Directed by Neil Burger
Starring: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Ashley Judd, Zoe Kravitz, Kate Winslet
It is tempting to lump Divergent in with the Hunger Games and understand it primarily through the question of how it lives up to, or fails to live up to, the standard set by the Jennifer Lawrence franchise. It’s tempting, but it would be a mistake. Sure both films are based on dystopic, young adult fiction, and both do center on a strong female lead. However these comparisons are merely superficial. Whereas the Hunger Games explores the effect of institutional violence and social injustice on youth, Divergent explores a much more subtle theme, what it means to be a virtuous, the Greeks would say excellent, human being.
Divergent takes place in a futuristic Chicago, where skyscrapers are overgrown and abandoned and the entire city is surrounded by an enormous electric fence. It’s a compelling visual that immediately grabs the audience. We are told of a war that nearly destroyed everyone and are introduced to its aftermath. The population has been divided into five factions, each reflecting a civil virtue. There are the Dauntless (courage), Erudite (intelligence), Candor (honesty), Amity (peacefulness), and Abnegation (selflessness). We meet Tris (Shailene Woodley) as she is about to take “the test” which will help her decide to which faction she belongs.
The problem arises when Tris tests capable in all 5 categories, marking her as Divergent, and thus a threat to the system that keeps the peace. Now, there are a lot of plot holes in this story and if you spend too much time questioning them, the narrative will fall apart. It’s not clear to me, for example, why this set up keeps the peace. In fact, much of the film is devoted to showing how allegiance to factions causes grudges between them. Some attempt is made to explain this, but it rings hollow. Don’t worry about it; I assure you it’s not the point.
Not being able to align as Divergent, Tris, who was born into Abnegation, chooses to align with Dauntless, the fearless warrior faction which serves as military and police. Some of the best scenes in the film are bound to the Dauntless training which strangely demonstrates that being brave isn’t enough, one must also be strong and agile and good with a knife. In fact there’s reference made to the irony that everyone in Dauntless is ultimately driven by fear. It is an interesting comment on bravery, or maybe a confusion, again, Not the point. Let it go.
Somehow it becomes clear that Erudite, the smart people, want to get rid of Abnegation because Abnegation control the government and they think smart people should. All in all it’s an interesting metaphorical question, would you rather have smart or selfless in charge? As I thought about this I came up with good reasons for both. Smart, however, being smart, enlists the aid of the leaders of Dauntless in order to eradicate Abnegation and take over. This was the plot hole in the “keeps the peace” argument I mentioned before.
Beyond the contradiction about the existence of factions keeping the peace, there’s a bigger question about how eliminating all of the selfless people from your society would be a good thing. There’s some claims about how Abnegation are stealing food and hiding Divergents, therefore breaking the law, but again, it’s very difficult to see how selfless people are a threat to society. It’s not clear why, if you want to rule with brute force as the plan appears to be, you’d need to commit genocide on the selfless. But again, if you get hung up here, you’re missing the point.
What is the point? Well, the entire film is a metaphor for what it means to be a virtuous, or excellent, human being. The Greek word, Areté, means both moral virtue and excellence. What we have is a film which asks a question found in ancient Greece, is it even possible to exhibit just one virtuous character trait, or, must a person cultivate all of them in order to properly exhibit any one of them?
Aristotle’s answer, which this film appears to agree with, is either you have all of the virtues, or none of them. As Four (Theo James) says at one point explaining his tattoo which exhibits the symbols of all five factions, “I want to be brave, but I also want to be selfless.” In other words, what would it mean to be brave but not peace loving? Or to be smart but not honest? The film does a fine job depicting that having just one such character trait does not excellence make.
When Erudite move against Abnegation, they do so with a kind of mind control over Dauntless. While it’s a clever plot device in order to explain why Dauntless would go along with the plan, it’s a much better metaphor for what it means to cultivate physical power without intellect. Someone else does the thinking for you. Likewise, Erudite’s very ambition to get rid of Abnegation demonstrates what it means to be smart but not selfless. As Jeanine (Kate Winslet) ably demonstrates, intellect without concern for others quickly descends into evil. Nor is Abnegation a stand-alone virtue. Selflessness without Amity leads to its own horrors as the movie demonstrates.
For Aristotle, the cultivation of all of the virtues of character was required because all virtues exhibit the same intellectual disposition toward practical reason. A person who had cultivated practical reason would of necessity apply it to all aspects of her life. Any person who appears to exhibit only one virtue is merely doing so accidentally. The imbalance in the other parts of her life would ultimately lead to an undoing of the character trait she tended to exhibit.
Thus, in Divergent, Tris and other Divergents not only demonstrate the practical reason that virtue requires, but this leads her to demonstrate Courage in a way superior to her fellow Divergent initiates. She is the first jumper, she is the fastest to conquer her fears, etc. Furthermore, the mind control devices don’t work on divergents. How could they? Divergents are exemplars of reasoned thought, and therefore think for themselves.
I do wish the film did more to show the imbalance in the Erudite faction, specifically Winslet’s character, in order to better avoid the simplistic idea that “Smart people are dangerous,” a topic I’ve addressed in print. I also wish there were generally fewer plot holes, like why, after succeeding in the end and foiling the plot, are they still forced to leave the city? Still, the film is reasonably well acted with likable characters that you will find yourself rooting for. It also comes with a compelling lesson about what it means to be virtuous. What more could you want out of a film aimed at young adults? Fewer plot holes? Yeah, yeah, I know, but let it go and enjoy this film.