Words: N Emmett
In The Republic, Plato envisions a society divided into three classes that correspond to personality types: the rulers, who are logical; the producers, who have appetite; and the warriors, who have spirit. Divergent, based on the 2011 novel by Veronica Roth, is based on an expansion of this idea. Its future society is divided into several factions – thinkers, farmers, soldiers and so on – whose members are decided partly using a personality test.
During their teenage years, each citizen undergoes an evaluation (resembling a science fiction version of Harry Potter’s sorting hat ritual) that tells them which faction they are best suited to, although the final choice is theirs to make. The main character is Tris (Shailene Woodley), a girl whose family belong to Abnegation: a faction dedicated to feeding the poor and living a simple, Amish-like existence. Her test is inconclusive, and after much mulling she decides to join the military faction, Dauntless, and live the exciting life of a fighter.
But she soon finds that failing her personality test was a bigger deal than she first believed. She is a Divergent, existing outside the boundaries of society. Erudite, the caste of thinkers, see her and her kind as a danger to the established order – and the leaders of Dauntless would be only too happy to go along with exterminating her if they were to find out her secret.
Coming out in the wake of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games series and last year’s film adaptation of Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, Divergent resembles a cross between the two. It mixes Collins’ teenage-girl-against-shady-future-establishment set-up with Card’s theme of military training, and so much of it will be familiar even to viewers who have not read the source material. That said, the film should not be dismissed as a mere coattail-rider: Divergent is a relatively thoughtful example of youth-oriented science fiction that is not afraid to ask its audience to mull a few things over.
Having created a hypothetical society, the film does not come out either for or against the world that it portrays. The villains, who seek to suppress human freedom using mind control and instil a totalitarian state, do not represent the entire establishment but merely a specific faction. The regimen of the Dauntless military caste is harsh and unforgiving, but the script acknowledges that it does not necessarily have to be: the most ruthless aspect of training – the fact that the lowest-scoring applicants are doomed to a life of homelessness – is identified as being a new addition to the rules, possibly established at the behest of the Erudite antagonists.
Although the plot is ultimately based on a clear good/evil division – the selfless and humble Abnegation against the reactionary and cold-hearted Erudite – the viewers are left to make up their own minds about the wider society that houses these two groups.
Indeed, Divergent has a preoccupation with flinging discordant elements at the audience. At one point, the Dauntless trainees are taken beyond the boundaries of the inhabited city to a wilderness littered with the burnt-out husks of Chicago. Tris is harnessed to an enormous commando run and sent on a trip through the decayed cityscape; instead of horror at her post-apocalyptic surroundings, she reacts to the experience as though she is on a theme park ride as joyous pop music blares in the background.
Despite its more thoughtful elements, it is hard to ignore the thread of self-absorbed adolescent fantasy running through the film. The key concept of divergence is ultimately rather shallow: Tris is naturally special, but those around her are merely normal and therefore easily guiled.
It is never entirely clear why Divergents are so rare when we consider that most 16-year-olds would be faced with indecision when forced to choose an occupation for the rest of their lives. At the end of the day, it is an idea that really only works on a fairy tale level.
With the narrative hinging on a conflict between a heroic member of a fighting caste and an evil caste of thinkers, it should go without saying that Divergent eventually throws political philosophy to the wind and settles into an all-action, guns-blazing climax. That said it is a credit to the film that this comes across as an inevitable conclusion, rather than a betrayal of the premise. Even if it ends up as a straight-ahead action movie, Divergent at least becomes a pretty good straight-ahead action movie.
It may be easy to write Divergent off as a Hunger Games cash-in with a little too much reliance on wish-fulfilment fantasies, but this would be unfair. As well as offering its young target viewers with explosive action, it prods them into asking questions about their role in society.
Not too long ago, making a science fiction film for this demographic would have necessitated churning out another third-rate Star Wars knockoff. Now, after The Hunger Games – along with a broader cultural revaluation of young adult literature following the Harry Potter and His Dark Materials series – Hollywood is catering to teenage viewers who expect futuristic adventures to have a little more meat on their bones. Whatever its shortcomings, Divergent stands as part of a heartening trend.