As a matter of faction

“I volunteer as—oh, wait, wrong movie. Never mind!”

“I volunteer as—oh, wait, wrong movie. Never mind!”

Rated 3.0

Divergent is the latest entry in the young-adult literature sweepstakes, movies designed to compete in the market that has proved so profitable for the makers of The Hunger Games and The Twilight Saga.

Veronica Roth’s novel is set in a dystopian Chicago, so far in the future that Lake Michigan has dried up, but close enough that the ruined skyline is recognizable to us in the 21st century. Human society has evolved—or regressed—into five factions, each built around a perceived virtue: Abnegation (the virtue of self-denial), Candor (honesty), Amity (peacefulness), Erudite (knowledge) and Dauntless (courage).

At age 16, young people are administered a test that determines the faction for which they are best suited; then, at the Choosing Ceremony, they decide what faction they will commit their lives to. It may agree with their test results, it may not, but whatever they choose, there’s no going back. If they fail training, they are turned out by their chosen faction and condemned to live among the factionless, disregarded and despised.

Enter Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley), a young woman who feels unsuited to the Abnegation faction she was born into. Her test results, as it happens, are inconclusive. The woman who administers it warns her: Beatrice is Divergent, variously suitable for Abnegation, Erudite or Dauntless. Tell no one, the woman says, trust no one. If they suspect you’re Divergent …

When her turn comes, Beatrice chooses Dauntless and joins the other initiates in training, which amounts to a sort of military boot camp where her trainer is a mysterious young man named Four (Theo James). Beatrice, now going by the name of “Tris,” must survive the rigorous, even cutthroat training process, all the while wondering why it’s so dangerous to be Divergent.

Like The Hunger Games, Roth’s novel is essentially Nancy Drew with delusions of George Orwell (Twilight, by a similar analogy, was Harlequin Romance with delusions of Bram Stoker), but it’s a good read, with a heroine immature enough to be believably imperfect, yet strong enough to be sympathetic as she discovers unsuspected resources in herself.

The movie (directed by Neil Burger from a script by Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor) is as lucky to have Shailene Woodley as The Hunger Games was to have Jennifer Lawrence. Woodley may not prove to have the stunning versatility that Lawrence has displayed outside her own blockbuster franchise, but she showed a sensitive, appealing presence in last year’s The Spectacular Now. Divergent, after an apprenticeship in supporting roles, gives her a vehicle of her own, and she carries it well. (Oddly enough, Woodley’s romantic partner in The Spectacular Now, Miles Teller, plays a tormenting bully in this picture, while Ansel Elgort, her co-star in her next movie, The Fault in Our Stars, plays her brother.)

Daugherty and Taylor’s script smoothly distills and compresses Roth’s book—which may sound strange for a movie that runs nearly two-and-a-half hours, but incidents and characters are combined in ways that sometimes improve on the text—for example, moving the novel’s exhilarating zip-line scene to earlier in the story, where it serves to underline Tris’ increasing sense of belonging to her new faction. On a more mundane level, Daugherty and Taylor increased the role of one of the villains, Erudite leader Jeanine, to the point where the movie was able to recruit a star like Kate Winslet to play it. (The brief but key roles of Tris’ parents are taken by Tony Goldwyn and Ashley Judd.)

Director Burger, along with production designer Andy Nicholson and cinematographer Alwin H. Küchler, gives the movie a sweeping but credibly lived-in look, and he keeps the action moving at a swift pace that makes the picture feel shorter than it is.

True, Divergent never quite climbs out of the shadow of The Hunger Games. But for that matter, neither does Veronica Roth’s book. (Can it even be done?) Still, Neil Burger, Shailene Woodley and company succeed in getting the trilogy off to a strong start—stronger, in fact, than Gary Ross managed with the first Hunger Games. It should please Roth’s fans, and it bodes well for the next installment.