Divergent Hits The Big Screen

Tris & Katniss : the Rise of the Female Action Hero
by Gordon Campbell

In January, Catching Fire ( the second film in the Hunger Games series) not only became the biggest US box office success of 2013 : it also became the first film starring a female actor (ie. Jennifer Lawrence) to top the annual domestic earnings chart since The Exorcist, 40 years ago. As Manohla Dargis recently pointed out in the New York Times, “The fact that Catching Fire has ended a four-decade run of male-driven stories and romances won’t – in itself – force the necessary changes at the big studios… but its success should make it harder for industry suits and their media apologists to dismiss movies about women.” Moreover, the female lead played by Linda Blair in The Exorcist was a victim, and that makes Lawrence’s success as Katniss Everdeen seem even more significant.

What the Hunger Games – and now, Divergent – herald is the emergence of a young female fandom, derived from YA novels, that is able to challenge Hollywood for its obsessive use of comic books as the source material for tentpole franchises. This article in Salon laid out out the shift in the basic territory:

For a long time, organized fandom was seen as primarily a guy thing. The two primary types of hardcore fandom — comic books and science fiction — had many female members of course, but as the term “fan boy” attests, the most visible, vocal and vehement tended to be male. Meanwhile, the primary manifestations of female fandom were the screaming pre-teen followings of bubble-gum pop bands: avid, yes, but dismissed as the passive, easily manipulated consumers of disposable, prefab culture.

The success of the Hunger Games is the apotheosis of a new kind of young female fandom, one that has its roots in books and owes its flourishing to the Web. The old, predominantly male fandom for comics and science fiction pre-existed the Internet and was one of the first subcultures to take advantage of it. The fandom for the Hunger Games grew (in part) out of forums and other networks set up by Twilight fans, which in turn grew out of the fandom for Harry Potter. These fandoms, which flourished during the advent of social media, are certainly not entirely female — any more than science-fiction or comics fandoms are entirely male — but most of the people who establish, maintain and participate in them are young women.

Keep this up, and films that can pass the Bechdel Test will be the norm, not the exception.

Click for big version.

Ah, teen dystopias. The film version of the Divergent series of YA teen novels hits movie theatres this weekend, amid a rash of yes/no/maybe speculations about whether it will match the success of The Hunger Games. For now, all we have to go on is the trilogy of Divergent books by Veronica Roth on which the films are based. ( Roth wrote these books in her early 20s. Three Divergent films are currently planned.) Given how the books steadily deteriorate in quality – the second book Insurgent is a slog, and the 526 page finale Allegiant is an infuriating, scientifically garbled treatise on human genetic engineering that kills off one of the beloved major characters for no discernible narrative payoff. Ever since Allegiant was published last October, the Internet fury directed at Roth for how she has chosen to end her story has spoken volumes. That said, Divergent is a beginning good enough to make the high expectations for the first film seem utterly reasonable. And in Shailene Woodley as Tris, the main character, Divergent has a star in the making.

First, the basic storyline. In the city world of Divergent – it is really Roth’s thinly disguised hometown, Chicago – society is divided into factions based on five main personality characteristics. Amity is the faction for peace-making hippies ; Abnegation is the faction for the selfless, and tends to provide the incorruptible governing class ; Candor is for honest speakers and guardians of the truth ; Dauntless are the brave warrior class ; and Erudite is the faction for the scientists and knowledge seekers. In a Choosing Ceremony, every 16 year old takes an aptitude test that signals the faction to which they will belong. Think of it as the Choosing Hat ceremony in Harry Potter, but with a drug test added.

The drugs create a series of drug-induced visions. How you respond to this set of hallucinations will determine the entire course of your life, and not simply your house of residence at Hogwarts. After receiving their test results, the 16 year olds get to decide whether to remain with their family faction, or transfer to a new faction. From then on the faction is their life : the basic social rule in the world of Divergent is ‘faction over blood’.

Enter Beatrice, our heroine. She was raised in Abnegation, but is kicking against the pressure to live in constant self-denial. It is not a spoiler to reveal that early on, she leaves her family faction, joins the wild ones in Dauntless and becomes reborn as Tris. Problem: as only she and a few significant others know, her drug test has shown that she belongs to a mysterious elite, called the Divergent. These mavericks combine the qualities of two or more factions, and – crucially – they have the power to resist the drug-induced mass ‘simulations’ that form a key part of the city’s methods of social control. Secondly, the Erudite faction (whose villainous leader is played in the film by Kate Winslet) ) is working on a plan to displace Abnegation and to seize power, using the Dauntless as their drugged-up killer army. For obvious reasons, the drug immunity of the Divergent elite poses a threat to the takeover plot. Will they, can they, lead the resistance ? And what role in the civil war will be played by the Factionless, the underclass of social losers who for one reason or another, have fallen from grace with their factions and now scavenge for survival in the urban wasteland ? And what’s over The Fence that surrounds The City ?

