When you turn a book into a movie, there are several outcomes–from least to most rage inducing
- It is a faithful adaptation (To Kill A Mockingbird, animated How the Grinch Stole Christmas, animated Charlotte’s Web)
- It’s a reasonably good adaptation, given the limitations of the medium (Some of the Harry Potter movies, Hunger Games, Gone With the Wind)
- I like it even thought you’ve diverted from the book/guilty pleasures (Devil Wears Prada, First Wives Club)
- Meh (Twilight, some of the other Harry Potter Books)
- It was a good movie until you fucked up some major component of the book (Nanny Diaries, Johnny Depp version of Willy Wonka, The Golden Compass)
- What the HELL was THAT? It had nothing to do with the book! (Ella Enchanted, World War Z, Johnny Depp’s Alice in Wonderland, live action How the Grinch Stole Christmas)
This post contains spoilers. You’ve been warned
Sigh. I have feelings about this movie, people.
I saw Divergent on Tuesday. There were moments when I was really pleased with the movie and got sucked in. Then there were the moments where I was just plain confused–WHY are you doing that, THAT didn’t happen, your sequencing is way off–and I wanted to yank out my phone and start blogging using my wordpress app. As it was, after the movie was over, I sat in my car and sent myself an email with over 30 bullet points. While finishing a reread of the book in the last day, I’ve sent myself another 8 or 9 bullet points. There is a LOT to talk about.
I should confess that when I originally reviewed Divergent on goodreads I gave it 4 stars out of 5 (like it, don’t love it). I’m not sure if upon rereading it for the second or third time I’m seeing more of the bigger picture issues, or if I really just dislike where the sequels went such that I’d probably give it a 3—a “meh” rating–at best. Maybe having seen where the movie went with the source material also lowered my enjoyment of the book. I don’t know.
Before we get to the stuff that pissed me off, let’s talk about the things that were actually done well.
Maggie Q as Tori Wu was great. I would’ve liked to see a bit more Tori, as she does play a slightly larger role in the book than she does in the movie and she has a large role in Insurgent (which will be out as a movie next year), but I was pretty pleased. I liked Q’s intensity as Tori, and I thought she did a really good job of being conflicted between wanting nothing to do with Tris and wanting to help her because of what happened to her brother (killed for being Divergent).
I also like that they cast Zoe Kravitz as Christina.
Persons of color are often absent from books, and they are often absent from movies–particularly in visible roles. Even when a character is a person of color in the book, people can be asshats about the casting of that role–I’m looking at you people who were shocked and upset that Rue was played by an African American girl. In fact, we see a lot of actors of color in the Divergent movie—unfortunately apart from Tori, Christina and Max (leader of the Dauntless)—they are all in the background.
The character of Uriah was effectively absent from the movie apart from his name on the board. In the book he is explicitly a non-white character and I would have been curious to see if they cast him as such. **Edited to add–my friend Johanna says there’s announcements that he was cast and played by an African American actor in the movie, but most of his scenes were cut. Worth noting–in the book Roth specifically describes him as having “golden skin” (pg 152). Now that I’m thinking about it, I don’t recall seeing any/many Latinos. ***
I was watching to see if there was any racial coding of the factions–did I see African Americans in Erudite? Was Dauntless the only faction with non-white members? As they are the “violent” faction, I was a bit worried going in if we were going to see disproportionate minority representation–making it not unlike middle America’s notion of what a gang would look like. But I saw persons of color throughout the factions. An over representation of white people for certain–but we at least had people of color present–and it’s pathetic that that is noteworthy.
In the first third of the movie my hopes were reasonably high…
I loved the way they did Chicago and the former Lake Michigan. The skyline as they panned in or out at various points. The way the buildings look when Tris is zip lining. The “something bad happened, but it’s still being lived” in vibe was great.
I really liked the visuals of the different factions in the first 20 minutes of the movie. They did a good job of communicating the essence of each faction during the opening–such a good job that the exposition was sometimes overkill. (Although, why didn’t the Erudite wear glasses–I loved that detail in the book–that they all wear glasses as an affectation.) The moment when the Dauntless members jumped off the train before testing was exactly the image I’d had in my head–right attitude, dress, and contrast to the other factions. Although they didn’t exactly stay true to the book (kids not sitting with their parents), the visual of the five factions at the choosing ceremony was great.
The scene pictured above (Tris jumping off the roof) was well executed. Apart from the fundamentalist vibe wardrobe was clearly going for when dressing Abnegation women in the movie (when they wear grey, but t-shirts and slacks–neither Tris nor her mom wear dresses in the books), I liked the visual of Tris as the first initiate to jump. I enjoyed the dramatic tension as she convinced herself to just jump.
While they put it out of order, I thought the scene where Four throws the knives at Tris (who has taken Al’s place) was good. Visually it worked, tension-wise it worked, and the actors did a great job with it.
