Time and again, the transition from best-selling young adult book title to Hollywood feature film ensures a decent amount of trimming, re-writing and various other revisions to make it palatable to a wider audience than the kids — and assorted adults — who make the tome a hit in the first place.
I don’t get that sense from “Divergent,” the latest YA adaptation to hit the big screen. Specifically, I’m not sure how much director Neil Burger, his crew and screenwriters Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor ending up leaving out of the 2-hour-and-20-minute film from author Veronica Roth’s source material.
While that’s a question that could be solved by simply reading the book, it does nothing to fix the bloated feeling to this film.
To Burger’s credit, “Divergent” does a fine job of quickly exploring the backstory of the film’s Philip K. Dick-esque story: Post-apocaylptic Chicago is segregated into five “factions,” a system that holds the dystopian society together despite more than a few folks falling through the cracks — we call them homeless, in “Divergent” they’re “factionless” — and plenty others not easily fitting into one of the pre-determined factions.
Beatrice (played by Shailene Woodley, “The Spectacular Now” and “The Descendants”) is one of those latter “divergent” folks who seemingly pose a threat to The Powers That Be, one of whom is Jeanine Matthews (Kate Winslet), leader of the über-smart Erudite faction that seeks to upset the ruling Abnegation faction, the selfless, vanity-starved do-gooders (who go so far as to limit how long they spend looking at themselves in the mirror) that include Beatrice’s family.
There’s plenty of borrowing from other fantasy YA titles along the way, especially the “Harry Potter” series — instead of a sorting hat ceremony at Hogwarts, there’s a gathering in which the teenagers select which faction they’ll spend the rest of their lives in. As opposed to games of Quidditch, there are war games with dart guns for the rough-and-tumble members of the Dauntless faction, the warriors of the society.
Beatrice — who later shortens her moniker to “Tris” as she joins her new faction — becomes the center of the brewing showdown between the Erudite and Abnegation clans, putting her family and new friends alike in danger — it’s a storyline that has plenty of moments for action and even a budding romance with her faction leader Four (played by Theo James), but it also doesn’t invest much in terms of catharsis for characters who don’t survive the ensuing conflict. The audience spends a lot of time feeling out the emotions of Tris and Four but not so much on the coldness and brutality that is to come. Even for an obviously oppressive world which the filmmakers have crafted, I certainly wasn’t expecting the degree of gun battles and the like that play out in the film’s final act — Harry Potter at least got to grow up a bit and vanquish some of Voldemort’s proxies in the first half-dozen movies of his fantasy franchise before having the climactic Boss Level showdown.
As much as “Divergent” is fleshed-out, it’s to a detriment — to jam-pack as much of Tris’ training and subsequent fights into a single feature bogs down a fairly simplistic storyline with an equally simplistic conclusion, perhaps the least-satisfying sci-fi/fantasy ending since “Star Trek: Into Darkness.”
To the film’s credit, Woodley and James have solid chemistry despite Woodley’s Tris getting a few too many deer-in-the-headlights shots of her worried face. Woodley’s “Spectacular Now” co-star Miles Teller also offers a good deal of solid acting in his role as a brash Erudite-turned-Dauntless recruit named Peter, but even his material drags on a bit long and rises only so high as smarminess and not true villainy.
At the very least, the production design of the futuristic Chicago is lush and fun to view, thanks to the work of designer Andy Nicholson (“Gravity”) and cinematographer Alwin Küchler (“Hanna”). They help set up the framework of this city-state in turmoil better than any of the dialogue or editing do in course.
“Divergent” has glimpses of being on par with the best of the YA movie adaptations but simply tries to do too much; had the filmmakers eschewed the Abnegation habit of not looking in the mirror, they perhaps would have recognized this.
“Divergent” is rated PG-13. Running time: Two hours, 20 minutes. Two and a half stars out of five.