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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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In Divergent, the physical world is awesome. Chicago is a striking and brutally realized setting as a recovered metropolitan hub after some nonspecific global conflict. Though the Factions’ outfits look way more like costumes than clothes, the design choices made to differentiate the various groups and their locales seem to have been choices made by a creative team working together.

In the best examples of YA speculative fiction, most of those choices are predetermined before they’re adapted into movies, because they’re written. The problem with many recent entries in speculative YA is that so much emphasis is placed on plot that film directors and production designers don’t have a ton to work with in the source material. As readers, we unconsciously measure the success of these books by how well the construction of their worlds are integrated in the actual forward momentum of their plots. (We measure the success of their movie versions in the same way, except a lot of the world construction doesn’t need to be explained. It’s just there, on screen.)

In Divergent, so much of the plot exists in this broad-stroke universe until something bad or specific happens. And that’s fine, except that means you’ve got Tris Prior defecting from Abnegation to Dauntless within the first 10 minutes of the film, a la The Giver, and then learning warrior skills like boxing and capture-the-flag for a solid hour, under the tutelage of the dour Four (Theo James). This is like 250 pages in the book, and it’s a real struggle.

I’ll return, though, to the notion that Woodley rescues the film. The premise here is weaker than The Hunger Games by a pretty substantial margin. But Woodley, never mind the situations she’s put in, demands that we care about her. The anxiety of choosing to abandon the Faction she grew up in, the hardship of not fitting in, the thrill and fear of falling for her superior, the thrill and fear of taking on conventions and then all of society, the pain of losing (or dispensing with) someone close to her, are all rendered in exquisite nuance and depth in Woodley’s watery, wonderful eyes. This girl can act, ladies and gents. She’s got a few tear-jerking scenes which should make all of us seriously consider stocking up on tissues for The Fault in Our Stars.

Go for the production design. Stay for Woodley. And don’t ask too many questions.

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