You've got to hand it to Veronica Roth, the 25-year-old author of “Divergent” and its two sequels. Following the success of Suzanne Collins' “Hunger Games” books, Roth wrote a book that emulated (or lifted, if you want) as much from Collins's novel as one legally could — the central character, the dystopian setup, and the style, for a start. The first chapter reads like a perverse writing assignment: Clone the opening of “Hunger Games” without giving grounds for a lawsuit. She is one smart cookie — which doesn't necessarily mean her book is good.
Mentioning all of this is not only relevant, but downright inevitable, in talking about Neil Burger's new film adaptation — screenplay by Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor — because it does precisely the same thing. Like Roth's book, it's smart enough to appeal to “The Hunger Games”' target demographic, but not good enough to stand up to the comparison. It may not be fair to judge the movie against its spiritual forerunner, but frankly, everything about “Divergent” invites the comparison.
Imagine a dystopian future — not too distant from our own — where oligarchs strictly enforce an imposed class system as a means to control the populace. As in “Hunger Games,” each group fulfills some necessary function; but here there's no geographical segregation. The five groups all live in a kind of artificial balance. Our heroine, Beatrice (Shailene Woodley) — soon to take on the name Tris — is from Abnegation, the group that is charitable and self-effacing. The other four groups are Erudite (brainy), Candor (truthful), Amity (peaceful), and Dauntless (brave).
In a public rite of passage, Tris chooses to join Dauntless. In fact, she is a Divergent — one of the rare ones whose characteristics fail to fit into a single group. The government council is afraid of Divergents, so she has to keep her multiple talents a secret.
It's not all “Hunger Games” Lite. There are elements that are more like “The Matrix” and “Ender's Game.” But most of the details cleave to its main source: the plucky heroine, the romantic interest who shifts between ally and villain, the brewing revolt, and on and on.
Then there’s the casting: If the filmmakers wanted to discourage the comparison, they shouldn't have hired Woodley, who looks (or is made to look) as much like Jennifer Lawrence as possible. The comparison is not a fortunate one.
Much of this would be fine if “Divergent” were better than (or at least as good as) “Hunger Games.” But in every aspect it falls short. The characters are less complex; the specific story developments are generic; there are none of the genuinely clever plot twists and action ideas; the entire universe of the film is less convincingly put across.
It's possible that youngsters who haven't seen “Hunger Games” — if such beings exist — will be satisfied. Older viewers are likely to get fidgety before all two hours and 20 minutes have unspooled.
ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on "FilmWeek" on KPCC-FM (89.3).