With the success of "Twilight" and "The Hunger Games," it's no surprise that Hollywood will continue to churn out adaptations of the most popular Young Adult novels on the planet. But with the crash and burn of so many others ("Mortal Instruments," Beautiful Creatures" "I Am Number Four" "The Host") whether or not audiences will take to them is another thing.
Which is why I'm happy to say that "Divergent" is the best YA adaptation to date.
Based on the popular trilogy by Veronica Roth, this dystopian thriller is certainly an amalgamation of other work. There's a bit of "Harry Potter," a large dose of "The Hunger Games" and a smattering of a of other vaguely futuristic stories. But it works.
The film is about a future where - after a war, of course - people are divided into five factions to help keep order to the world. There is Abnegation (the helpers), Amity (the good-hearted farmers), Candor (the honest), Dauntless (the peacekeepers), and Erudite (the smart ones.) You are born into a faction, but at a certain age you are given a psychological test to see which faction you truly fall into. You are still able to choose your faction if you so desire, but you have to stay in that faction forever. This also means if you choose a faction outside of your family, you will never see them again.
For Beatrice (Shailene Woodley of "The Spectacular Now"), this test proves to be a rarity. Once it's administered, she is found to have no clear faction. This makes her Divergent, which is something that is feared because a Divergent can't be controlled. She is warned to go home and keep it quiet. When it comes time to choose her faction however, she makes the choice to be "Dauntless," much to her parents' disappointment. It doesn't help that her twin brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort) chooses Erudite - also outside of his family's Abegnation faction.
Once she becomes a part of Dauntless (and changes her name to "Tris") she meets the ruthless leader Eric (Jai Courtney) and the tough instructor Four (Theo James). Along with new friends, she is put through a rigorous training that will determine if she truly has what it takes to be "dauntless." If she doesn't, she is basically sent to live with the Factionless (read: homeless).
Amidst the training she not only has to hide her true results as a Divergent, but also starts to understand that something malevolent is going on between the factions, with the leader of the Erudite Jeanine Matthews (Kate Winslet) a big part of it.
There are for sure some YA tropes being trotted out here: Young, slightly put-upon girl rises up to start a revolution. Young romance begins to blossom. Teens start to realize just how corrupt their society is. Etc. Etc. But while "Twilight" was entertainingly silly and "The Hunger Games" had a self-important air about it, "Divergent" just seems like all-around visceral storytelling. It feels like a knock-off, yes, but it succeeds because it becomes a more emotionally compelling tale than previous YA incarnations.
Woodley is terrific here and is very believable as an awkward girl who does her best to fit in, and eventually has to reach deep inside herself to find the strength and courage to fight. (As opposed to Jennifer Lawrence's Katniss who always had the strength, so in that "The Hunger Games" lacked an arc.) Her developing relationship with Four is natural and doesn't have her falling all over him like a weak doe. In fact, the first scene that portrays their feelings for each other involves her climbing an enormous Ferris wheel while Four gulps his way nervously to the top.
Woodley is also able to bring an emotional depth to the role that other young actresses might not have been able to. She makes smart choices and allows scenes that could have been played too on the cuff to work beautifully. Her younger co-stars all do fine work and her chemistry with James is nicely matched. Kate Winslet and Ashely Judd (as Beatrice's mom) are also good in smaller roles, although I suspect Winslet's role will expand as the story continues.
Director Neil Burger ("The Illusionist") smartly doesn't lay out the world to us. There's a bit of voice-over at the beginning where we learn about the factions, but he doesn't keep drawing your attention to this "new" Chicago. It's just the world, and this is what the characters are doing in it. The concepts are fairly easy to understand, which is actually good for the younger set as it will open them up to more complex versions of these themes as they get older. Which is what audiences have to remember: This is a Young Adult story and as such, it won't be quite as complex as something like the dystopian "Children of Men."
If you want to quibble, the pop soundtrack is fairly intrusive (although to be fair the songs are great) and it does have a "Hunger Games"-lite feel to it, but for some reason it works. You become invested in the characters and when the twists come fast and thick, I found myself gasping and cheering with the rest of the crowd. What more could you ask for in a popcorn movie?
The film was screened for critics in IMAX at a Hero Complex screening. If you are in Los Angeles, please visit www.herocomplex.latimes.com for special screenings and events.