Liz Tells Frank What Happened In “Divergent”

Dear Frank,

Divergent hc c(2)In case you missed it, a couple of days ago your friend and mine, John Ross, stopped by to tell me what happened in the recent young adult adaptation The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones. Aside from delighting us all with tales of Lena Headey kicking the shit out of things and maybe-incest, he reminded me that I’ve never gotten around to telling you what happens in the young adult novel/soon-to-be major motion picture Divergent.

Divergent, let’s be clear, is very much of the post-Hunger Games publishing craze — which is to say that without Katniss Everdeen, there is no Tris Prior, and without Suzanne Collins, there is no Veronica Roth on my Kindle.

But to Divergent‘s credit, it was a relatively early entry in said craze, making it almost not feel like pure bandwagon-hopping. And given the recent release of a teaser trailer, and the fact that Kate Winslet (!!!!!) is in it, Divergent seems like something you should at least have a passing familiarity with. Especially because this book be WEIRD, yo.

Here’s where we start, Frank: Chicago, but a dystopian Chicago — not the kind of dystopia actually tied to any sort of disaster or political uprising, but the kind of dystopia where you just get told that things aren’t great and that’s why this society is different from today’s society. This will not be the only flaw in Divergent‘s world-building, so let’s not dwell.

The key to Dys-cago is that society is broken into five factions which represent one characteristic of humanity: Intelligence, Selflessness, Honesty, Bad-assery or Peaceful. (They have fancier names, but every time I use one of the fancy names I feel really stupid.)

When you’re in one of those five factions, then you’re required to only be that one thing, which sounds pretty tough to me, but they don’t call it a HAPPY-topia, you know? And if you’re not in a faction, you’re basically homeless, and so having to be honest or calm all the time is in theory preferable.

Kids live with the faction they’re born into until the age of 16, at which point they get to choose whether to stay with their original faction or pick another one. There’s an aptitute test they take which involves fancy virtual reality technology, but it’s meant to be a free will-type deal.

We meet Our Heroine, Tris (short for Beatrice), on the day she’s taking her aptitute test — she’s part of the Selflessness crowd, but her test reveals that she actually has aptitute for two other factions: Intelligence or Bad-assery.

But this is bad, because it means she is Divergent (we found the title, Frank!) — which is a big taboo thing in this culture, and puts Tris in danger of being killed by… somebody. (Well, we do find out later who that somebody is, but right now it’s just a weird cultural thing and no one talks about it.)

Tris hems and haws over what to do about this, but almost on a whim, during the choosing ceremony, decides to join Team Bad-ass. They’re officially known as the Dauntless (sigh) and they’re primarily responsible for the society’s security and protection. Which means being brave, being willing to jump off buildings and moving trains, and learning all the most fun deadly arts.

(The amount of jumping-off-stuff you see in this trailer accurately reflects the amount of jumping-off-stuff which occurs in the book.)

Seriously, training at the Dauntless (sigh) headquarters makes up a good chunk of the book, and it’s about what you’d expect: Tests, infighting, rivalries, etcetera. Just like Harry Potter! Well, if Harry, Ron and Hermoine were getting tattoos, learning to use semi-automatic weapons, and getting much closer to full-on sexytimes than you might expect from YA fiction.

Honestly, the surprisingly adult nature of Dauntless (sigh) training caught me off guard in a good way. Divergent does not pull many of its punches. For one thing, one kid gets stabbed in the eye, another commits suicide, there’s at least one attempt on Tris’s life — seriously, there’s a major body count before the final act, which I shall get to now.

Let’s make things simple: The reason it’s bad that Tris is Divergent is because the Intelligence faction has basically been planning to overthrow the government by mind-controlling Team Bad-ass into marching on the other factions. If you’re Divergent, though, the mind control won’t work on you — thus making those kids a threat to the people trying to pull off this coup.

FRANK, PLEASE DO NOT ASK ME WHAT BASIS THE ABOVE PARAGRAPH HAS IN MEDICAL SCIENCE. PLEASE DO NOT DO THAT TO ME. Seriously, the basic logic involved in the concept that brain chemistry can be controlled based on whether or not you’re purely super-selfless or super-badass just makes me sad.

So the day that all the kids graduate from Dauntless (sigh) training is the day that the Intelligence faction decides to initiate Operation Fuck Shit Up. Everyone in Dauntless (sigh) gets immediately brainwashed, except Tris and her sexy trainer boyfriend Four (oh, Frank, we really don’t have time to get into Four — just know that his real name is not Four, he was in charge of Tris’s training but that’s not weird at all, and he is sexy), and Tris has to stop said overthrow.

And she actually kind of fails! Like, she does manage to reconnect with her parents and brother and a few other people, and she and Four are able to eventually shut down the mind control.

But a TON of people get shot and killed, including her parents, and she even has to murder at least one of her Team Bad-ass friends while he’s under the mind control thing. The book ends with her, Four and a few others fleeing the city to hang out with the Peaceful folks — the adventure continuing (of course!) in the second book of what will soon be a trilogy.

Here’s the thing with Divergent, Frank — I first read it maybe a few weeks after blasting through all the Hunger Games books, a desperate addict for similar storytelling, and at the time it was half-decent methadone.

However, it doesn’t age well — I remain impressed by how dark things get, but the logic and world-building issues really do stand out. I didn’t even get into the whole simulation technology stuff, which is for the best, as the drug-and-technology virtual reality sequences are pretty ridiculous.

Plus, I tried to keep things as simple as possible above, but this is one of those books where there are like fifty characters and they’re all named in the most boring generic ways and they’re always changing allegiances. I was constantly trying to remember the difference between Max and Eric and Peter and is it Will who’s dating Christina or is that Edward and is Drew one of the trainees who does or doesn’t like Tris?

And that’s all before we really meet people outside of Team Bad-ass! The second book, which brings in characters from other factions, is EVEN WORSE.

Does that mean I’m not excited for the upcoming film adaptation? To be honest, I’m really not sure. It’s got a great cast: I already mentioned Kate Winslet (!!!!), but Tris-to-be Shailene Woodley (despite being some sort of wood elf) is very talented, Maggie Q is a personal favorite, poor Mr. Pamuk is a good-looking chap… It’s overall an attractive group of talented and vaguely diverse individuals.

I am a little concerned that Woodley will be making this face for the entire movie, though.

I am a little concerned that Woodley will be making this face for the entire movie, though.

But the director is unproven (I saw The Illusionist, and I regret it to this day) and again, Frank, the basic fact is that this world makes no sense and there are too many characters and plot threads in it.

Hunger Games had many more advantages — 100% more Gary Ross, a central unifying plot event tying everything together, character names you could actually remember and keep track of…

But in fairness, Hunger Games also had the advantage of coming first, being the thing that all following dystopian young adult adventures would be compared to. So I’m tempted to give Divergent the benefit of the doubt here, Frank — see what the adaptation can do on its own merits, rather than judge it by other works within the genre.

After all, unless I’m mistaken, this is a series about how forcing people into categories is wrong. At the very least, you gotta respect how Divergent actively courts that irony.


About Liz Shannon Miller

Liz Shannon Miller is a Los Angeles-based writer and editor, and has been talking about television on the Internet since the very beginnings of the Internet. She is currently Senior TV Editor at Collider, and her work has also been published by the New York Times, Vulture, Variety, the AV Club, the Hollywood Reporter, IGN, The Verge, and Thought Catalog. She is also a produced playwright, a host of podcasts, and a repository of "X-Files" trivia.

Posted on September 3, 2013, in All the Spoilers, Books and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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