Sunday, March 13, 2016

The Fandom Struggle is Real with Divergent

The Divergent Series Books Movies
Since the epic finale of Harry Potter and Twilight, several young adult franchises tried to compete against the next-best phenomenon The Hunger Games. The list of franchises failing to get beyond a first installment is insane: Beautiful Creatures, The Golden Compass, The Mortal Instruments, Vampire Academy, Ender's Game, The Host, The Giver - to name a few.

A lack of interest by movie goers matched with negative reviews by critics is what has killed these potential series. Except for Divergent - the young adult series authored by Veronica Roth. Successfully making its way into a third installment despite less than favorable reviews is a major feat. Though it's not a universal favorite between reviewers and fans, and reached the same phenomenon level as Hunger Games or Potter, it's survived somehow.

I, for one, love the Divergent series. With the three-quel on its way to theaters, I realized how much my fandom for the series is quite ambivalent; a mixed bag of feelings towards the books and their adaptations.

tris prior divergent tumblr gif
Ever read a book and know how you want the movie to play out chapter-by-chapter? I've had that feeling before, plenty of times even, but not really with Divergent or its sequels.

To condense three books and four films: A young girl Tris lives in a futuristic Chicago divided by factions based on virtues. After living in the pure selfless faction called Abnegation, she chooses one centered on bravery called Dauntless. In doing so, she faces leaders who want to outcast people like her who don't fit into one category known as Divergent. As those in power try to eradicate human nature, fellow rebels unite to break down their society's barriers. The consequences of her choice unravels her own identity and what lies beyond the walls that keeps Chicago in seclusion throughout the sequels.

In 2014 Divergent wasn't really in my reading stratosphere until I became a fan of actress Shailene Woodley. Her casting as Tris initially inspired me to read the first book. When other actors like Kate Winslet, and newcomers Theo James, Zoe Kravitz (and so on) joined the cast, reading the rest of the books was a natural given.

An interest for Veronica Roth's work didn't necessarily match my love for the movies - which was much more passionate and enthusiastic. My memory of the first book was weak in remembering small, missing details other fans might criticize. When the first movie came out, I thought it was a decent adaptation and something I'd love to see expand further.

Same thing happened with the second book Insurgent and its adaptation, though perhaps a bit more vividly. While fans claimed it wasn't true to its source, all of the meaty parts were translated well. Again, I was pretty satisfied. As my interest in the series weaved its influence on my family (who haven't read the books), even they've liked what they seen and are in the midst of fandom-ing with me.

As much as I like the films, the same can't really be said for the books. I don't loathe or hate them; my feelings are just grey and blah. A lot of the characters 'sound alike' and blur together, which is what makes me love the cast so much. I can tell them apart! What naysayers criticize about the films is also a flaw of the books: the worldbuilding is interesting but weak and the plot doesn't have a consistent center to tie everything together.

Reviews about the first two films usually center on confusion, which actually confuses me at times. Everything's spelled out pretty straight-forward. Girl defies a government already falling apart. She's the Chosen One and unintentionally crushes the government. Revolution ensues. (Sound familiar?). It's pretty straight-forward, but the production and cast offers more insight and entertainment than most of the failed franchises out there.

tris prior insurgent tumblr gif
With all the uncertainty going on, you may be asking why I'm holding on this series?

To be honest, the characters and the story is awesome. It may be a bit too much of Harry Potter meets Hunger Games, but to me the journey isn't trying too hard to be different. The series moved in swiftly at a time when one phenomenon was already the center focus and the rest around them just didn't gain traction - with fans or critics.

Divergent taps into the literal choice of challenging where society expects you to fit. Tris is trying to find out who she is beyond her family, both blood related and someone who doesn't fall into one cultural norm broken up into virtues. Insurgent goes a step further on how those who don't conform are being eradicated. In the real world everyone is told who they are or should be - by how they dress, where they're from, what their personalities are, their class, race, sexuality, etc. There are expectations that people try to box us into. In a future society where you're born into one faction but can be anything you choose if you have courage, Roth hits a very literal nail of this on the head - a quality that I love.

Pop culture has often defined strong female character as young women who show more brawn than they are typically given. Since that label has been worked to death, it's unearthed another more truthful meaning to what real women in the real world are like: brave, vulnerable, kind, selfish, single or in love, brains and brawny. Characters like Tris and Katniss are not strictly adhering to one thing or another. They have plenty of bad-ass in them to kick ass and take names, but also the fortitude to question their decisions, be head strong about their actions, fall in love, and use their brains as much as their fists and roundhouse kicks (or arrows).

