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After spending several years in social services, Nicole has finally followed her lifelong dream of being a full-time writer. In addition to her work for The Hudsucker, Nicole is also a staff writer for Womanista. An avid comic book fan, BBQ aficionado, professional makeup artist and first-time mom, Nicole can be found exploring Kansas City rich history when she's not blogging about suburban life at Suburban Flamingo.

A Little Daunted: “Divergent”

It must be really difficult to make a movie based off of a wildly popular book, especially when that book is the first of a series. There is a lot to manage. The writers, the actors, the director all have to find the right balance between being true to a story that already has rabid fans and being fresh enough to bring in new viewers. Alienating either group could result in commercial failure as well as that being the end of the film adaptations for the series. When it’s done right, you get a great movie with the promise of more truly epic stories to come (The Harry Potter series comes to mind). When it’s not done right you get an average experience and are left hanging when no future films are made (here’s looking at you, English-language version of Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.) This challenge of balance between fresh and beloved is what the makers of the Divergent movie faced and I’m still not sure they were successful.

Credit: Summit Entertainment/Lionsgate

Credit: Summit Entertainment/Lionsgate

Divergent is a movie that is largely true to Veronica Roth’s book of the same name in that the story is intact: set in a near-future dystopian Chicago society where the citizens live in a cast-like system called factions. The factions are sorted by natural personality traits a person has: Erudite for the intelligent, Amity for the peaceful, Candor for the honest, Abnegation for the selfless, and Dauntless for the brave. Everyone takes a special test as a teenager that shows them what their natural faction is and then on the Choosing Day, individuals choose which faction to join for life (the implication being that you should join what you test as.) The protagonist, a girl named Beatrice, finds herself not really aligning to this simple world of choosing what the test tells you when her test shows her to be a mix of things—something called Divergent—that is intimated as being dangerous. On her Choosing Day she selects a faction seemingly opposite the one she was raised in (she was raised Abnegation) and becomes Dauntless. From there she changes her name to Tris and wheels start turning that ultimately result in a plot to overthrow the faction system and change Chicago forever at the expense of the innocent. All of that basic story is in the movie as it is in the book and in general both existing fans and new converts should be pretty happy with it. The writers do a good job of visually translating the world and the story to the screen.

Where the movie fails, though, is how they choose to structure the story. A large part of the book is Tris’ transition from Abnegation girl who has always felt a little lost to a girl with no clear idea of who she is, but who is truly starting to learn who she wants to be as well as her own strength. To do this, the book explores Tris’ relationships with her fellow non-Dauntless born initiates and how she has to learn to trust herself, to question, and how to survive while staying true to who she is. The film misses that completely. The film tags her up nearly-immediately with a Candor transfer, Christina, and makes them best friends from the word go without really mentioning any of the other transfers by name. In the book, two particular characters—Peter and Al—both loom large in Tris’ development as a character and in the slow reveal that something is very amiss within the faction system. In the movie version, we barely even learn these character’s names and they do very little to set up for the ultimate conflict of the story. This is a huge gap that the writers of the movie do not address well and as a result the movie’s structure and pacing seem bottom heavy. Without seeing Tris work through her relationships with other characters in a meaningful way the viewer is denied any real investment in Tris or her story other than the interesting visuals. It also makes it difficult to buy into Tris’ relationship with her trainer, Four as the film shows very little lead up to that emotional attachment that becomes so crucial to climax of the story. Somehow, the movie expects the audience to buy that a deeply introspective girl is going to go from wary to in love just because a hot guy showed her his secret tattoos. Audiences are smarter than that.

This lack of character development isn’t solely the fault of the script and the writers, though. The movie is, generally, very well cast. Ashley Judd is beautiful and moving as Tris’ mother while Kate Winslet is chilling as the Erudite leader, Jeanine Matthews. Tobias Eaton does an excellent job with the guarded and tough Four. But Shailene Woodley is horribly miscast as Tris. Horribly. That isn’t to say that Woodley’s acting is bad. It’s not. It’s just not good or right for the character. With Woodley’s Tris very rarely has an expression that isn’t fear or boredom. She just doesn’t grow or develop very much during the film and it’s very, very obvious watching her which scenes were shot early in the making of the film and which ones were shot later—the later scenes Woodley seems to finally wake up and try to give Tris more than monosyllabic dialogue and phoned-in emotions. To her credit, she absolutely nails two parts of the film that require a lot of fierce emotion…but those moments and her apparent skill vanishes pretty quickly after.

The film is, at best, very uneven. Good general story, spotty writing, bad pacing, inconsistent acting. This wobbly package is still watchable and fairly entertaining, and it does manage to do something that another young woman-driven movie (The Hunger Games) failed at: even with Woodley’s weak effort at Tris the script never flinches from the fact that Tris is a solid female character that honestly doesn’t need a man to hold her up emotionally or bail her out physically. Tris is very much her own character and her own source of power. She doesn’t let anyone rule her, even when she has to play by someone else’s rules. Weak acting and bad filmmaking aside, this is an important element of the story and is something that needs to be shown on the big screen more and more.

Bottom line: a decent way to spend three hours. If they do a better job with the script and get Woodley some intense acting lessons the sequel might manage to be okay. In the meantime, read the book. It’s a lot more fun.

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