Divergent Movie: First Impressions

It was a beautiful snowy night in beautiful downtown Staunton, Virginia, when, inspired by Elizabeth Baird Hardy’s outings with her Hunger Games readers, a colleague and I went with about 60 Mary Baldwin psychology students to see Divergent at  the historic Dixie theater.  Granted, it was March 25th, a few days after the movie’s big opening weekend, and, at that time of year, a beautiful spring evening would have been far more appropriate, but that wasn’t going to spoil our fun.

Judging from both the turnout for the film and the comments afterwards, this was a movie the students were eagerly anticipated and which lived up to their expectations.  Since my colleague is teaching personality psychology this term, we could not resist indoctrinating them on the Five Factor Hypothesis. But, with their finals coming up in only a couple of weeks, I figure the odds of the students remembering what O.C.E.A.N stands for are a bit more in their favor now.  At least two students have told me they were inspired to read the series now, which is always a desirable outcome.

Spoilers, ho!

For the students who had read the series before, discussion after the movie centered on the differences.  Several expressed surprise at how much the violence, and indeed, the dysfunction overall, from Eric’s sadism to Al’s depression to the danger of the initial trip from Choosing Ceremony to headquarters, was toned down.  With Peter more of a smart-aleck than an eye-stabbing, Tris-groping villain, Eric more of a scornful drill-sergeant than a crazed sadist and the absence of much of Al’s inner turmoil prior to his attack on Tris, this was definitely a kinder, gentler Dauntless.  The change was so dramatic that the filmmakers actually had to toughen them up a bit with pain-darts instead of paintballs on the Capture the Flag Outing.

There was also a kinder, gentler Abnegation to match, with the senior Priors openly showing affection to each other and to their children. Ashley Judd drew some of the biggest rounds of applause for her butt-kicking rescue of Tris at the end, but because we has never seen her in her full-fledged “Stiff” mode, the contrast was lost.  I think Tris was the only one surprised to learn Natalie was an ex-Dauntless.  I understand that Visitor’s Day  had to be cut for film length’s sake, but a brief confrontation with an Erudite such as the one she had with Cara, where she could have politely and stiffly rebuked the attack, would have helped.

Overall, I was pleased with it, as far as film adaptations go.  Here is a brief listing of my likes and dislikes:

Good casting choices: Most importantly, Tris and Four were well cast, looked the part and had good on-screen chemistry.  Kate Winslet was also a chillingly perfect Jeanine; her enhanced role in the film is considered by some to actually be an improvement over the book. The wiseacre Peter was an interesting take on the character and one that will make his eventual fate more bittersweet and perhaps more interesting than if he had been a complete rat bastard from the start. I loved Christina’s spunk (how could I not love Cinna’s daughter?) but having her noticeably shorter than Tris was a bit awkward and made it hard to buy her as being as strong a physical fighter as she was. Maggie Q. was great as Tori.  Finally, Caleb was the unremarkable wimp I expected; few will be surprised when he turns out to be a weasel.

Mirror imagery: Given its crucial importance in the storyline, I was glad to see the covered mirrors in Abnegation (with a keypad lock to enforce the “no-peeking” rule, no less!)and the mirrored walls of the  testing center.  Though we don’t see Tris gaining self-awareness by gazing at herself in the dormitory bathroom, her reflection does regularly give her the “this isn’t real” cues in simulation. This gives me hope that the mirror neurons won’t get written out of Insurgent.

Personality: Jeanine said it herself during the introduction to the Choosing Ceremony.  The Factions are based on personality.  Deal with it.

Ziplining: Though condensed and included as a “tradition” after Capture the Flag, rather than a special invitation to Tris by the Dauntless-born, we did get to see it, and the visuals were great. Though I was disappointed that this image from the trailer was a celebration in headquarters itself, not Tris’s “trust fall;” it was still good to see her embraced by the Dauntless in a similar pose.  Winding up back in Dauntless headquarters, instead of by Lake Michigan, however, indicated that the screenplay writers missed the important symbolism.  For that matter, where was the rushing water of the chasm in the Pit?

