Movie review

Grumpy movie review: Divergent

In the future dystopia of Divergent, the residents of Chicago are divided into five factions based on predominant personality traits: Abnegation, for the selfless; Amity, for the peaceful; Candor, for the honest; Dauntless, for the brave; and Erudite, for the intellectual. (Why not Dauntlessness and Erudition, to keep it all noun form?) The main character, Beatrice, grew up in an Abnegation household. Their group serves the needy and runs the government. Amity are farmers. Candor handles the courts and other legal matters. The Dauntless are the cops and soldiers of the city, and run around scaling buildings and metro bridges for fun. The Erudite are scientists and intellectuals. Those that don’t belong to any group are Factionless and live on the streets.

At sixteen, youths are tested to see which group is appropriate for them. They are told they can choose the group they prefer, regardless of test results, but this is clearly bogus because further group-specific testing weeds out those that use strategies not typical of that group, at least in Dauntless. Judging from the auditorium seating at the selection, the population is exactly divided between the five groups, which can be identified by their garb. Abnegation dresses in gray clothes and look like conservative Mennonites.

Obviously, Beatrice does not test tidily into just one category (she’s positive for three), or we would not have a title or a story. She is told that the Divergent are considered dangerous, especially by the Erudite, who are brilliant scientists but also include fascists that are trying to wrest control of the government from Abnegation. Beatrice opts for Dauntless because they’re cool and fearless and have the most fun (shades of Gryffindor, except that the group’s internal brutality is more like Slytherin).

Dauntless has two young trainers: one is a fascist ass, in charge of cadets from Dauntless families; the other, Cuatro, is an undercover Divergent, in charge of those from other backgrounds. Cuatro has a massive tattoo on his back that ought to give away his Divergent status to anyone with half a brain, but apparently no one has ever noticed, which is odd considering that there is just one large communal shower area in the Dauntless barracks. (The communal showers and the rows of unwalled toilets are fortunately not addressed again after our first glimpse of the accommodations.)

Divergents, according to the movie, are not susceptible to mind control as are ordinary folks. We see this in the tests in which Beatrice is supposed to face her deepest fears: she is able to say, “This isn’t real,” and emerge unscathed. We also see it when the Dauntless cadets are injected with a mind control drug and marched off to round up Abnegation so that Erudite can take over the government: Beatrice and Cuatro pretend to be affected as the others, but split off as soon as is feasible to rescue her parents and halt the slaughter.

Here are some of the stupid premises and contradictions presented in this movie:
♦ The average person is defined by a single primary motivation.
♦ The average person is easily controlled.
♦ Adults do not question the status quo.
♦ Even though Abnegation is the ruling group, there is no freedom of expression.
♦ There is no voice questioning the legitimacy of the system.
♦ The Factionless are useless bums even though many of them are also Divergent.
♦ Teenagers must save the world because adults are mindlessly conventional, helpless, or evil.

This kind of nonsense is typical of teens-save-the-world stories, unfortunately. At least in Harry Potter there were right-thinking, vocal, and powerful adults (Dumbledore and the Order of the Phoenix) involved in the struggle. Here, however, the only trustworthy adults (Beatrice’s parents) get killed. I do give them credit for heroism in their last hours.

When the assault is halted and the cadets wake up from the mind control and face the horror of what they have been doing, I would have liked to see Cuatro and Beatrice rally them in the name of sense to confront their brutal leaders who kill all nonconformists. Instead, the two catch a train and head for the open country beyond the city wall.

Likewise, although I haven’t read Hunger Games, I wonder why the kids don’t just get together at the beginning of the game and say, “Wait, this is stupid! We don’t need to kill each other. Let’s go after the producers instead.” But that would make for a short book.

Our own culture has dealt or is dealing with slavery, witch trials, Jim Crow, abortion, and euthanasia, to name a few human rights issues. There has never been consensus on these matters; there have always been vocal dissidents speaking out against what they perceive as injustice. So why do teen fiction writers present people as sheep?

The theme of government by humanitarians vs. government by engineers is interesting and makes me want to reread C.S. Lewis’s novel That Hideous Planet and his essay on The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment. Maybe I’ll write about that someday.

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14 thoughts on “Grumpy movie review: Divergent

  1. As far as The Hunger Games goes, any sign of dissent is quickly squashed by The Capitol. They bombed District 13 into the ground when they tried to rebel.

    I don’t know if you’ve read the Divergent trilogy, so I won’t give any spoilers. I will say that you’re not wrong about it being a stupid premise, though.

    • I haven’t ready any of the Divergent books, and am not likely to. Looking at the wiki description of the series, though, it does appear that the Factionless get organized by a Divergent and make a positive contribution.

  2. I listened to the book and actually fell asleep (during the day) towards the end. 1. I never nap 2.This is the only time I have fallen asleep while listening to a book.

