Friday, 18 April 2014


I hadn't read Veronica Roth's novel but was told it was a very good story - the sort of thing I would enjoy. I did find it enjoyable - but at the same time the film has some flaws. The plot is a kind of Enneagram meets Hunger Games meets Inception fusion that presents us with another strong female teenage character that excites the moral imagination as they battle the pressure to conform. 

Instead of Katniss Everdeen we have Tris Prior (Shailene Woodley) who is branded a 'Divergent' - someone who doesn't fit into any of the five factions. The factions were created after the war a hundred years previously to bring order to the society of dystopian Chicago. They are Abnegation (selfless), Amity (peaceful), Candor (truthful), Erudite (intelligent) and Dauntless (brave) - a resonance with the Houses in Harry Potter?

All 16 year olds are required to undergo a serum enhanced aptitude test that determines which faction is best suited for their personality type. All is well if the test gives a single answer as it does in nearly all cases. However, when a candidate's screening presents multiple options they are branded 'Divergent' and seen as a threat through their supposed inability to conform to any of the stereotypes on offer. The test outcome is only an indicator and the next day at the Choosing Ceremony (more Harry Potter?) - a coming of age observance - individuals are free to choose to become a member of any of the five factions. Once the choice is made, there is no going back - the only alternative being to become one of the factionless who live a life of deprivation, on the streets. 

The mantra is "faction over blood" so for those who choose a different faction to their family, it's tantamount to cutting all ties with them. This clearly delivers a process with inbuilt conservatism at its core. There are parallels between this vision of a future Chicago and contemporary Western liberal consumer society where everything is okay as long as everyone stays in their place. Perhaps the 'banking crisis' of 2008 demonstrates what happens when one group steps out of line?

The power of consequence and therefore of choice is a central theme of the story. Also featuring is individuation over and against the collective. The way the five predominant character traits of the factions are portrayed is clumsy and overly simplistic. Each trait wears clothing of a single colour - no doubt with great significance. Consequently each trait, as they live in enclaves, appears monochrome but when they are in mixed company there is always the implication of a hierarchy or class structure which I felt was never adequately explored. The complexity of variety that is necessary for a healthy and nurturing community to develop is hardly acknowledged (Ephesians 4 and 1Corinthians 12 come to mind.) Why is it that so often story-tellers seem to only offer a binary choice between fundamentalism or a bland and insipid banality? Have they never enjoyed a cocktail?

At 2:19 long, it is a long film. I wonder what a 90 minute edit would look like? The training of Kris and her fellow initiates into full membership of their chosen faction is where some useful editing could take place. But this is the (long) section where Tris develops a relationship with one of her instructors - Four (Theo James). I felt that the film could never decide if it was an action film with a romantic component or a love story with fighting in it. The inability of the narrative to reconcile this tension left me feeling unsatisfied. Whilst moral dilemmas come thick and fast, I found little if anything of a spiritual nature in this film - more an homage to humanism.

Both Woodley and James turn in strong performances and I look forward to seeing them in Insurgent, the sequel in this trilogy which is already in pre-production and due for release in March 2015. This will be followed by the final installment (Allegiant) - split into 2 parts and scheduled for 2016 and 2017 releases respectively. We have another money-milking franchise to feed! I'll give it 6/10.


KatyRochelle said...

Nice review! Having read the book, and not particularly cared for it, I thought this was a great adaptation. It cut out a lot of the technical writing I had issues with it. James and Woodley worked great together to make a believable couple. I'm looking forward to the rest of the series!

Duncan Strathie said...

Katy - many thanks for the encouragement. Appreciated!

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