From Harry Potter to Bella Swan to Katniss Everdeen, the hottest phenomenon in publishing these days is young adult fiction about risk takers who dare to go their own way.
So it’s more than a little ironic, if predictable, that films made from these books are completely risk aversive. Why rock the boat and jeopardize a potentially huge franchise if you don’t really have to?
“Divergent” is the latest, most snug-fitting version of that trend. As directed by Neil Burger (“The Illusionist,” “Limitless”) it’s an acceptable, play-it-safe version of the first volume in the hugely popular Veronica Roth-written trilogy (17 million-plus copies in print and counting) about a what-else-but dystopian future where only teenagers have the courage and honesty to challenge the established order and save the world.
But before heroine Tris can rescue civilization she has the more pressing task of making peace with her personal worries and concerns. For the real reason the book “Divergent” sold all those copies is that its futuristic plot is hard-wired to classic adolescent anxieties.
When you start with the story of a girl worried about not belonging who discovers that only the best people don’t fit in, mix it with the twists and turns of a “is that cute guy really looking at me” high school romance and set it against the backdrop of a world in peril, you’ve really hit the pop culture jackpot.
Though its main appeal will be to those who read the book and are young adults either in fact or in spirit, “Divergent” does have something for the rest of us and that’s the chance to see the pair of performers who make that romantic music together.
Shailene Woodley, one of her generation’s most promising actresses (“The Descendants,” “The Spectacular Now”), was an early choice to play protagonist Tris. Picking her soul mate took a lot longer, but the selection of the broodingly handsome Theo James to play Four has paid off.
“Divergent” is set in the future, a century after a catastrophic war has turned cities like Chicago, where the story takes place, into shadows of themselves. In an attempt to prevent future conflict by regularizing human behavior, society has decided to divide itself into five factions, each focusing on a particular personality trait and even dressing in a particular way.
People in Candor, for instance, wear black and white and value honesty above all else. Amity contains peaceful creative types, artists and farmers (“They have a kind of Topanga Canyon hippie look,” says makeup department head Brad Wilder) while Erudite thinks knowledge is power.
Dauntless are the warrior/protectors — reminiscent somehow of the Jets and Sharks from “West Side Story,” they are pierced and tattooed and dress in black — while the folks in Abnegation are known for their selfless charity. Dressed like the Amish, they are the rulers in this society because they live only to serve.
“Everyone knows where they belong, except me.” That is the voice of woebegone 16-year-old Beatrice Prior, the daughter of an Abnegation family who worries that she doesn’t fit in. An upcoming test is supposed to help her decide, but much to her shock, and that of tester Tori (a surly Maggie Q), the results come up inconclusive. Could she be one of those people too independent to fit in, one of those people who those in power fear. Could she be ... Divergent?
All of which leaves it up to Beatrice herself to decide which faction to select during the annual Choosing Ceremony for 16-year-olds, an event that sounds a lot like the Sorting Hat day at Hogwarts.
Attracted to the vibe of Dauntless, a faction so tough it moves around the city on continually moving elevated trains that must be jumped on and off of while still in motion, Beatrice shocks her family by choosing to go there.
She shortens her name to Tris and makes fast friends with a former Candor named Christina (an amusingly feisty Zoe Kravitz). Tris tries to survive the brutally physical training new recruits are put through by the sadistic Eric (Jai Courtney) as well as the nasty razzing of fellow initiate Peter (“Spectacular Now” costar Miles Teller) while figuring out what it means to be Divergent and why being different puts her life at risk.
Except for some minor nips and tucks, “Divergent’s” Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor script follows the book fairly closely. The biggest change is the beefing up of Machiavellian Erudite leader Jeanine Matthews, well played by Kate Winslet, to full-fledged villain status.
The key element in the book and the film is the tentative romance between Tris and Four, the Dauntless instructor with a mysterious past. While the book, narrated by Tris, really drags out the romantic uncertainty element, the palpable chemistry between the actors involved makes it clear from moment one that these two are destined to be an item.
Woodley’s strong presence allows her to be all that she can be as Tris, dividing her time between scared and self-confident. And British actor James, though a decade older than his 18-year-old character (he was the oh-so-diplomatic Mr. Pamuk of Turkey in “Downton Abbey’s” first season), never overplays his hand. Their engaging performances are money in the bank and make it clear why playing it safe was the smart way to go.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for intense violence and action, thematic elements and some sensuality
Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes
Playing: In general release