    I suppose people on the edge of adulthood like to think of themselves as powerful and different and able. The easy way out of this as an author is to not focus on adults leaving them as powerless, the same and unable. Most of today’s teen fiction is dystopian.

    • It’s natural for teen fiction to provide the illusion that teens can do amazing things, but teen books haven’t always portrayed adults so negatively, although alienation has always been a common theme. The great teen books portray positive role models as well as people who are disappointments, and are usually written by adults who have more depth in understanding what makes for healthy adults.

  3. Only 3 years ago, I would have regarded the premises for the movie, as you bullet them above, as utterly preposterous. Now, however, they strike me as an exact representation of the ethos promoted by the school my son attends, Berkhamsted Collegiate Scoool. I’m immensely proud that he seems to be winning the war against their authoritarian excesses.

    • In Terry Pratchett’s Monstrous Regiment, there is a young lieutenant who is delighted to be served horsemeat swill (I don’t remember what it is called in the English version because I just finished reading the Spanish translation with my wife) because it reminds him of his school days. Later in the novel when the main characters are all in prison and someone asks about the lieutenant, someone remarks that, after his boarding school experiences, he no doubt feels right at home in the prison environment.

      What is it with UK boarding schools, anyway? Every description I’ve ever read makes them sound quite grim and usually brutal.

  4. Abnegation? Really? Somebody writes a book with such a simple story and uses the word”abnegation?” I wonder what percentage of the target market thinks that’s a word the author invented? Maybe I underestimate the readers of such things.
    I’ve gotten so grumpy that I can’t read modern novels because I find them so poorly written (and somtimes the technical editing seems left to a computer). Movies made from them are a bit easier to take: no concentration required!

    • A number of recent bestsellers have been written by kids: Twilight, Divergent, Eragon… It’s not that surprising that they’re very thin in places. But it does seem like a good editor should make a difference. I can’t bring myself to see or read Twilight. There are too many grump-inducing factors. Eragon (the book) wasn’t bad, but my kids told me the sequels were disappointing.

  5. hahahaha, i had a feeling you were going to do a review on this movie!

    first off, i’ve noticed you have been watching a broad spectrum of films so kudos to you for that. I am largely staying away from such an approach these days as my attention span has only gotten shorter. i look forward to more movie reviews from you because you bring an honest and objective everyman assessment of these works. perhaps this will be a focal point of your blogging here. whatever the case, i like and appreciate it.

    now, as for the film itself, i was going through the comments and the ones that touched on teens and the school environment struck a chord with me. to be honest, the only reason I stuck around to watch that movie was because someone had served IKEA meatballs for lunch and since I like IKEA meatballs, I was more or less stuck in the orbit of the table and the TV playing the movie. anyway, I have noticed a trend with these teen movies and i feel like its a reflection of their feelings being in secondary or high school. I believe that with today’s social media networks the competition for pecking order space has only increased for adolescents and the weight of it gives them a dystopian view of their high school world. I don’t blame them, after all, high school is kind of a microcosm of adult life minus the money. Nevertheless, as more and more kids’ lives will be largely dictated by social network standing I can only surmise that there will be more of these films in the future – different settings but the premise will “rhyme”. I like to think of these teen movies as the Breakfast Club movies of the new millenia.

    I’m trying to be as accepting of these films and Lord knows its hard – but if there’s IKEA meatballs being served in the vicinity, I guess I’ll be watching them.

    • You’re absolutely right about teens and pecking order affecting the stories they identify with. Teens can be so brutal to each other! Insecurity is the defining characteristic of adolescence. I wish there were healthier stories of overcoming insecurity and finding identity, the traditional kind that involve adventures with the input of at least one caring adult.

      Food or other circumstances can have an impact on viewing, for sure. I had to watch (or listen to) Seinfeld nearly every evening at one job I had in the late 1990s. Another time I took my children to a free dental clinic, and Jimmy Neutron was being shown. I loved it, but my kids were not much interested in seeing it again when they got older.

  6. Even the kids I know who saw this didn’t like it. Once in awhile read YA books or see the movies from the books so I can talk about them with the pre-teens and teens in my life. This is one I’ve seen the movie or read the book.
    I often don’t like movies made from books. There are very few that I think got it right…like I think the movie To Kill a Mockingbird was done well. But, that shows that I must be from The Dark Ages. 😮
    Oh…I AM from The Dark Ages! 😉
    HA! 😀 I love your take on Hunger Games! 😀
    And I like your Grumpy movie reviews.
    HUGS!!! 🙂

    • I though the early Harry Potter movies were about as good as the books, but after Goblet of Fire they went downhill. The HP books present a pretty sane view of the world, not as kid-centered as many of the others. Movies are often a disappointment. The LOTR movies wear on me, and the current Hobbit movies are not going to age well with me either. What is it with Peter Jackson and characters making strong but out-of-character statements of defeat? He doesn’t understand Tolkien or traditional British masculine culture at all, and yet he’s a Brit!

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