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It’s A Rotten World, After All: On Divergent and YA Dystopias

A young woman, small and troubled, faces off against a totalitarian dystopia bent on control of the remaining world after the disaster of total war. It may sound achingly familiar, but we haven’t quite been here before. Divergent, based on the popular book series by Veronica Roth, follows the story of Beatrice-turned-Tris (Shailene Woodley), a young woman existing in a world divided by Factions, castes based on different human temperaments rigidly upheld to preserve an everlasting peace. When an aptitude test fails to assign Tris a Faction, even the one her family comes from, Abnegation, she is told she is Divergent, a secret she must keep or lose her life. Choosing to enter the warrior class, Dauntless, instead of remaining with her family, Tris is subjected to a rigorous series of training tests both mental and physical to determine if she is allowed to stay in her chosen Faction or to be cast out as one of the homeless Factionless. But trouble is brewing between the governing Abnegation Faction and the coldly intelligent Erudites , and soon Tris, and those close to her, are drawn into a conflict bigger than themselves.

I have not read Divergent or any of its accompanying sequels, and so entered the theater with fresh eyes, if a skeptical heart. What I found was a troubled film, one held up on weak foundations, and with a poor finishing job to match its underlying structure. No amount of beautiful CG landscaping can hide the flaws in Divergent’s grand design. Here we’ve got a knotty premise coupled with issues of casting, clarity, and what I assume is interpretation of original material. Though the film tries to make something out of what it has to work with, the results are, ultimately, unsatisfying, and speak to the larger picture of its particular genre.

Divergent has multiple drawbacks, including fundamental filmmaking and scripting concerns, but it remains an excellent jumping off point to explore problematic trends common in much of YA dystopian fiction, including the beloved Hunger Games series. Of those trends, Divergent’s most glaring is the in-credible premise of a world. By presenting a utopia in which the only divisive factor between people is Faction, but not race, class, gender, or sexuality, Divergent, and those works like it, both annihilate suspension of disbelief, and erase the very real concerns faced by minority groups. Tris’ universe being based on different virtues ignores the very real – and far less PC – ways in which a society panicking on the brink of collapse might divide its population. The problem of minority erasure in YA fiction is one being discussed in the broader sphere, perhaps no better than by Sarah McCarry over at Bitch Magazine, whose essay is worth a readDivergent’s movie adaptation also seems to erase HIV/AIDS/blood-borne illness and disease in the sharing of a knife for ceremonial bloodletting by all coming of age at the choosing ceremony, and sharing of needles in the sequence where Tris and Dauntless trainer Four (Theo James) drift – I mean perform inception – I mean share simulation serum. Perhaps an oversight of editing or merely plot expediency, I couldn’t help but notice it in relation to the numerous other absences of issues from our own time.

Then there’s the other half of the equation; the film itself. Divergent, as we know, is an adaptation, one that sticks to its source material faithfully, it seems, but without compensating for the change in medium. A main character that is a blank, woodenly acted avatar for the viewer is a conceit that works in literature but not in film where audiences rely on the emotional range of a character’s reaction to rope them into the action. The first Hunger Games movie, which Divergent cannot help but be compared to, suffered from much the same issue of interpretation, but here the problem might be as simple as bad casting. Much as I appreciate what Woodley has had to say about her character, her performance is stiff, weak, and hard to empathize with.

Woodley is an interesting choice to play Tris for a number of reasons, none more so than her appearance. The question of ‘why so white and small’ in regards to a lead actress has been addressed with great length elsewhere, but the problem became even more evident upon viewing the film’s treatment of its main subject. If the entire point of Tris is that she is unremarkable, not a Chosen One or a natural superwoman, just a Divergent by chance, then she really could have been cast as anyone. Any race, any size. Instead, the choice of Woodley, petite and white as they come, says more about who executives expect their audience to be, an audience that they need to identify with their protagonist. The will to overcome the extraordinary circumstances she is placed into becomes a tenant of her color and shape, signaling to anyone outside those confines that this movie’s everywoman heroine does not represent them. After a seemingly endless parade of YA heroines that conform to the same traits, one wonders when viewers who don’t fit the mold will stop having to look for themselves in a stand-in instead of seeing themselves onscreen. These things are really about business as much as they are about politics, and so it stands to reason that a group of people fatigued by their maginalization are far more likely to avoid a film without minorities than the reverse, no matter how much executives choose not to believe in the obvious. White women, on the whole, will still go see a film with Zoe Saldana in it, but everyone else may not say the same of a film like Divergent, where they’re tired of the same old same old.

Speaking of same old, same old, Divergent follows along with another disconcerting trend, which is its frankly baffling portrayal of fear of rape. During her final fear test to enter Dauntless, one of the scenarios that crops up for Tris is one in which Four violently and aggressively comes at her in a sexual manner. Overlooking the inclusion of attempted rape, as the overuse of sexual assault on women as a plot device remains one of my biggest and most persistent beefs with modern film, Tris has been given no indication that she should suspect Four capable of such an action. If she’s generally wary of touch due to her Faction, as was suggested by a viewing companion who had read the books, it’s not made apparent in the rest of the film. By leaving out another explanation, the film seems to be implying that all young women fear being raped by the men close to them. Moreover, after such a traumatizing occurrence, Tris has no trouble approaching Four and continuing to accept his attentions. If the test is meant to reveal hidden fears, isn’t this one still present in her mind, if only as a doubt?

While we’re on fear-borne sequences and their consequences, Tris’ last, and, according to the movie, her biggest fear, involves Jeanine (Kate Winslet), the head of the Erudite Faction, handing her a gun and telling her to shoot her family. Thanks to nanotransmitters, this fear dream is being broadcast on a large screen in front of both the Dauntless leaders and Jeanine, yet no one bats an eye or questions Tris’ loyalty following her test. Just like the sequence involving Tris’ attempted murder that is never brought up again after one of its perpetrators commits suicide, the film consistently loses threads, failing to connect things that seem essential. Is there, for example, a chemical difference between Divergents and normal people, as is implied by the controlling serum not working on Tris and other Divergents? On this, and other important points, the film is unclear.

Divergent ends on a decidedly to-be-continued note, as the book, and its movie, if it does well enough, are one in a trilogy. It’s doubtful, however, that a strong finish could have saved the linear enough, but essentially confused muddle that is the film’s intentions. It’s got good effects and a consistent tone, but what that tone can be identified as is hard to say. The most successful moments in the film are ones of tension and overwhelming fear, when Tris is submerged in the aptitude simulation and later in the mental challenges for Dauntless.  Fear is a good marker for a dystopia, especially one where death seems a certainty for stepping out of bounds. The boundaries themselves, though, need to make sense to sustain the illusion, lest we, like Tris, find ourselves muttering amidst the chaos, “It isn’t real”.

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