Beatrice Prior has a choice to make. And, frankly, it’s not a choice that the 16-year-old wants to make. She’d rather just keep living with her parents and not worry about where she “fits” in society.
But that’s not how things work these days.
It’s been 100 years since the war that wiped out most of humanity. The last remnants of civilization now live behind a giant wall in what was once Chicago. And in these trying times, survival of the human race demands structuring things a bit differently. To best help society, everyone is told, a person’s role must be made clear early on and remain consistent.
And so Beatrice must choose one of the five so-called factions in which she’ll spend the rest of her life. She can remain in the Abnegation faction with her parents, a group that sacrificially serves the world around them. Or she can opt for the Amity faction of kindhearted farmers, the honest Candor faction of judges, the Erudite thinkers and scientists or the Dauntless faction that bravely protects all the rest.
It’s obviously a huge decision.
Fortunately there’s a test that helps figure out each individual’s genetic and psychological strengths. You simply drink a serum, lay back, have a hallucination or two and let a special machine read you like a book. That’s how it’s supposed to work, anyway.
In Beatrice’s case, it doesn’t. When she comes to, the attendant looks at her nervously and suggests she slip out the back door right away. “And don’t tell anybody about this,” the woman warns her. Beatrice’s test, you see, suggests she’s equally adept at three different skill sets, that she could happily find a home in any of the three related factions.
Now, you might think that would give her an advantage. But in this society, that makes Beatrice something odd. Something dangerous. Something destabilizing to the well-defined social order. Something … divergent.
In short, Beatrice is the kind of person the factions can’t easily control. She doesn’t feel dangerous. But she is. She’s an anomaly that can threaten the whole system. And so she has to make sure she keeps her added abilities under wraps and not draw any attention to herself.
Because the so-called Divergents actually don’t get a choice.
They get to be … eliminated.
But Beatrice does choose. She keeps quiet about her differences, picks the Dauntless faction of fighters and renames herself Tris. And though she struggles to keep pace physically with other trainees, Tris makes up for it by outclassing them when it comes to strategy and planning.
All of that puts her in a position to make a difference when one of the factions stages something of a civil war. Tris isn’t as mentally pliable as other Dauntless members, and she makes brave, self-sacrificial choices to protect literally thousands of innocents―circumventing a genocidal massacre.
A fellow Dauntless member named Four also puts his life on the line, stepping out of the ranks of soldiers to fight against impossible odds to support Tris’ heroic efforts. He also makes one of the movie’s most important speeches, declaring he would like to not just be brave, but also selfless, honest, kind and intelligent. It’s a mindset all of us can and should admire, not allowing ourselves to settle for just one quality characteristic, but aspiring to master them all.
Elsewhere, Tris’ family members repeatedly voice their love and support for one another. And when things get dangerous, both of Tris’ parents offer their lives to protect her and to save the lives of others. It’s said of their sacrifice, “They loved you. For them there was no better way to show you.”
Divergent is set in a completely secular world, and there’s no real spiritual content to speak of. That said, the ceremony at which young people choose their faction has the feel of a religious rite. When each person’s name is called, he or she walks to a raised platform where five bowls represent the five factions. The choosing of a faction is done by taking a ceremional knife, cutting one’s hand and dripping blood into a bowl. The ceremony is meant to reinforce the idea that a person’s primary allegiance is now to a faction and no longer to a family. Accordingly, we repeatedly hear the phrase “Faction before blood.”
New Dauntless pledges, both male and female, must all sleep in the same common area and use the same open shower area. We never see them do so, but we do see Tris, who’s clearly uncomfortable with the coed living arrangments, trying to change clothes while keeping as covered as possible. We very briefly glimpse her in a bra as she changes shirts, and others in the background are seen changing as well. When she slips off her jacket in another scene, a Dauntless teammate crudely yells at her, “Take it off!” She also wears a formfitting, cleavage-baring tank top at times (as do other Dauntless females).
Tris and Four (who’s her group leader), fall for each other. They hug and passionately kiss before she tells him, “I don’t want to go too fast.” At that point he backs off. Later, while under the influence of a hallucinatory drug, Tris envisions Four forcefully throwing her on the bed and moving toward her, then getting on top of her in a sexually threatening manner. (She knocks him away and escapes.)
Tris is a plebe in the soldiers’ ranks. As such, we see her and others go through painful training meant to shape them into unstoppable fighters. For instance, they bloody and bruise one another with vicious one-on-one beat-downs (including several guy-on-girl pummelings). Three hooded trainees threaten to throw Tris off a high cliff (before Four steps up to slam the offenders’ faces into a rock wall). A young woman is purposely left to dangle by her fingertips over a deadly precipice (to supposedly prove a point about never giving up). Another has her ear sliced by a thrown blade. In some cases, cadets are shot at close range with neuro-darts that simulate the writhing pain of being shot with a bullet. They jump on and off fast-moving trains. Initiation rituals include jumping several stories into a dark pit and rocketing down a precarious zip line between Chicago skyscrapers.
