Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

27 April 2014


A few small thoughts on Neil Burger's Divergent.

Neil Burger previously directed the terrible film The Illusionist (which, incidentally, does have a beautiful score by Philip Glass).

But Divergent is very good, and the more I think about it the more I like it.

Comparisons with The Hunger Games are inevitable – girl-power, dystopias, vaguely anti-Fascistic politics, highly structured class systems, color-coding, young-adult-novel-as-source – but Divergent is way way way better than The Hunger Games. For one, the young woman at the center of Divergent's narrative does a lot of choosing, seems to have a purchase on the decisions that she makes, and basically becomes a total badass on her own.

Divergent also lacks the intense sentimentality of HG, opting instead for a character who favors rational decision-making, an understanding of power structures combined with a savvy ability to work within them, and a political knowledge more complex than a notion of "good guys" and "bad guys".

As a film, Divergent also gives us plenty of time to take in the beauty of the world in which it is situated. The central character (her name is Tris – rhymes with Katniss – and she is similarly saddled with a less-cartoonish but still vaguely symbolic last name; hers is Prior) enjoys the world in which she lives, finds parts of it beautiful, and treats it with respect and affection. And it isn't just the film's protagonist who enjoys her world, the filmmaker, too, takes a great pleasure in the world that surrounds Tris.

Unlike the heroine of HG, Tris, who (like Katniss) is, of course, forced to respond to the military power and governmental violence that are brought to bear upon her, but Tris responds actively, dominating her surroundings, leading the other people in her life, and enjoying the victories that she wins. Divergent is not a film with a series of bad choices, wherein the heroine must opt for the lesser of a series of evils. Divergent resounds with a hopefulness for a future where the world might be better. If, finally, we are given no image of what that world might look like, we are given an image of a young woman who is prepared to work hard to make a world in which she would like to live.

Divergence, as an idea, is a happy metaphor for queerness, for the idea of a person who doesn't fit in who feels alone and then finds a community of others who diverge similarly. It may be that I liked the film for this reason most of all, and then am tacking on my other ideas as the result of this identificatory process. Or it may be that the lovely Shailene Woodley simply smiles a good deal more than the for-some-reason-always-serious Jennifer Lawrence.

In any case, sequels are scheduled, and I will definitely be seeing the second one of these.