Divergent, On Reading the Book After Watching the Movie

Now that I’ve seen the Divergent movie and have been relatively unimpressed by it, I decided to follow it up by reading the book immediately afterwards, on the suspicion that there were aspects of the story that would work better in writing.

The book was much better than the movie. It exceeded my expectations, because I could never have predicted it would be this good based on the movie.

Premise: In a world where everyone chooses one of five traits to idealize (bravery, selflessness, honesty, intelligence, peace) and sticks with that mentality, some can’t confine themselves to that. They’re known as Divergent, and they’re being hunted down by the ruthless leadership currently in power in some factions. Tris is Divergent, and she needs to hide what she is from those who would hunt her down.

The movie decided to cut out a lot of the substance. I could have stopped watching it at any time and not really cared, but the book? I read it straight through, in one evening.

The worst oversight to me was what they did with characterization. In the book, Tris struggled with her fears and her guilt for not being a better person. She wasn’t always the brave one, who stood up to the ones in power. Sometimes she was, and sometimes she was too afraid, and she suffered emotionally for it when she didn’t.

In the movies, she was much more perfect than that, generally doing the right thing. And that’s less interesting. It’s way more interesting to see her imperfections, to watch her struggle with the same kinds of fears most people would struggle with in her situation. Failing to do the right thing, in a situation where most people would fail just as bad, is what makes it so brave of her when she succeeds.

And it’s not just her. She wasn’t the only character in the book who ever stood up for anyone. The supporting cast was much more powerful, and much more gray, in the book. People were strong and good in some situations, then weak and cruel in others. It wasn’t cut and dry, and it made the characters and the pressure they were all under that much more potent. The message was that the same person can be brave and cowardly in completely different circumstances. It was a much more human portrayal of the situation they were in.

In the movie, characters were far less complex and therefore, unmemorable. There was no reason to care about them.

And guess what? Four wasn’t creepy in the book. He was actually a lot more interesting as a character here, and I’m pretty sure now that it isn’t because of age. He’s more complex, and he’s got a wider range of emotions. He has to be cautious because of the disagreements between himself and the leadership, but there’s moments when he mellows. And then his guard goes right back up again when he gets uncomfortable with the topic. In the movies, he was just kind of distant. I didn’t get a strong sense of him as a character at all.

I really enjoyed the way that Tris started thinking about the factions, seeing something fundamentally broken within Dauntless as it is now. That was a nice touch, to have her realize the corruption seeping into the system and wanting to fix it, to get back the ideals these factions were founded on.

The exploration of conformity and societal expectations is stronger in the book, as well. The author brings up the point that most people will learn to think what they’re supposed to think. And that goes a long way to explaining the setting.

People may not naturally fit into these boxes, but they learn to make themselves fit–which we do in real life, as well. And if someone really can’t bring themselves to fit into this one box, they have four others to choose from. But they have to conform to something, have to learn to think in one of these predictable ways. And this is very reminiscent of reality.

I’ve also seen that a lot of people dislike the changes to the ending of the movie–those I didn’t mind. They were just different ways of doing it, and I even enjoyed the last scene with Kate Winslet.

The things that bothered me were the things that prevented me from engaging with the movie, but drew me so deep into the book. The characterization, the internal struggles with identity and with the fear of failure, the interpersonal struggles between the ruthless and the ones trying to be better than that. Tris’ own struggles with trying to be better than that.

When all of that is lost, everything left that makes up that year of training for Dauntless–which is most of the story–is just the bare bones. And that isn’t enough to drive the story at a good pace. There needs to be something else happening to keep it interesting, and in the book, there’s plenty of that.

Maybe the movie couldn’t incorporate the best parts of the book for practical reasons–it’s harder to portray self-doubt and internal struggles on screen. But they could have portrayed these same concepts, the very ones that made the book interesting, through struggles between characters. And even those were missing. There just wasn’t enough to hold up the story for most of the movie.

Meanwhile, the book manages to have the same bare bones concept, and turns it into something fascinating.

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