Divergent is a perfect symbol of the stagnation that plagues the young adult fiction genre. It’s so rife with cliché and painfully obvious symbolism that it’s very hard to take seriously. It falls into all the trappings of a genre that was popularized by Harry Potter and hasn’t been as well executed since. Worst of all, though, because the writing is so lazy and the plot so banal, it makes for a very long, very boring movie, and it’s sad to think that money and resources are going to be spent to make a trilogy out of this (which of course means three more movies when the last installment gets split into two parts, because that’s how money happens.) But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Let’s go through the young adult fiction checklist, shall we? Dystopian future where people are split into factions based on a single personality trait? Check, complete with color-coordinated outfits! A female protagonist whose sole defining characteristic is that she’s an inexplicably gifted individual? Check, for main character Tris is a Divergent, someone who doesn’t conform to your society’s rules, man! (Not that she has any personality beyond being a cypher for the audience’s demographic to project themselves onto.) A dog-eat-dog education system where our protagonist starts at the bottom and pushes through by virtue of her determination and newly budding gifts? You better believe it! And of course, let’s not forget an ending that leaves things wide open for future installments and doesn’t resolve any major character arcs, as minimalist as those arcs are.
See, this is all a very obvious allegory for high school, right down to a clique-y cafeteria scene and an instructor who’s out for blood. If you feel different than everyone else and think your flourishing personality sets you apart from all the two-dimensional drones that populate your classes, then guess what? You’re special and this film is just the empowerment fantasy for you! Tris feels just how you would feel in any of these situations, because you can see yourself in her. And, frankly, that’s lazy and manipulative writing.
I wouldn’t even be that hard on the film if it did anything interesting and new with its premise. Instead, we’re plopped right into Generic Dystopian Future #723, with dull grey concrete acting as the backdrop for almost every scene. The villains of the film seek to wipe out Divergents because they threaten social order and stand in the way of their own domination, which is the same crap we’ve seen a million times before, perhaps most notably from Saturday morning cartoon villains. Hell, even the love interest is really only there as eye-candy for all the Tris-wannabes in the audience.
So is this the worst that young adult fiction has to offer? No, definitely not. Twilight is going to be hard to top in that respect; at least Divergent is an empowerment fantasy, not a submissively abusive one. But at best, Divergent is bland. At worst, it’s a lazy attempt to garner a franchise following. I recognize that I’m not the film’s target audience, but I think teenagers can be smarter than this if you don’t pander to their insecurities. This film does nothing new with a very tired premise and clearly emotionally manipulates its audience by targeting the vulnerabilities in their emotional development. Divergent isn’t worth your time, especially with a running time of two hours and fifteen minutes. Just watch almost any of the Harry Potter films to get a much better example of young adult fiction done well.
See how I said almost any Harry Potter film? Can you guess which one I exclude? Take a guess in the comments below.