RANT: “The Divergent Series” and the new low of young adult fiction

Robert Schwentke’s The Divergent Series: Insurgent (2015) comes out tomorrow,but it already has a thirty-percent critical rating on review aggregator, Rotten Tomatoes. Obviously, I haven’t seen it yet, and I don’t plan on seeing it, either – Neil Burger’s Divergent (2014) has a slightly higher percentage (forty-one), and it did not impress me (to say the least), so, if Insurgent is even worse, forget about it. Still, it’s not fair to judge a film I haven’t even watched, so I’ll do my best throughout the course of this rant to stick to my own opinions and what I know.

Rotten Tomatoes Chart, "Divergent"
Forty-one percent of critics liked Neil Burger’s “Divergent” (2014), versus seventy percent of Rotten Tomatoes users. (Graphic By: Hunter Goddard).

My apologies, in advance, to any Divergent fans who’ve clicked on this post. There must be quite a few of you out there – the user rating for the first movie on Rotten Tomatoes is seventy percent, twenty-nine percent higher than the critics’ consensus. Hollywood wouldn’t have adapted Veronica Roth’s young adult science fiction trilogy of novels into a series of films if there weren’t moviegoers champing at the bit to pay for their tickets.

Maybe that’s it – maybe I don’t “get” it because I haven’t read the books. I gave Divergent a chance because it was hyped up to be the next Hunger Games, and, from what I’ve seen of the movie, it doesn’t even come close. I just found myself waiting for Queen Kate Winslet to come back onscreen every time she left.

Kate Winslet, What Are You Doing Here?

These are the questions I asked myself during Divergent.

Is that the guy from that hideodorous Carrie remake (and did I really just use the word “hideodorous” in a sentence?)? Do people really think Shailene Woodley is the next Jennifer Lawrence (not to knock Woodley, but Tris Prior is no Katniss Everdeen)? So they’re siblings in this and lovers in The Fault in Our Stars; they seriously couldn’t have cast those any other way (why do I like parentheses so much?)?

What’s so “dystopian” about this society, anyway, when you have the free will to choose which “faction” you join in spite of your test results? Hell, even the “factionless” get taken care of by Abnegation. Am I supposed to believe that this is the “future” of our culture, and is that supposed to frighten me?

The first entry in a series is meant to leave you with more questions than answers to keep you coming back for more, but I don’t think these are the questions the filmmakers had in mind. Perhaps the biggest question of all is: why should I care? I found Divergent to be convoluted, forgettable, stale, and altogether pointless.

The Unpardonable Cinematic Sins

Dystopian sci-fi is supposed to have a point to make, and movies should never be boring. Divergent fails on both these fronts. ABC’s Desperate Housewives (2004-2012) is one of my all-time favorite TV shows, not because it’s high-caliber television – it isn’t – but because, if nothing else, it’s entertaining, and Divergent doesn’t even have that “guilty pleasure” redeeming quality going for it.

Maybe, just maybe, you could argue that it’s a comment on how we force our eighteen-year-olds to decide who they want to be for the rest of their lives in the same way that postapocalyptic Chicago forces its sixteen-year-olds to do the same, but Divergent is neither intelligent enough, nor witty enough, for this argument to hold water. It’s pretty people blowing stuff up in the name of “revolution” – all it takes to grab the attention of the angsty adolescent brain.

And that’s what’s most offensive of all about The Divergent Series – it insults our intelligence. It unapologetically exploits the mania surrounding The Hunger Games Trilogy (that’s the only way the two compare). It expects us to believe that it’s something it’s not without even trying to be.

Let Me Clarify

It’s not Veronica Roth’s fault that she ripped off The Hunger Games. It was probably the only way she could get published in the once-promising, post-Harry Potter Y.A. subgenre. After J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, readers wanted “paranormal,” so Stephenie Meyer penned the vampire-werewolf melodrama Twilight, and, after Twilight, readers wanted love triangles, so Suzanne Collins tacked one onto The Hunger Games, and, after The Hunger Games, people wanted sci-fi, so Roth wrote The Divergent Series.

I’m not cynical enough to believe that “greed” is what inspired these women to write, but it’s surely the reason why they got as much promotion from the entertainment industry as they did, and it undoubtedly played a role in their success. And even if Roth didn’t intend to write the next Hunger Games when she sat down to compose Divergent, it sure turned out that way – the tomboyish protagonist with a hella stupid name, the futuristic American setting ravaged by an unexplained apocalyptic event, the love story, the uprising against the totalitarian government… It begs the question of if there is even such a thing as a truly “original” idea, but, come on, you’re allowed to switch up the same, basic elements, even if it’s just a little bit.

The industry is a lot more corrupt than you think it is, but not half as sneaky as they think they are. Sounds almost like a dystopian institution, now, doesn’t it?

Granted, The Hunger Games isn’t wholly original – it’s been called to task many times for its similarities to Battle Royale by Koushun Takami. Still, at least it’s a relevant and effective commentary on a society that telecasts young people getting their limbs blown off in the Middle East in between episodes of Survivor, whereas Divergent is a commentary on a society that… lets you be whoever you want to be after you turn sixteen?

Did I Miss Something Here?

What made Harry Potter so exciting in the first place, way back when The Sorcerer’s Stone (or The Philosopher’s Stone, depending on where you are) was published in 1997, was the fact that it got kids reading again. But the magic is long gone, and I’m sorry for the use of the word “magic” in this context. Warner Brothers produced an equally successful series of filmic adaptations, The Deathly Hallows was split into two films to charge filmgoers two tickets for one movie, and, now, everybody’s doing it – Twilight, The Hunger Games, and Divergent.

It also took its branding cue from Twilight and The Hunger Games business models by inserting the title of the first film into all other titles – The Twilight Saga: New Moon, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, and The Divergent Series: Insurgent, for example. Is that what we want to teach our kids – it’s okay to sell out and foreclose your creativity, as long as the price is right? You can be as different and unique as you want, as long as it’s popular to be “different” and “unique?”

Hopefully, Divergent will at least motivate kids to rise up against evil organizations, like corporate Hollywood.

P.S.

Sorry for writing so much about all of this this week.

P.P.S.

Sorry for the third “P.S.” in a row.

RANT OVER

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Hunter Goddard

I am a journalism graduate from Colorado State University as well as a film studies minor. Lady Gaga inspires me in everything I do.

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