The Divergent Series and its divergent cinema adaptations

The Divergent Series has been an interesting, if flawed, attempt at adapting successful author Veronica Roth’s bestselling series into engaging cinema. Something that this series has always had over The Hunger Games for me is a more resonant look at the teenage experience, particularly the need to fit in, what it means to part of a family and community. More than this though, as Roth is a Christian, the series is also resonant in a deeply rich and thoughtful ways, particularly in the way it deals with what it means to be set apart, and the very nature of self-sacrifice. That said, I don’t believe the films have ever been able to articulate the themes of the book in a way that does them justice.

This is unfortunate because the books are rich in subtext. Tris’ character arc throughout the books is about a young woman trying to discover what it means to be part of a family through hard won battles, personal struggle and the pain of sacrifice. From her parents sacrifice for the greater good, through to her discovering what and how that will play out in her own life, author Roth made an exceptionally mutli-layered heroine in Tris.

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[WARNING – CLICKING THROUGH TO THE LINK BELOW CONTAINS SPOILERS IF YOU HAVEN’T READ THE BOOKS]

Roth has said of the character of Tris on her blog that “Tris’s parents’ deaths were revelatory moments, both for Tris and for me. For Tris, they seemed to awaken her to the power of self-sacrifice out of love. For me, Tris’s parents’ deaths made me realise that though Tris had tangibly abandoned her parents’ faction, she was never quite able to separate herself from them, never quite wanted to; that the true struggle of her character, the one she had never been able to let go of, was to figure out how to honour her parents while still maintaining her distinct identity. That was her struggle in Divergent in a more subtle way, but it was also her struggle in a far more obvious way in Insurgent.”

So it is a shame that the films haven’t been able to live up to Roth’s version of Tris. It is also a shame that the last book has been broken up into two films: Allegiant and Ascendant (which is out in June 2017). It’s easy to see why this has happened from a financial perspective, but Allegiant could have been the film that finally brings about Tris’ transformation in a wholly satisfying way.

Insurgent left off with designated special hero Tris (Shailene Woodley) and Four (Theo James), and the rest of the previously sorted citizens of Chicago discovering that their entire society was an experiment conducted by a mysterious group that lives outside the city’s walls. In Allegiant, Four’s revolutionary-leader mother Evelyn (Naomi Watts) wants to keep the borders closed and mete out justice to former oppressors, while Tris and friends defy authority and venture beyond the wall.

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The surroundings beyond the wall are a desolate, irradiated wasteland with ominous red rains occasionally pouring from the sky. After about 30 minutes of throwback sci-fi that exceeds the energy levels of its predecessors, the inevitable happens: Allegiant unfortunately becomes a Divergent movie once again. It recombines the action aesthetics of previous films and follows very similar beats to previous outings. Tris meets David (Jeff Daniels) who she discovers is the architect of the factioned society, she triers to integrate into a new society, then mistrust sets in as the authority figure is not what he seems and she then moves overthrow said society.

Again the actors are an enjoyable ensemble, although all concerned don’t have much to do except point and shoot much of the time. Acting takes a back seat to well executed CGI environments. Shailene Woodley’s role as Tris is reduced to a cypher of the former films, and by diverging from some of the themes in the books, one could wonder watching this installment that she hasn’t really learned from her previous mistakes. This is in part due to the large amount of storytelling needed to set up an entirely new direction now they have landed in their strange new home — The Council for Genetic Welfare — but also due to the fact that the third book is not only told from Tris’ point of view. The book shifts from Tris’ voice to Four’s voice and back again, telling the story from different perspectives. Director Robert Schwentke has opted for a more linear storytelling model that mimics previous films.

For the third movie in a row Miles Teller plays the smiling assassin, his character Peter always cast as the Judas of the group. Yet again the supposed authority figure (in the first film Janene played by Kate Winslet) David (Daniels) may not be what he seems – Tris being the last to realise his duplicitous nature.

There are neat sci-fi touches, like personalized miniature drones that accompany characters into battle and trippy visualizations of the effect of a memory-erasing serum. But Allegiant, while arguably the best in the series so far, still winds up in the same place—and places its fans in a holding pattern before the finale film.

The theme’s extracted for the third film instalment are tantalisingly rich – that society was an experiment to discover the “pure” and “damaged” genes and attempt to find the answer to what makes someone “pure”. It is then left to Tris explain that regardless of whether the people of Chicago are “pure” or “damaged” all are worthy to be saved for the future of the world to work. A little frustratingly, these themes could have perhaps been explored even further, yet the film in the end adheres to the action template created by the other films.

The title of the forth film — Ascendant — holds some promise for a truly interesting send off for the franchise that has caused so much of a stir amongst it’s fans.

Adrian Drayton

Adrian Drayton is the Director of Reel Dialogue. A film critic and commentator on culture for 20 years, he believes in the power of cinema and the power of God to start conversations about faith and culture. He is also a massive Star Wars nerd.