One of the best things going for The Hunger Games, as it wraps up it’s four-part movie trilogy this November, is the absolute rock Jennifer Lawrence has proved to be. The strength of a book adaptation is going to be determined by the ability of the actor to effectively embody their literary counterpart, and J-Law has carried those movies to their box office success.
It might be considered unfair or critically cavil to start a review of Insurgent talking about its wildly successful predecessor. However, the Divergent series, whether as a book trilogy or as a 4-part movie trilogy, cannot escape the comparisons. Moreover, as a female lead in a movie very similar to The Hunger Games, Shailene Woodley, as leading lady Tris Prior, will not be able to escape the comparisons to J-Law as Katniss Everdeen.
Like the end of the first Hunger Games movie (even I can’t escape it for more than a couple sentences), Divergent left Tris Prior, her brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort), Four (Theo James), and their reluctant rival Peter (Miles Teller) on a train leaving dystopian Chicago to escape the machinations and schemes of Jeanine (Kate Winslet) and her muscle Eric (Jai Courtney). They are on the run, labelled as “Divergent”, which is considered dangerous and a threat because they do not fit into the normal mold of their five-fold tribal system based on virtuous traits (such as honesty, compassion, or peaceableness). They must avoid being captured as Jeanine discovers new realities about the Divergent that makes Tris and any other Divergent not a threat, but a tool to achieve her own ambitious ends. Meanwhile, Tris, Four, and others are plotting to invade Jeanine’s home base among the Erudite faction in order to stop Jeanine’s plans to control the factions through her mind control serums.
The plot here is about the best one can do, as it is really convoluted and the narrative assumptions made throughout this movie make what is happening almost completely incomprehensible. By far the weakest element of this movie is the translation of the story elements from novel to the big screen. Characters seem to turn on a dime and their decisions come across as inconceivable in relation to who they have been most of the series and/or movie. It’s extremely confusing and it is unclear if this was due the screen adaptation, the novel having too much going on (which it did at times), or because many story elements from the novel being dropped. It was incredibly disappointing to feel lost, as I was hoping the story could hit a bunch of the real high points of the series.
One of those high points is Shailene Woodley as Tris. Unlike what many people have been saying, comparing her to Katniss, Tris is a much different character, and Woodley plays her quite well. Like Katniss, she has some incredibly traumatic events that have shaped her early life (the death of her mother and father, being Divergent, seeing friends die). And like Katniss, Tris carries around that guilt and it has become an intrinsic motivation for her actions throughout the series. However, the difference is that in the Divergent novels, Veronica Roth does a very good job of conveying the convoluted nature of how traumatic events, along with feelings of love, loyalty, and insecurity, shape our decisions and that the burdens we carry effect those decisions. Tris must confront her baggage and struggle with being able to release that baggage and guilt in order to find true freedom.
The movie hints at this a couple times, most prominently when Johanna, the leader of the Amity faction, tells her that killing Jeanine will not bring back or avenge her mother’s death. Also, one of the formal high points, and a critical scene, is where she must confront killing Christina’s boyfriend, while he is in a murderous trance, from the first movie. There are these quick cuts back and forth of her and Christina, and final, teary moments where she must admit what she has done and the only people in focus are Christina’s back and Tris standing among everyone. Unfortunately, it does nothing to unpack those moments and must quickly move on to get back to the plot. Again, sadly, whatever deeper elements might have been at play in the movie are quickly swallowed by the plot. It’s a regretful moment that is an apt microcosm for this entire movie.