• A mostly successful adaptation of a mostly successful novel, Divergent is an above average action adventure that entertains even if it doesn’t resonate.
  • Director Neil Burger and writers Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor make several changes to author Veronica Roth’s story, the most notable, and the best, being their resolution. The film’s finale is gripping and exciting, rife with intense conflict centered on opposed characters with differing priorities.
  • Burger, Daugherty and Taylor are also wise to minimize Al (Christian Madsen), Will (Ben Lloyd-Hughes), and Christina’s (Zoe Kravitz) importance while all but eliminating Edward (Ben Lamb), Molly (Amy Newbold) and Drew, amongst others. By reducing the number of secondary characters, the filmmakers are able to better develop the most crucial.
  • Something they mostly do. Here Tris (Shailene Woodley) is complex, equal parts brave, intelligent and ruthless. Four (Theo James) is harsh and exacting, but also layered by loneliness and frustration disguised as fearlessness. Jeanine (Kate Winslet) is zealous and arrogant, but she is equally empathetic, soft-spoken and intelligent.
  • Not all of the film’s characters are treated so well, however. Dauntless leaders, especially Eric (Jai Courtney), are so focused on mindless obedience that they quickly become archetypes we do not understand.
  • Peter, Tori and Caleb are under-developed. We do not understand Caleb’s choice of Erudite or Tori’s decision to finally answer Tris’ questions.
  • Just as we do not see Four and Tris’ romance develop. Until the final act when the latter professes love, their relationship isn’t a flaw, because the filmmakers do not suggest strong connection between them. Then the movie ends, and their depth of feeling is supposedly intense. Nevermind that we haven’t seen it develop.
  • This flaw limits the movie’s thematic resonance. Why? Woodley’s final voiceover suggests a theme of togetherness and community, but the message rings hollow. Simply put, the central relationships are undercooked.
  • Despite the actors best efforts. Woodley and James share intense chemistry together and vitalize their characters individually. Woodley is paticularly dynamic.
  • As is Miles Teller, who plays against type and makes Peter seem better written than he is.
  • The filmmakers do not over-explain the world or Tris’ thoughts, opting instead to show us relevant information.
  • Good thing they mostly show it well. Consider Chicago’s decaying skyline, a once-sunken ship rotting above land, characters repeatedly questioning what is beyond Amity’s farms, Jeanine frequently entering the Dauntless compound, Tris’ lingering looks at her parents during the choosing ceremony, and so much more.
  • Perhaps most importantly, many of Divergent’s scenes are gripping and suspenseful.
  • Though imperfect, Divergent is good enough to warrant a tepid recommendation.
  • Final Grade: C+

47 thoughts on “Divergent

    • I finished reading the trilogy on Thursday of last week, so there was never any question I was going to see it. And I wasn’t disappointed, really. I think the book and film about equally good (I would have given the first book a B-minus, probably, and obviously gave the movie a C+).

      So is it worth seeing? Yes. Do I think it screams “Big Screen Required?” Not really. If you find yourself at the cinema with nothing else to watch, check this out. If not, wait to rent it.

  1. Great review! I completely agree with your points. Although I haven’t read the book yet, so I didn’t have any expectations going in. I am sort of maybe tempted to read the books now.

    • The first book is, in my opinion, good popcorn fluff. It hits the Four and Tris romance a bit better than the movie, and is much better at capturing the togetherness theme. Still, it has a slew of its own flaws, some of which the film and book share. All things considered, I’d give the first book a B-minus, probably.

      I think the second book the best in the series, likely good enough to earn a B.

      And I think the third book easily the most daring, which means it’s the one I admire the most. But while I love the risks it takes, I think it stumbles on some of them, so I’d likely give it a C+, maybe a C.

      All of which is to say: if you’re looking for light reading, you can do much worse. All of the books are worth reading, though none of them are great.

      • I know! But I hate seeing a series slowly deteriorate. That is exactly what happened for me when I was reading The Hunger Games series — I loved the first, liked the second, and did not like the third. So disappointing.

      • Totally agreed on The Hunger Games trilogy. I have written, almost verbatim, the same sentence on multiple occasions.

        That isn’t quite what happens here though. Like I said I think the second the best of the series. And I think the third had potential to be truly an properly powerful stuff. One of the principle problems is that it bites off a bit more than it can chew, at least in one volume. Had it been two books, or 400 pages longer, I think it would be pretty outstanding. For whatever that’s worth.

    • I think Blu-Ray/DVD will be fine. I don’t think anything screams Big Screen Required.

