In the past few years, publishing houses and Hollywood have fueled the explosion of dystopian young adult fiction. Arguably, the entertainment industry's fervent desire to transform YA literature into film began sometime during the incredible success of the Harry Potter and Twilight franchises, as it proved to be a potentially lucrative venture for filmmakers to wander into the realm of teen fandom. Much to their dismay, however, films such as The Host, Beautiful Creatures, and City of Bones were box office busts. The Hunger Games was one of the rare successes that ignited a new era of dystopian novels, such as Veronica Roth's Divergent, which is set to premiere in theatres sometime in March of 2014. The third book in the trilogy, Allegiant (the second installment being entitled Insurgent), will be released on October 22 of this year.
So the question becomes this: Will Divergent be the next Hunger Games or will it be the next Beautiful Creatures? Will it feed the flame of YA films or cause it to fizzle out? I've whipped out my handy book stick (with six categories of criticism) to see if Divergent has the potential for blockbuster status and so that you, dear reader, will know if it's even worth touching the book.
The Synopsis: Beatrice "Tris" Prior is a 16-year-old girl living in a futuristic and dilapidated version of Chicago, where all citizens are divided into five "factions" based on personality type: Abnegation (the selfless), Candor (the honest), Erudite (the intelligent), Amity (the peaceful), and Dauntless (the brave). Each faction is assigned specific professional careers (Abnegation controls the government, Dauntless guards the borders, etc.), with the idea being that these divisions will maintain peace in their society. After her aptitude test, Beatrice discovers she is "Divergent," meaning that she doesn't fit into any one faction. The higher ups often assassinate Divergent individuals, so Tris must keep her results a secret. She chooses to leave her Abnegation family forever and become a member of Dauntless, where she must pass (and survive) a rigorous physical and mental initiation process in order to become a member. Oh, but what's this? Someone's planning a coup d'état that will shake the foundations of their society, and it's up to Tris to save everything she holds dear.
Many critics have already labeled Divergent as a mash-up of Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, and there are some strong similarities. The faction divisions are reminiscent of the houses in Harry Potter, and nearly just as illogical (especially because there's one group where all the "evils" go: Slytherin and Erudite). The Dauntless initiation process has the feeling of both learning magic at Hogwarts and fighting to the death in the Capitol's arena, although Divergent perhaps surpasses The Hunger Games in regard to the level of violence and gore. Each chapter is one exciting or shock-value event after the next, which is guaranteed to keep you reading.
The main premise of the novel is its greatest flaw and requires much suspension of disbelief. Why would any society think it effective to further divide citizens in the name of creating "peace"? Who would agree to that as a viable solution? I may criticize the concept of dividing a society based on personality traits, but when I think about the bipartisan nature of current American politics, I see some creepy similarities. Say that you wouldn't consider your astounding intelligence your only strong quality, but if you had to choose one of the five factions, you know you'd choose Erudite. Say that you hate certain policies a political candidate supports, but he's the only one who shares your viewpoint on the issue that's most important to you, so you have to choose between Democrat and Republican. So maybe as a society we already sort people into predetermined categories based on certain core values ("That's deep man").
I can overcome the questionable nature of factions, but what irks me is the transformation of a small girl with no former athletic experience into a gun-slinging badass over a short time span. And the fact that she can function almost normally after accruing severe injures. Also, if a member fails any level of initiation they become "factionless," a fate almost worse than death, where one must become a janitor or a construction worker. Not exactly the most endearing attitude toward blue-collar workers. In addition, someone severely harms another person and Tris knows who dunnit, but she chooses not to report it to her instructors because she thinks they wouldn't do anything about it. Couldn't she at least try before making assumptions?
The majority of the book is dedicated to Tris's adventures during Dauntless training, which--plot holes aside--I think does a great job of establishing the character relationships and upping the tension between factions, which later becomes part of the main plot. The climax of the novel is sudden and flashed by so rapidly that I felt like everything was happening in fast forward; however, I think these scenes will translate really well to the big screen and will ultimately feel appropriately paced when in visual format.
The protagonist, Tris, is a complex character; she knows she should behave selflessly or feel empathy for others, but that isn't always how she truly feels. Sometimes her true feelings make her seem like a jerk and completely unlikeable, but it's an effective and relatable character flaw. I feel that we all have times when we know we should feel sorry for someone, but if we're honest with ourselves, we don't actually feel anything at all. As with all book-to-movies, the film adaptation will surely lose some of Tris's voice, as viewers will be unaware of her inner emotional struggles.
The relationship between Tris and the main love interest is electric and non-superficial. However, the guy does fall into the "dreamboat" stereotype: good-looking, intelligent, strong, stoic, and virginal with an extra vulnerable side. Nonetheless, the dynamic between the two characters is interesting. Others either doubt Tris's strength or pity her weakness, but her man sees her as strong and capable from the very beginning. In addition, the pair does not naively proclaim that the other is their "true love" and their relationship is not founded on physical appearance. They also discuss the subject of sex, which was something that seemed taboo in The Hunger Games and Harry Potter series.
Unlike Harry Potter, however, I didn't feel any connection to Tris's friends. Although they suffer through the same trials and tribulations together, I don't feel like I knew Christina, Will, or Al very well, and it didn't seem like Tris was very close to them, as you would expect friends encountering life-or-death situations to be. Tris keeps her distance, and thus so do the readers.
The story is told in the present tense from the first-person perspective of the protagonist, Tris. The reader is privy to the inner workings of Tris's mind and the present tense creates the fast-paced feel that the novel's action-packed scenes deserve. Roth seems to have an economical writing style, but the simple descriptions are effective and very easy to visualize, making her work suited for film. Roth is especially adept at capturing the intensity of emotional or violent scenes.
The sentences are concise and devoid of flowery language, but the dialogue feels forced at times and Roth seems to try too hard to impart a moral lesson through the words of her characters. For example: "Human beings as a whole cannot be good for long before the bad creeps back in and poisons us again."
I dislike making comparisons between book series, but it's difficult to avoid. Tris's intentional coldness seemed atypical of a female protagonist, but Katniss could be described the same way. The villain and her objectives make sense, but her actions and motivations are not particularly unexpected. But the Dauntless trials and the scenarios Tris experiences are well constructed and captivating. All in all, Divergent stands on its own as a novel and contains some unique elements not found in the books it is often compared to.
VALUE (intellectual merit)
I wouldn't say that this book had me ponder over the human condition or anything, but Roth really tried to emphasize moral gray areas. We have characters questioning the morality and effectiveness of violence as a tool for change, the competing interpretations of suicide as bravery or cowardice (the author clearly labels it as a coward's act), the definition of bravery, and coping with identity issues--how one can separate oneself from their parent's beliefs. Other reviewers have claimed that the book is "mindless," but perhaps they're not thinking hard enough.
There's no question that I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I fell right into Roth's shock-value traps and became fascinated with what the next shocking event would be. I can't say that my love for cool gimmicks hasn't clouded my judgment, as I feel myself trying to come up with ways to defend the novel's weak points. Divergent may not be the next classic work of young adult literature, but it is a fun and exciting ride as long as you don't take it too seriously.
THE BOTTOM LINE
If you're looking for easy-read science fiction filled with violent action sequences and teen romance, then put Divergent at the top of your reading list. As for the movie adaptation, I have high hopes that it will be as thrilling as Roth's original story.