist squalor of the outlying districts.

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