Part of the Dauntless training also includes a drug-induced psychological test. In these ominous hallucinatory visions, trainees are threatened with raging fire, smothering quicksand, attacking canines and birds, forceful drownings, slowly closing and crushing walls, and men with belts and bludgeons. We also repeatedly see needles being injected into people’s necks in order to administer the drug. In two cases, test subjects are forced to shoot innocents (even loved ones) in execution-style killings. (The fatal shots are delivered offscreen.)
Once the civil war breaks out, things get deadly in real life, too, with scores of soldiers and civilians alike getting shot and killed. Tris ends up having to kill one of her own friends by shooting him. She shoots and injures a teen guard to make him reveal a key logistic. Throngs of men, women and children are forced to their knees with guns to their heads. A woman has her hand impaled by a thrown knife. In a relatively bloody fight with drug-addled Four, Tris puts a gun to her own forehead as a means of shocking him out of his hallucination. A young man’s body is pulled up out of a watery pit after he commits suicide. (His face is distorted and bloody.) A woman sticks her finger into Tris’ bloody shoulder wound. We see other wounded and bleeding victims die.
One whispered f-word. A half-dozen misuses of God’s name accompany two or three each of “a‑‑hole” and “b‑‑ch.”
Many people receive injections of the dream-inducing drug that can also completely control them, removing their capacity to question or to disobey murderous orders. During a group celebration scene, several people raise the simple tin cups they drink from as if toasting someone.
A particularly sadistic Dauntless leader named Eric takes pleasure in treating several new recruits (especially Tris) cruelly throughout the movie. (But not nearly so severely as in the book.) Not surprisingly, Eric is exactly the kind of soldier who’s easily manipulated by the film’s real power-hungry villain, a faction leader named Jeanine. Members of the self-sacrificing Abnegation faction are often mocked by the other groups because of their simple, pleasure- and vanity-eschewing ways, so much so that other factions use the slur “stiffs” to demean members of the group. One of Tris’ Dauntless teammates attacks her, then begs, “Can you ever forgive me?” Tris angrily replies, “If you even come close to me, I will kill you.” He then commits suicide (offscreen) by leaping off a tall wall.
Like the atomic bomb-laden sci-fi flicks of the past, today’s young adult, book-based movies offer themselves up as something more than just simple entertainment. In addition to a suspenseful, plot-driven story, they also offer broad allegories, fantasy filters through which viewers can ruminate on real-world issues.
In the case of Divergent (based on the novel of the same name by 25-year-old author Veronica Roth), it’s a teen in a dystopian future wrestling with her fate: being an outcast who can’t seem to figure out how to fit in. She frets over the fact that everyone wants to label her before she’s had the chance to figure herself out. And she grapples with high-stakes decisions in a high-conoformity world where you’re judged by every action.
Thus, I suspect most teens who see Divergent will readily nod and say, “Yep, I feel ya’.” Like Slate film reviewer Dana Stevens says, “It’s not a mystery why so many young-adult best-sellers (and the lucrative movie franchises based on them) would take place in post-apocalyptic societies governed by remote authoritarian entities and rigidly divided into warring factions. The word dystopia comes from a Greek root that roughly translates as ‘bad place,’ and what place could be worse than high school? Adolescence is not for the faint of heart. The to-do list for the decade between ages 10 and 20 includes separating from your parents, finding your place among your peers at school, beginning to make decisions about your own future, and—oh yes—figuring out how to relate to the world, and yourself, as a suddenly and mystifyingly sexual being.”
Admittedly, Divergent‘s futuristic dystopian premise feels stretched to the point of being ridiculous. I mean, who’s really going to swallow the idea of a society where everybody has to fit into only one of five primary-color categories? Still, if a movie showcases the right stars, delivers the right CGI action and adds in the right kind of romance … well, as the old movie line goes, “If you build it, they will come.” And from that perspective, Divergent delivers exactly what teens seem to be coming for.
Is it a truly immersive moviegoing experience, a film that will inspire viewers to greatness? No, not quite. In fact, the misogynistic pummeling of its female lead can feel more than a little disquieting at times. Like the Hunger Games movies before it, one can’t help but wonder if the teens-beating-teens cinematic tack shouldn’t have been avoided altogether. (A few other moments in the film, including some wince-inducing images of wounds and mass atrocities, as well as a glimpse of the film’s young star changing clothes, also need to be called out here in terms of content worth considering before heading off to join up with your own faction.)
Then again, this is an allegory, a fantasy that throws a young woman into the roiling waves of figuring out who she is, how she fits, and what’s right and wrong. It ultimately shows her meeting those challenges with a heart of self-sacrifice and heroism and an impassioned concern for those she loves. And it advocates for us all to be more than one-dimensional beings, to strive for well-roundedness as we practice a wide array of positive characteristics.
As allegories go, that might not be very, um, divergent from the norm, but neither is it all bad.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.