      And I was trying hard to mostly avoid judging how it compares to the book.

  2. I was expecting a bit higher rating but I guess C+ is fair given the flaws you highlighted here Josh.

    I think I might be in the minority who likes the way the romance plays out. I do think their bond is believable, and the two actors have an effortless chemistry. By the end, there is sort of a sense of desperation that at times makes their relationship seem more *intense* than otherwise would if they’re living a normal day to day life. I think Tris sees Four as a protector and given that she almost lost him (and vice versa in a way), I could see that would intensify their feelings as well. I dunno, I guess I like these two, way more than the romance in Hunger Games given how Katniss pretty much dominated over the two boys in the love triangle.

    • For most of the picture I like the romance between Tris and Four more than the Hunger Games’, too. I only think this one a significant flaw when she professes love and then again when he claims he knows exactly who she is. I think the film shows the start of their romance very well, I don’t think it shows the transition from beginning relationship to deep-seeded feeling – I can infer where it came from, I suppose. But I don’t believe I saw it, really.

      And actually, when I started the review, I expected to give the movie a B-minus, the same grade I’d give the first book. But then I realized I don’t think this hits the togetherness theme, which means I don’t think it quite accomplishes all of its objectives, and that is the difference between my C-Plus and B-Minus.

  3. Not looking forward to this one. I do have to watch it because my girlfriend read the book, so of course, I really have no choice in the matter. Plus, she allowed me to watch Grand Budapest Hotel instead Friday, so I’d be quite the ass to say no. Your rating isn’t exceptionally high, but it isn’t as awful as other ones either. Maybe it won’t be a total bore for me!!

    • I’d be surprised if you’re totally bored – there’s enough action and excitement that I’d think you’d still be able to enjoy it as popcorn fluff. But I’ll look forward to finding out when you write your review. 😉

  4. I just started the novel and I can already see why the film bombs. I was really hoping for something that came close to Hunger Games franchise. Great review, though 😉

    • For what it’s worth, I think the film on par with the book. Neither is great. Both are fun, popcorn entertainment. They won’t resonate the way The Hunger Games does, but I still think them quality fiction, more or less.

      How far along in the book are you?

  5. Great review, Josh! I know we had a difference of opinion on Jeanine’s casting, but overall it sounds like we had the same impression. I agree with you about Caleb and Peter’s lack of development. For those who haven’t read the books, I can see where their motivations would be unclear and confusing.

    I haven’t read beyond Divergent. Do you think it’s worth it?

    • I do, yeah. I think the second book is the best in the series, probably good enough to earn a B. It focuses a bit too much on the teen romances and emotions, but otherwise is quite good. The third book, I think, is the riskiest of the series; in fact, it is the novel I admire most. Now, I think it stumbles in its execution, because it stuffs too much content into too few pages, but on balance it still isn’t bad (I’d give it a C-plus). And it could have been great if it were four hundred, or so, pages longer. Plus, the final seventy-ish pages of Allegiant are might be the best in the series. They serve as a pretty strong resolution.

  6. Great review Josh! Glad to see you read the books, too. I am looking forward to seeing this, though it only releases next week. If I have my way I will be there on opening day. I must say that I thoroughly enjoyed the books, and feel that it had a great story to tell with great characters. I prefer Tris over Katniss ANY DAY OF THE WEEK, Katniss is great on screen, but in the books served no purpose other than to frustrate the ever loving hell out of me. I am curious to see how the romance develops in the film. I have high hopes for this one, and I hopefully by next week I can see roughly how this all comes together.

    • I think Katniss and Tris about equally well developed. And I think Four better written that either Peeta or Gale. But I think the rest of the Hunger Games characters more interesting, mostly because Collins does not overload her series with secondary characters the way Roth does. That Collins has fewer important peripheral players means she can develop those she does have better. Which is one reason I prefer Collins’ series. Another? I think The Hunger Games trilogy far more thematically resonant and emotionally acute.

      But that isn’t to say I dislike the Divergent novels. For the most part I consider them good popcorn fluff with considerable entertainment value. Something that can be said about this first movie, as well. In terms of quality, it is close to on par with its source material, despite its differences (I’d give the book a B-minus and obviously think the film earned a C-plus).

      I would also say this first Divergent film is about even with the first Hunger Games movie (I’d probably give the initial Hunger Games flick a B-minus, but, were I to review it, I might realize I think it also deserves a C-plus. Hard to know since I’ve never carefully analyzed it).

