Veronica Roth is a bit of a phenom in the publishing industry. While a senior in college she sold a book to a major publishing house. At age 22 she became a published author. At first a lot of the buzz around her book, called Divergent, focused on her age and precociousness. But then people read the book. And a lot of the focus went to where it rightly should be– the story.
Now Divergent has been made into a movie starring Shailene Woodley (who will also soon be starring as Hazel Grace Lancaster in an adaptation of a little book you may have heard of called The Fault in Our Stars) and Theo James (who was the guy who died in Lady Mary’s bed in episode three of Downton Abbey… Yep). And the question that every book lover always has is, “Is the story still there?” I’m happy to say that the answer is yes.
Divergent follows a similar storyline to a lot of other dystopian young adult books, which may be why the movie is drawing so much undeserved ire from critics. The story centers around a girl named Beatrice “Tris” Prior, who lives in Chicago sometime in the future that is surrounded by a huge wall. There was a war– the details are vague– years ago, and while the city is weathered and decaying, humanity has worked to rebuild society.
The structure of the society that they have built is centered around dominant personality traits. There are five factions– Amity (for the peaceful), Abnegation (for the selfless), Candor (for the honest), Erudite (for the intelligent), and Dauntless (for the brave). Each faction is tasked with different jobs in order to keep society going– Amity grows crops, Abnegation take care of the sick and run the government, Dauntless are trained to protect the city and fight, etc.
When a people turn 16, they take a test in order to determine which faction they will belong to for the rest of their lives. Tris has grown up in the Abnegation faction but when she takes the test, her results are inconclusive. This means that she does fit into one faction, but can fit into several. Her mind works in a way that does not conform to society– she is Divergent, hence the name of the book– a type of person that is viewed as a threat to society. Tris is in danger of being killed for her divergence, and decides to hide in plain sight by switching to the Dauntless faction.
Dauntless is a very different and dangerous place, and Tris must work very hard to ensure that she has a place in the faction. She has to train and work to conform while hiding her true nature from her new friends and her training instructor, a mysterious and attractive man (this is a young adult novel, after all) named Four. While Tris learns more about who she truly is, she also learns about the growing cracks and evils in her society. In order to stop them, she has to truly embrace her divergence.
Phew. That’s a lot of plot summary and explanation. Which may be a reason why critics are not big fans of the film adaptation. The movie has a lot of exposition and world building to cover before truly being able to jump into Tris’ story.
Tris’ story of finding her strength and resolve is a classic young adult trope, but Tris is a refreshing young adult heroine. Tris is “strong” because she is defined by her kindness, principles, and determination to keep going even when she is scared. And sometimes she falters in these things. Tris’ thoughts and beliefs about herself and her society are brought into question. Tris is not perfect. She makes mistakes. She struggles to always do the right thing. Instead of being a role model as a perfect girl, Tris is a role model for real girls. She is uncertain, questioning, and flawed. She is not always a character that girls should aspire to be, but instead meets girls where they are and grows with them.
Shailene Woodley does a wonderful job of bringing Tris to life. Her eyes convey Tris’ inner monologue, her posture Tris’ emotions. Tris is not always certain that she will make it out of situations alive, and Woodley’s performance left my heart pounding multiple times because she is such a good actress.
So while Divergent may not diverge much from other dystopian story lines, it is worth watching because its heroine and leading actress do.
For more on Veronica Roth, check out an article I wrote about meeting her at the National Book Festival!