So, Tris is born into one faction and chooses another. In doing so, she faces countless fears and learns skills that makes her a leader; not a perfect one, sometimes reckless, sometimes selfish, but passionate about discovering who she is stripped of expectations, guilt, and shame through her own mistakes and where they lead her.

Tris is awesome all on her own. but what the series and Roth does successfully is allow the heroine and her love interest grow. Four, played Theo James, does very much the same thing. He's expected to be the tough guy without a heart, with nothing underneath the nice muscley facade. But he like Tris wants to be more than one thing. They share a lot of the same personality qualities; trying to balance their physicality as well as their emotional hot-headedness and vulnerability. They also respect each other, keep each other in check, and don't become dependent on each other to a toxic extent. As Tris' love interest, unlike a lot of relationships that feel forced in young adult books, they feel very natural as a pairing.

Which is where the great chemistry comes in. Shailene became a major vehicle playing Tris, and her supporting cast are just as awesome. James and Woodley play off of each other very well, both the physical attraction but also emotionally as well. The rest of the cast too is commendable too. Not only does the film put women in the forefront as protagonists and antagonists, the series is consistently diverse as well from Octavia Spencer to Tori Wu and Daniel Day Kim, giving actors of all races an important role. It's not one note like many young adult or even 'adult' action franchises.

Excluding the plot and characters, the production is impressive. For a series to have two (going on three) separate directors, the film's look are pretty consistent in visual style and direction. Unlike The Hunger Games' colossal leap into Catching Fire in terms of budget and production size, Divergent leans into Insurgent steadily. Instead of taking a dystopian society and forcing it into a bleak and broken world, the world is bright and alarmingly auspicious. The futuristic nature of Chicago comes across as an oasis even though all hell is about to break loose, and the world outside of its unpromising barriers.

But that's the thing: a lot of what I admire and analyze from series comes from the movies. The books are good building blocks. But their adaptations give a bigger edge.

tris prior allegiant tumblr gif
Which brings me to the third film, Allegiant. I'm not sure how to feel about it - nervous in a passionate or unenthusiastic?

While I wasn't a big fan of Roth's writing in the first two books, her third installment Allegiant was fairly good. She split the story's point of view between herself and Four. As a couple and individuals, Roth guides both Tris and Four to the finishing line in a very balanced take between the two. This couldn't even be attempted for something like Harry Potter and probably wouldn't have been as successful for The Hunger Games, even if we'd like to see the Districts from different perspectives. Roth accomplished a very strange feat considering that her first two books are a bit too simplified in voice, for my tastes.

But, my struggles with Allegiant lied with how much info-dumping there was. The first books are written in a plainer-fashion; very light and not with much exposition I can remember. The story suffered from a very repetitive explanation of who did what to who and why was the basis for much of the world-building. But oddly, even if everything comes out of left field or feels overbearing, Roth hits her stride because conflicts come full circle, no matter how confusing or drawn-out.

Herein lies a particular problem with the series: the scripts aren't perfect, and this is due to how the books play out. Each addition doesn't feel similar its predecessor. In fact it somewhat reminds me a moment from The Office when General Manager Michael Scott's idea for a simple commercial ad is more complicated than it should be. The prequel starts out as one thing, but with the next sequel and next one, there's a thread or two missing from the plot. Their differences aren't erratic, but at times, I have to reconnect the dots and remind myself how everything clicks.

I face the same hiccup with Allegiant as I did before. Reading the final installment put me in a bit of a fog. The construction was more than fair but not particularly memorable.

Adaptations often get a lot of slack for not being literal copies to their sources, or not being inclusive enough to movie goers who haven't read the books. Perhaps it's a saving grace sometimes we don't remember the book verbatim. Expectations aren't set too high but aren't lowered too much either.

Don't get me wrong: the excitement still lingers. Newest member of the cast like Jeff Daniels looks promising. All out wars between the Factionless and those still holding onto their city's traditions aren't going ignored. And after two years film-wise, we finally get to see what's beyond the walls. But the newest trailer looks foreign to what I fantasized.

I can't wait to see where Tris, Four and others battle against their society's disintegration. But, another part of me is apprehensive. As a precaution I've told my family: I have no idea what to expect with Allegiant. The idea scares me since I've invested a fair amount already, but once again, I'm just along for the ride. No matter the outcome it's exciting for a post-Potter/Twilight/Hunger Games/ franchise to finally cross the finishing line. For whichever the reason, the odds have been in Divergent's favor.

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