Plight of the factionless: Seeing the poverty they lived in made their situation all the more pitiable and the fate of becoming factionless seemed like more of a danger.

There were, of course, some disappointments. The worst casting choice, for me, was Jai Courtney as Eric:  yes, he was nasty, but not the crazed sadist he was in the book, and the blond crew cut and two lone eyebrow studs were a far cry from the greasy black hair and the multiply pierced lips whose holes stretched with each grimace.  Particularly early in training, his personality did not seem all that different from Four’s. Which leads to…

Lack of Four’s nobility: His strength of character and honor did not come through as well as I had hoped.  His line “A brave man acknowledges the strength of his opponent” was replaced by a dig at Eric’s fighting abilities…  appreciated, given that Eric’s a jerk, but not as heroic. Similarly, we never got to hear his ideas about bravery and selflessness being similar virtues.  No Evelyn, so we did not get to see his conflict with her. I did, however, like the look he gave Marcus before he reluctantly yanked his father onto the train at the very end.  But, overall, we saw much more of “Four the Fearless” than “Tobias the Selfless;”  Tris never even got to call him by his given name.  Given how important his unselfishness is for Tris’s growth as a character and for the love they share, that seems a serious omission. We never got to hear Tris acknowledge that Dauntless taught her how to be unselfish; and in the film, it is not at all clear that Four played a crucial role in teaching her that, along with her mother.

Depersonalization of Tris’s initiate class. Interestingly, the class was dramatically larger than in the book, with 34 rather than 20, so you don’t get to know any of the people who will get cut and the radical Darwinian elimination process was presumably much less personal, even for the candidates themselves.  The Dauntless-born initiates are nameless background characters and we learn little to nothing about Tris’s classmates Edward, Myra, Molly and Drew. In particular, the actors playing Will, Al and Peter all looked so much alike I had a hard time telling one from the other, especially Will and Al.  It would have helped if Will had been shaggy-haired and blond as described in the text and Al a linebacker-style giant rather than just slightly taller than the others. There was no explicit reference to Christina and Will’s romance, as well as no Cara, so the emotional wallop over his death and Christina’s struggle to forgive Tris will be harder to set up in Insurgent.

The Pit and the Pire:  Quite a few book fans noticed the light stones of the Dauntless HQ Pit instead of the black.  My guess is that was purely a visual decision to make the black-costumed people show up a bit better, as well as to provide enough light to actually see the film action.  Basically, the same reason we got ruby instead of silver slippers on Dorothy.  In addition to leaving out the rushing river of the Chasm, the filmmakers also omitted the towering Pire, which, again, omitted one of the symbols of Dauntless’s split personality.

Al Shortchanged. I never thought I’d be sorry to see this character diminished, but I think the psychological drama of Dauntless initiation would have been more powerful if we could have seen some of his anguish before his attack on Tris; his sobbing at night from the beginning  or his guilt over brutalizing other initiates. The movie Al was afraid of being hurt, whereas in the book he was equally afraid of hurting someone else, an important distinction that makes him a far more sympathetic character. It would also have been nice to see his crush on Tris.  As it was, he came across as someone who would accept Tris’s help at knife-throwing time one day, then engineer an attack on her a few days later (we never find out Peter was the mastermind, or even who else was involved) just because she had the audacity to outrank him. It is certainly not hard to see why Tris does not want to forgive him; what is hard to understand is how he would have the gall to ask for forgiveness or why Tris would feel any guilt over his suicide.

There are two big deviations from the book that have gotten a lot of attention from readers:  the so-called rape scene in Tris’s fear landscape and the movie ending. I have extensive comments on both, but they will have to wait for their own post.

In sum, I was favorably impressed with the film adaptation and think they have a good set up for Insurgent, which was green-lighted after the successful weekend debut.  I do think, for reasons I will explain in my next post, that Allegiant will be a difficult story to film.

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