Call it a weakness for a good gun fight (you can take the girl out of the US, but you can’t take the US out of the girl, I guess) but the scene where Tris and her mom are shooting together against the mind controlled Dauntless is AWESOME (except for the moment where her mom looks over at Tris shooting and smiles instead of focusing on who you should be shooting–out of character from how she’s portrayed in the book).
But let’s face it–a few good scenes and some pretty scenery don’t make up for some serious flaws in the adaptation
I realize that this is already being talked to death, but I need to go here too–The almost rape in the fearscape.
In the movie, Tris and Four have sexual tension and there’s one make out scene, during which Tris says she wants to go slow. This is a lame, weak portrayal of the complexities of coming from Abnegation where this sort of affection is very private compared to the book, but fine. Then we get to the fearscape.
One of Tris’s fears is portrayed as Four. He starts to kiss her and she gets scared and says no. He then throws her to the bed in a forceful move that we know means he’s going to rape her. She kicks him in the balls and fights him off, defending herself.
NO NO NO NO NO NO NO
For comparison, this is the scene in the book, after a long build up of a slowly budding romance and some kissing. The quotes scene below is from the fearscape and needs to be shared in full. Tobias is Four’s real name for those of you who may not remember.
And then Tobias is standing in front of me.
But I’m not afraid of Tobias. I look over my shoulder. Maybe there’s something behind me that I’m supposed to focus on. But no–behind me is just a four-poster bed.
Tobias walks toward me slowly.
What’s going on?
I stare up at him, paralyzed. He smiles down at me. That smile looks kind. Familiar.
He presses his mouth to mine, and my lips part. I thought it would be impossible to forget I was in a simulation. I was wrong; he makes everything else disintegrate.
His fingers find my jacket zipper and pull it down in one slow swipe until the zipper detaches. He tugs the jacket from my shoulders.
Oh, is all I can think, as he kisses me again. Oh.
My fear is being with him. I have been wary of affection all my life, but I didn’t know how deep that wariness went.
But this obstacle doesn’t feel the same as the others. It is a different kind of fear–nervous panic rather than blind terror.
He slides his hands down my arms and then squeezes my hips, his fingers sliding over the skin just above my belt, and I shiver.
I gently push him back and press my hands to my forehead. I have been attacked by crows and men with grotesque faces; I have been set on fire by the boy who almost threw me off a ledge; I have almost drowned–twice–and this is what I can’t cope with? This is the fear I have no solutions for–a boy I like, who wants to…have sex with me?
Simulation Tobias kisses my neck.
I try to think. I have to face the fear. I have to take control of the situation and find a way to make it less frightening.
I look Simulation Tobias in the eye and say sternly “I am not going to sleep with you in a hallucination. Okay?”
Then I grab him by his shoulders and turn us around, pushing him against the bedpost. I feel something other than fear–a prickle in my stomach, a bubble of laughter. I press against him and kiss him, my hnads wrapping around his arms. He feels strong. He feels…good.
And he’s gone.
After the simulation, she and Four are outside talking, and she confesses that this was part of her fearscape. He tells her that he’s a bit nervous too, because he’s also a virgin.
Almost rape is a common literary (and other forms of entertainment) trope. The almost-rape is solved by the hero swooping in (usually followed by him comforting the just almost raped heroine with sex because that totally makes sense) or in the more straw feminist/”girl power” scenes the girl fights him off.
There is so much wrong about using rape or attempted rape for dramatic tension. There are times when a rape is part of and crucial to the narrative. However, most of the time I’ve seen it used it is “near rape” and it serves no other purpose than the virtuous heroine narrowly escaping it. Which adds to the incredibly problematic cultural narrative of who “deserves” to get raped and that those who haven’t earned their rape can fight off the attacker. This is a subtle perpetuation of rape culture and it pissed me off. I can go on about it, but this article sums it up better than I can.
Tris fighting off a would-be rapist (her boyfriend as would-be rapist) is not empowering or a further show of her strength. The invocation of the visceral fear of rape that every woman is taught from a young age is cheap. Every woman is taught to fear rape–because there’s a 20% chance she will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime. Using that fear for entertainment, when it’s not even close to the narrative they’re drawing from is just offensive. I had to restrain myself from throwing something at the screen.
In the book version of Divergent, the character of Al is incredibly powerful. He is by far the largest of the initiates. He is physically larger. There’s a throwaway line about how he must need to shave already–he’s more physically mature. But that outward largeness–the implied power and strength–aren’t real. He cries, audibly, every night. In his first fight, he knocks his opponent unconscious easily, but then feels terrible about it–that it’s an unfair advantage, and that he didn’t join Dauntless to be a bully. After that he stops fighting back, allowing his opponents to knock him down. He only manages to get into the second phase of training because of Edward and Myra leaving Dauntless after Peter stabs Edward in the eye with a butter knife (we’ll get to Edward in a minute). He lets Tris take his place when Eric is going to make Four throw knives at him and if he flinches, he’s out of Dauntless. When they start having to face their fears, it makes him start to crack. He likes Tris romantically, but is rebuffed. He is a visibly ticking time bomb.