      All in all, then, I think this first Divergent flick pretty good. Hopefully you like it as much, or more, when you see it! 🙂

      • I suppose she was developed, but she was incredibly unlikable. She was selfish and a brat and everything that irritated me no end. She made it seem like everything she did for everyone was a FAVOUR and that they should not forget it. Four was undoubtedly the better male lead, and I liked how there was no ridiculous love triangle.

        I will agree that Roth has an abundance of characters, which is why little emotion registers with me when anything happens to them, I can see that point completely. I don’t know, I must say that I enjoyed both worlds because I did not find them to be as similar as everyone thinks they should be. Both had merits. I am glad that you see both worlds.

        Hmmm, glad to hear that they sound close enough together. I would be interested to see what happens with this trilogy because I know when The Hunger Games originally launched it was not awfully popular… we shall see. So roughly they are the same. I felt the same when I read both The Hunger Games as well as Divergent. I got my friend on the former a while ago and she got me on the latter at the end of last year. The first time I read it I was overly critical of it in terms of The Hunger Games, which I used as a comparison, and when I finished the story realised that I should not compare like that. I am reading them again now for what they are and enjoying them far more than I initially did because of them being totally different but both good.

        I really do hope that I enjoy it!

      • Yeah, I think the first Divergent novel something of a cross between The Hunger Games and Harry Potter, with a wide dose of The Giver mixed in. As the Divergent series continues, however, it becomes much more sci-fi than The Hunger Games or Harry Potter, which, in turn, gets it closer to The Giver’s world.

        So. Do I think Divergent’s world terribly original? No, I don’t. But having a brand new, unique idea isn’t necessary for writing a good book – having good, well developed characters and a meaningful theme are. And the Divergent world has two strong characters and at least two themes.

        As to Katniss’ likability . . . I take your point, and mostly agree with you. Then, I counter: Tris isn’t likable either. She’s manipulative, calculating and self-absorbed. She’s also demanding, stubborn and ruthless. Oh so very ruthless. So much so, in fact, that her actions border on evil (doubt me? Consider what she does at the end of Allegiant and what she says to David prior to doing it. Everything she accuses him of . . . she then immediately does herself. And calls herself heroic for doing it, just like David).

        Does any of that mean I do not enjoy reading Tris’ story? Not at all. She’s interesting, at least partially because she isn’t morally pure.

      • I agree with you there. A new concept is fantastic but oh so rare nowadays, so that sucks quite a bit!

        That is true. I liked the world that was crafted, though, the factions and their values, etc. It was interesting to see that, which I appreciated. Roth put them together well, though she spent the most time with Abnegation, Dauntless and Erudite.

        No no, not going to counter you or argue with you there, she was ruthless and cold, calculating and manipulative no doubt, but she didn’t grate on me quite the same as Katniss did. There was a whole section in Insurgent where I was ready to smack her silly for her wallowing and self pity. I found her to be stronger than Katniss. Both have their faults for sure, but Tris is still my preferred heroine between the two.

        Oh man, I do so love discussing books with you!

      • Yeah. It’s nice when you find another book lover who has read the same books you have. 🙂

        Tris was definitely traumatized during Insurgent, but I liked that, in a way. Roth was smart enough to recognize violence has consequences, some of which can be psychological. (In much the way Collins recognized the same throughout Mockingjay.)

        Which heroine do I like more? I can’t pick between them, really. I think both are strong but flawed, which makes each of them fascinating.

      • Always fun and games to chat with someone, seeing the varying opinions that people have and all that.

        It was good in a way, but some places it got too melodramatic and that got a bit heavy. Then again, I am a little harder and blunter when it comes to those things because of the things that I have seen in my life. I did like how Collins handled Mockingjay, though so many people complained about it.

        True, I can see that, I really can. I should read all the books again and intensely look at them from the perspectives of just the leading ladies. I like them both as characters, though it is evident that Katniss irritates me. I don’t know, she did from the second I started reading about her, whereas I liked Tris more, so that is why I prefer her.

      • Which is definitely fair enough.

        Do you think the Divergent books better than The Hunger Games books? Or just the character more likable?

      • I just find Tris more likable. In terms of the stories I thoroughly enjoy them both. Like I said, I no longer read them as a comparison, so I would not be able to pick which is superior… I would have to think on that, to be honest…

        Yourself? The Hunger Games?

      • On balance, yeah. By a fairly wide margin, mostly because I think the first Hunger Games novel so far superior to any of the Divergent books. (I’d give The Hunger Games an A or an A-.) I think the second books in both series pretty similar in quality – I would likely give both a B, though I’d call Catching Fire just a few notches better.

