Adapted by Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor from the novel of the same name by Veronica Roth, this 2014 movie is remarkably faithful to the original book, which is both good and bad. See my review of the novel.
At an unspecified time in a dystopian future, the city of Chicago has been walled in to protect its citizens from the chaos outside. Their society has been divided into five sects, supposedly to emulate traits that are desirable in this new society, Abnegation (selfless), Erudite (wise), Dauntless (brave), Candor (honest), and Amity (friendly). Teenagers Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley) and her brother, Caleb (Ansel Elgort), must be tested before they make their declaration of which faction they will choose for life. Their mother, Natalie (Ashley Judd), and father, Andrew (Tony Goldwyn), who serves on the ruling council, are both Abnegation and want them to choose their own faction. Beatrice, however, shows a strong regard for Dauntless and looks ready to take risks.
During the test, which consists of the administration of a hallucinogenic drug that simulates a series of choices, Beatrice tests out positive for more than one faction (Abnegation, Dauntless, and Erudite). The woman administering the test, Dauntless Tori (Maggie Q) tells her that she is Divergent, but that she must keep this a secret, claiming only that she tested out as Abnegation. The next day, Caleb declares himself Erudite. Caught in a dilemma as to which faction to choose, Beatrice takes Dauntless and is immediately thrown into a new life of daring exploits. Jumping off the train at Dauntless headquarters, she volunteers to be the first to make a three story leap into a gaping hole in a roof and she does so effortlessly. Although she is obviously quite brave, her physical training falls short and she is near the bottom of her class. Putting in extra hours, her training leader, Four (Theo James), gives her extra instruction and she quickly rises in the ranks. During a field exercise, she demonstrates that she can use her mind to help overcome obstacles, then, when she is again administered a hallucinogenic in order to face her worst fears, she finishes in record time. Four grows close to her and protects her.
The Erudite are in the process of planning the overthrow of Abnegation and have developed a serum that will place all of the Dauntless soldiers under their mind control, but Four and Beatrice (who goes by the Dauntless name Tris) are immune to the serum and must find a way to defeat the evil Erudite leader Jeanine (Kate Winslet).
If all this sounds a bit far-fetched, it’s because it is quite unbelievable. The book has the same problem in that the factions with their self-important purposes just doesn’t hold up to close scrutiny. Although it’s true that Americans are definitely prone to conformity, I find the concept of their adherence, especially among the young, to a single faction to be pretty ludicrous. The very idea that dividing your society in such a way will lead to peace and prosperity is laughable.
That being said, once a reader or a viewing audience buys into the concept and becomes willing to suspend their disbelief, the story becomes quite compelling, especially the first half where Tris is fighting to be accepted into the Dauntless faction. We love to see an underdog growing and changing, developing, and showing the big bad bullies that she can hold her own. We also delight in her ability to be divergent and to live more than one faction. The direction by Neil Burger is really tight and the movie is smartly edited, but the movie owes most of its success to the two performances by Shailene Woodley and Theo James. Each of them, in their own way, possess a kind of offbeat beauty that is terrifically attractive, but their acting talents are undoubtedly very strong and they carry the film through its absurd premise.
It’s beautiful to watch. The cinematography, art direction, and music are all superb and the editing carries the viewer along at a fantastic clip. Although it runs an astounding two hours and 19 minutes, no time is wasted. It might have been a better movie if 30 minutes had been cut, but it is fine at its current length.
A very entertaining film, quite well done, if based on a patently absurd premise.