In the book when Tris is attacked, it isn’t some random attack. It is Peter and one of his lackeys–both furious at her ranking and out to get her, and Al who is lashing out against her who represents both everything he wants and everything he can never be/never have. After the attack he apologizes and she threatens his life. He then commits suicide.
It is emotional, and tragic and you ache for him as the reader. I found Al to be the most compelling character in the book, and I really would love to read his story.
In the movie he isn’t that much larger, and he looks superficially close to the character who plays Will–and both are minimized to the point where I didn’t always remember who was who until they started speaking. The actor doesn’t have that overly large physicality to him in height or comparative maturity. He serves as window dressing for the Tris’ friend group. His fight isn’t memorable, and you never know why his rank sucks. You never hear him cry. So his motives for being part of the trio who attack Tris are totally blank. When he commits suicide, it’s really not that much of a thing. You don’t get to know him well enough to care that he dies.
This is a common problem with the movie.
Edward is totally absent, which means the screenwriters just wrote themselves into a corner, given that Edward plays a large role in Insurgent and is also in Allegiant, and everything about him in those books relates back to his time as a Dauntless initiate with Tris and Peter. Peter stabs him in the eye with a knife before Edward has the top ranking and Peter is number 2. Is he just never going to show up? Is he going to show up but have no reason or a totally different backstory? What’s up with that?
Uriah is missing (again, apparently he had a role, but his scenes were cut) and he’s the bridge for Tris to bond with the Dauntless born initiates and to forge a stronger tie with Dauntless. We have the ziplining scene, but no understanding of why she’s there but none of her friends are. She’s just there and it’s a random scene they kept in because fans would’ve been pissed if they hadn’t kept it in. (Another scene they kept in, but were crap about was the ferris wheel–they’re up, but no understanding of why and then completely skipping over Four turning it on and Tris riding it down).
Okay, so in the book we learn that Divergence is a huge secret. Few people have heard of it. To talk about it is to risk death. In 400 pages, the word “Divergent” only shows up 43 times, but only 9 times in the first 15 chapters, and 19 of those times in the last 10 chapters (6 of those in a conversation with Jeanine Matthews in chapter 34 alone). Thank you Kindle search function. By the end of the book you figure out that Eric has suspected Tris of being Divergent the whole time, but it’s done without using the damn word blatantly every third paragraph.
If I were to sit in the movie theater and tick off every time someone used the word divergent or someone talks about divergence, I assure you that I would hit triple digits plus. For something NO ONE is supposed to talk about, EVERYONE talks about it. Random guards in the Dauntless compound talk about it. People come right out and ask Tris if she’s divergent.
“One of my friends told me he was tired of hearing the word divergent in the movie—because it was never explained except that you know she’s like a sparkly unicorn”
“They tried to give these long pseudo philosophical and often nonsensical explanations for why it was bad “
–My friend Johanna
They completely botch the way that Erudite and Dauntless are working together to hunt Divergents/go after Abnegation by HITTING YOU IN THE FACE WITH IT IN A MILLION WAYS THROUGHOUT THE MOVIE until everyone just looks dumb for not knowing that it’s happening. Everyone seems to know what divergence is, it doesn’t come across as that big a deal. In the book it’s portrayed as scary, dangerous–almost superpower-y. That it is your secret identity–no one knows what it is. That you will be executed for it. it’s not something guards at Dauntless are joking about. Here they keep telling you to keep it a secret, but then it seems to be something of an open secret that divergents exist and it should be a secret because….they can’t control you…and we care because…..?
There is so much more I can go into.
- The way they ruined the ending of the movie because they felt the need to give Kate Winslet a bigger role.
- The addition of unnecessary tech like the stingy bullets and the magic screen of ranking (instead of paintballs and a chalkboard as in the book)
- How when they under-develop the existing characters, they added another 10 initiates for reasons unknown.
- The chasm has no visible river, so instead of a river slamming up against Christina in the hanging off the chasm scene, there just drops of water from the pipe above. She hangs for seconds instead of minutes, making a scary scene kind of pathetic.
- Four trains Tris to act like a Dauntless in the simulations in the movie. This is not in the book—in fact, in the big fear scape every single problem is solved by Tris like a Divergent.
- Eric throws Tris out of Dauntless before capture the flag in the movie and then just lets her back in? WHUT? Never happens and it’s so way out of character that it’s baffling-why did you do that, writers?
- Why were so many scenes moved around? I don’t think it really streamlined the narrative or did anything useful.
Should you go see it? If you’ve got nothing better to do and aren’t going to have to pay a babysitter, or have a friend who really wants to see it—I guess? There’s not much else out right now that I can recommend higher (although the number of US movies we get in SG is pretty small compared to what you have available in the US). Will I bother seeing Insurgent/Allegiant? Not in a theater–maybe if they’re on the in flight entertainment on a long haul flight and I’ve nothing better to do?
Divergent the book–3 (at best) out of 5 stars (my goodreads review is here)
Divergent the movie—As a movie B-/C+…..as an adaptation C-/D+
Your turn–what did you think? Argue with me in comments!