Oh, and did I mention that Tris has a really cute 18 year old martial arts instructor called Four who has a tormented family history ? Some heated but relentlessly chaste Twilight-ish romancing ensues. A good deal of criticism ( most of it by teen readers) has been levelled at the second and third books in particular, for the coyness with which the sexual attraction between the perpetually star-crossed lovers is treated ; but Roth [pictured left] has defended her decision to leave the romance unconsummated, or at least to deliberately leave the exact nature of the relationship between Tris and Four (aka Tobias) up to the reader’s imagination:

Roth is circumspect, even slightly prim, when discussing Allegiant’s racier moments…..”I was concerned about not alienating my very young readers. I remember reading books at that age and stopping because I wasn’t comfortable. I’m not trying to talk down to them. It’s definitely a scene of great intimacy. That’s what was important. I didn’t want to have smut on the page. I don’t want to titillate.”

Aim achieved. Luckily, whenever teen hormones do kick in, there is always a high building to abseil down or a fast moving train to jump onto or off. Not co-incidentally, the Dauntless require their new recruits to undergo a series of life-endangering initiation ceremonies reminiscent of the dangers faced by the contestants in the Hunger Games. As a writer, it has to be said that Roth makes Suzanne Collins, author of the Hunger Games books , look like Tolstoy. Throughout, the depictions of life within Dauntless veer pretty wildly between a juvenile Fight Club and the sort of hi-jinks you might experience at an OTT summer camp.

So why – and despite all the obvious limitations – has Divergent taken such a grip on its audience? On current pre-release polling, the film is tracking at the box office level of the first Twilight movie, although well below the first Hunger Games film. Not bad. That still means Divergent is likely to open on March 20 with US domestic takings in the region of $60-70 million. People like the books, or the first one at least : and the film has the benefit of having Woodley in the role of Tris. In last year’s NZ International Film Festival, Woodley was utterly credible in a terrific indie film (about teen drunkenness, among other things) called The Spectacular Now, opposite Miles Teller. Teller also starred in 2014‘s biggest Sundance buzz movie Whiplash ( which sounds like Black Swan, although its about jazz drummers this time) and he appears in Divergent again opposite Woodley – this time as Peter, one of the Dauntless bad guys.

The calibre of the young actors aside, there’s something really compelling about the storyline. Roth has put her finger on something to which everyone can relate : a social ceremony in which adolescents choose either (a) to affirm their family and its conditioning role in their lives, or (b) to reject it forever. More to the point, Tris is a good example of the kick-ass adolescent female hero I was talking about before. We’re not talking about a leather-clad male fantasy object, like Lara Croft. The storyline of Divergent shows Tris explicitly rejecting the traditional feminine duties of service and self denial – the Abnegation ideal – and replacing it with a life of risk, and constant physical challenge. Hitherto, the Dauntless embrace of thrills and danger has been a realm of pop culture reserved almost exclusively for young men.

Tris, like Katniss, is a female action hero – and unlike Bella in Twilight, her romance is not an exercise in masochism. Frustration yes – but masochism, no. Taken together, these qualities do not guarantee that the Divergent film will be a success. After all, Hollywood somehow managed to totally screw up a sure thing with the Philip Pullman YA series His Dark Materials, and the story of its strong female hero, Lyra. Yet in the wake of Katniss Everdeen, Tris stands a far better chance of success – at least until the finale of the third book and film.

Footnote: Last year, the plotting in The Hunger Games come under fan girl scrutiny from New Zealand’s very own literary heroine, Elizabeth Catton of The Luminaries fame. Catton tweeted on how Suzanne Collins could have/should have plotted her saga. Apart from being kinda patronising, Catton’s suggestions were…..well, also kind of idiotic, at least as reported here:

“Better revenge on Katniss: to rig the 75th games so that Prim and Gale are district 12’s tributes,” she said. Then Katniss, as mentor, parachutes herself into the arena at critical point, and Peeta insists on coming too. Then they bring down the arena together. Catton tweeted she loved the books, but did wonder how plausible it was to find 24 living winners of the Hunger Games from all 12 districts for the Quarter Quell – special editions of the Hunger Games held every 25 years. Catton also challenged the Capitol’s political strategy. “Also at the Capitol’s wisdom in sending beloved victors back to the arena where 23 would die. What was their long game?” she asked.

For the record : the aim of the Quarter Quell is not primarily to take ‘revenge’ on Katniss, but to kill her. And to kill, along with her, the revolutionary, rallying potential of all those other ‘beloved victors’ as well. That was the Capitol’s long game, as the second book makes clear. The advanced age and debilitation of some of the contestants in the Quarter Quell – eg Mags – is referred to explicitly in Catching Fire. So is the use of substitutes. Finally – and full marks to Collins – the most poignant long game in the entire trilogy does indeed involve Prim and Gale, and it reaches its climax near the end of Mockingjay. Its outcome shapes the remainder of Katniss’ life. Did Catton somehow miss this ? Still,I guess the readiness to be something of an idiot is part and parcel of getting into the fanboy/fangirl moshpit.