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Divergent: Don't Compare it to The Hunger Games

I feel terrible. Something happened on the way to finishing Veronica Roth's Divergent. My Nook freaked out; I scrolled from page 168ish to the next page and found nothing but a blank screen. I tried to read it on my computer but the pages stopped at the same place. I noodled around B&N's website and decided I'd call as soon as I finished doing whatever it was I decided I needed to do. But I didn't. My inherent inertia kicked in and I did nothing. Nothing. And now before I've even finished the book, which I'm enjoying so far, the movie has come out and the overwhelming consensus is, number one, it's no Hunger Games (does it have to be?) and number two, it's dull. Kind of takes any wind I had left, right out of my sails.

So in lieu of my own review, and because I like what Owen Gleiberman at EW has to say about the film (even though I haven't seen it) and about Shailene Woodley, whom I feel is a remarkably talented actress, here's his take on the film.

In the posters for Divergent, Shailene Woodley has been given the stylized bod of a comic-book sci-action vamp, and her features are as coolly chiseled as her physique. But in the movie version of Veronica Roth's 2011 novel, Woodley, I'm glad to say, is a lot more recognizably human, and that goes for her acting too. Her character, Tris, spends most of the film learning to leap and toss knives and risk death like a badass, and when she puts those skills to the test battling her society's corrupt leaders, there's no doubt that she's a superior, market-tested YA role model, like Katniss in The Hunger Games. But she is also, as Woodley plays her, an intensely vulnerable and relatable character.
Tris, a.k.a. Beatrice, has been raised as a member of Abnegnation, one of five factions in a walled dystopia that was formerly Chicago and still looks, strikingly, like a semiruined concrete-playground version of that city. The members of Abnegnation dress in plain tan frocks, like the Amish, and they're all about puritan self-sacrifice. The other four factions are Erudite (defined by their transcendent knowledge), Candor (who are compulsively honest), Amity (the naturally peaceful), and Dauntless (the fearless tattooed warrior jocks in black — in other words, the sect that anyone cool would want to be part of). Beatrice and her peers have the right to choose a ­faction for themselves (it's like picking a college — you can go to Yale even if your folks didn't). But when she takes the test to learn which faction she's best suited for, it turns out that she's in the rare forbidden ­category known as Divergent, which means she has the qualities of three factions at once: Abnegnation, ­Erudite, and Dauntless. It may sound silly to say she's an outlaw because she's self-sacrificial, brilliant, and strong all at the same time, but what's really forbidden is ­independent thought.
Woodley, through the delicate power of her acting, does something compelling: She shows you what a prickly, fearful, yet daring personality looks like when it's nestled deep within the kind of modest, bookish girl who shouldn't even like gym class. Tris chooses to become part of Dauntless not because she has any special athletic skill but because it's her nature to go for broke. The first half of Divergent is a lean, exciting basic-training thriller, with Tris willing herself to do things like jump aboard speeding trains and fight with her bare knuckles. Woodley, at every turn, lets us feel as if we're in her shoes, not so much Dauntless as thrillingly daunted.
The second half of the movie goes on a bit, with too many rote combat scenes. Yet the director, Neil Burger (the fanciful craftsman who made Limitless and The Illusionist), keeps you invested, staging a rise-of-the-savior-heroine plot so that it seems less ritualistic than it does in the Hunger Games films. It helps that the drill sergeant, named Four, is played by Theo James, who's like an unflaky James Franco with a surly hint of T-shirt-era Brando; he brings off the neat trick of playing a hardass who is also a heartthrob. And it's nice to watch Kate Winslet go full ice-blood fascist as the Erudite leader who makes a scarily smart case for a society rooted in the fine art of ­control. In many ways, she sounds similar to a movie executive, so I'm glad to see the launch of a dystopian franchise in which individuality, as embodied by Shailene Woodley, looks like it could mean something beyond hiply propping up the status quo. B+
In a companion piece, under the headline Divergent: Did it get trashed for coming out after the Hunger Games, Gleiberman notes:
Given how derivative it is, Divergent, by all rights, should be a less effective thriller than either The Hunger Games or The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. I, however, liked it more than both, and for a basic reason: The heroine is allowed to show fear. Through most of the movie, there’s a pungent sense that Tris, as played by the petite, forlorn Shailene Woodley, is in over her head and knows it. In my review, I called her “intensely vulnerable and relatable,” and that’s a way of saying that when Woodley is on screen, showing us everything that Tris is going through, she approaches each moment as if its outcome weren’t preordained. The possibility of failure hangs there, with dramatic anxiety. That’s why it’s easy to feel at one with her even if you don’t happen to be part of the film’s market-tested fan-base demo. You don’t have to know the book or care, particularly, about the material; the fretful, cunning tick-tock of Shailene Woodley’s presence is enough. Whereas Jennifer Lawrence in the Hunger Games films, while ferociously spirited and forceful (I think she’s an unabashedly great actress), makes Katniss a kind of regal WASP Amazon who is, without fail, tough, fierce, strong, Olympian, implacable. And, to me, that’s not nearly as interesting as Woodley’s woeful, life-size girl-goddess. 

So what did you think of Divergent?  Haven't seen it either? Watch the trailer.