        But I think Allegiant (a C or a C+) slightly superior to Mockingjay (a C or a C-).

      • Ah I see, so it was the original that bowled you over! 🙂 I can agree with that. The only thing that I found a little difficult to get into with these books at times was the fact that it was written in the first person… but overall it worked incredibly well.

        I think for YA books they worked and were both enjoyable series to read… though I doubt I will ever find another Potter! (That is how I end up reading all these series and things like that)

      • Yeah. I think the first Hunger Games book one of the five best novels I have ever read, up there with Kavalier and Clay, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Game of Thrones. It is a masterpiece of show not tell and just as good at character development. Outside of the peripheral love triangle, I think it flawless.

        Even the first person narration works for me. Though I think Catching Fire suffers some because of it. And Mockingjay would have been much better off with shifting third person limited perspective.

      • Wow, very high praise there!

        First person works well for these types of books, but it is jarring when I come from a totally different reading experience all round. I think Mockingjay would have benefited from another perspective, there were things that annoyed me in there because it was just glanced over, and quickly. The story could have been more fleshed out in its conclusion had it been told differently.

        When I started Allegiant, I was a little bit thrown with how the narration continually shifted between Tris and Tobias, but found that it gave us more explanation as to what was going on, the other perspectives (because we all see things differently), and I liked it. When reading that, it occurred to me that Mockingjay could have seriously done with that if Collins didn’t want to skip completely out and into third person…

      • I think the perspective shift in Allegiant was a little jarring, too, but I also think it makes some artistic sense. Allegiant starts with Tris and Tobias promising to be honest with each other, which means Four is (theoretically anyway) no longer a mystery to the series’ protagonist, and, by extension, us. That means his perspective can now fuel the novel.

        Collins’ problem, though, is that by the third novel Katniss is so emotionally ruined that she is incapable of close connection to anyone, really, be it Gale, her mom, Prim or anyone else. That’s the way it had to be for Collins’ theme to resonate, but it also made late-series perspective shifts basically impossible.

        What I’m saying, then, is that, at the end of Catching Fire, Collins backed herself into a thematic and artistic corner, from which she never quite figured out how to emerge.

      • That is a great way of putting it. I liked that shift.

        Alright there is that, granted. It just left for a slightly dulled out and hollowed experience. Not a bad one, just a little bit claustrophobic sometimes.

        You are right there, by the end of it there was only one way to go I suppose!

      • I think claustrophobic and hollow are great adjectives for Mockingjay. It isn’t precisely bad, but nor is it all that good.

        Here’s my explanation why: in Mockingjay, Katniss goes from heroine to victim, from most important actor to manipulated and controlled pawn. That means she’s not making the most important decisions, at least not for most of the book, and thereby can’t tell us the complete story. Therein is why Mockingjay would have benefitted from shifting third person limited perspective. Then, we would have been able to see Prim’s decisions, Gale’s, maybe Snow’s, maybe Finnick or Johanna, maybe Beetie’s, and definitely Coin’s, Plutarch’s and Peeta’s.

        The problem, of course, is that Collins couldn’t make such a radical perspective change in the third volume of trilogy. Plus, she was right, in my opinion, to use first person in the first book (I think that book would have been less good if it hadn’t been strictly from Katniss’ perspective). And so Collins was, as I said before, in a corner. And Mockingjay suffered for it.

      • Thank you. It is very in between…

        That would have been wonderful. There were so many things that transpired that I would have loved to have read more about or got a more thorough understanding of, and Mockingjay really fell short of that in a lot of ways.

        I agree, it would have been incredibly jarring, and it would not have worked unless she had made provision for it earlier on as you say. Definitely, the whole point was to get us involved, tell us someone’s emotions, and she delivered on that wonderfully, the book benefited endlessly from that.

        What do you teach, if I may ask?

      • English Language Learning. (So I teach English to non-native speakers of the language.)

        And agreed on The Hunger Games in general and Mockingjay on particular. 🙂

  7. Good review JJames… Woodley is an actress I’ve admired since first seeing her in Alexander Payne’s The Descendants. There was talk of her star rising with this film, especially if it becomes a franchise. I wish her luck as she’s got the talent but it’s only potential at the moment.

    • Her star is definitely rising. Only time will tell if it explodes, of course, but she was great, utterly great, in The Spectacular Now, is just as good here, and is starring in another adaptation of another beloved YA novel later this year – The Fault In Our Stars. Plus, the sequels to Divergent are already in production, as I understand.

      It is all very well deserved. She has some tremendous range, which makes her a heavy weight actor.

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