Another month, another adaptation of a young adult novel! With The Hunger Games and the now exhausted Twilight franchise having established a market for female-led action-adventure for the teen audience, it now seems like everyone’s at it.
Divergent has all the usual boxes ticked: female protagonist who discovers she’s some kind of chosen one, future dystopia with strict rules that don’t quite make sense (“We’re going to stop conflict between political and social factions by… dividing everyone into factions. Yeah, that’ll work.”) Add a cute boy, a female villain and some big themes and we’re done!
Well, not quite.
The lesson I think we can learn as writers is – a central character who’s different isn’t enough.
Tris is Divergent, talented in every one of the five virtues this society uses to divide its population into thinkers, doers, the compassionate, guards against a threat that doesn’t actually seem to exist, and… ah, no one remembers the fifth one, right? So far, so good – but what does this mean for her?
As far as I can tell, nothing much. Being Divergent is something she simply is, not something she has to achieve, and that makes her a passive heroine.
In a well-intentioned attempt to cover this, the writers have filled the story with smaller goals. She has to hide her abilities – but since another Divergent turns out to have clues to theirs tattooed all over their back, clearly there isn’t that much danger of discovery. She chooses a largely unsuitable faction to join – but anyone can do that, it turns out, so this plotline has no bearing on her Divergent status. She trains endlessly to join this faction, despite having to be nursed along by her training officer and showing no great aptitude for it, and her divergency is of no discernable help.
Oh, and she has to prepare for a test that might expose her divergency, but that entire plotline derails when it turns out her training officer’s reactions to the test, not mention his backstory, are far more interesting and complex than hers…
In other words, she spends three-quarters of the movie running after goals that don’t relate to the supposed core concept of the movie, and which even make her look like a failure to the audience, as she’s rescued again and again by the male lead.
We have no measure of what it means, to her or to others, to be Divergent. We get no sense of how she thinks, how she feels, or how it’s terrible and/or wonderful to be different. Divergency remains just a label that makes her hunted, a shallow attempt to appeal to the teenage sense of alienation.
It’s only when the bad guys’ ultimate plan – which has nothing to do with Tris, and which she ends up fighting against almost accidentally – is revealed that Tris finds a real motivation to act, and by then it’s too late to engage the audience, especially in a 139 minute epic.
So let’s learn the lesson: action is not enough. Keeping your heroine busy is not enough. She has to want something – and being something and wanting something are not the same…