Getting Reel, Book Review combo: Divergent

DivergentCoverOn Wednesdays, we get together with some grad student friends for happy hour (the early bird special might be a more accurate description). We are all in psychology but from a mix of sub-disciplines, years, and life experiences. Lest I get sappy here, suffice it to say, Wednesdays are a blend of friendship and mentoring among some pretty darn educated, wonderful women. We talk about gender a lot — because it’s a personal interest of all of ours, because it’s my research area, and because we are women in science. Last week we moved our discussion to the movie theater. I used my most endearing/forceful tactics to get us to see Divergent.

Today we’ll review the movie (inspired by personal insight from my dear friends) and the book series. First, the film:

DivergentPoster2Divergent is another dystopian tale in the young adult literature du jour. It’s written as a trilogy although the film draws from the first two books. Fun fact: the author, Veronica Roth, is 25. It is about a city in the future that has been divided into five “factions,” each made up of people of a particular personality type and skill set, and each filling a different role in the society’s functioning. It’s a little similar to The Giver (which we promise a lengthy post about some day) in terms of the personality-job match and the great advances in science alongside some pretty Machiavellian beliefs about humanity. Our heroine, Tris, does not fit well into any particular faction because she is “divergent,” or more intellectually complex than the system permits.

First let me say: this was not a good movie. On the other hand, it was an incredibly gender-fair, feminist movie that reveals the Bechdel test to be the very low bar that it is. The two most important characters in the movie are women — Tris, and the evil, brutally pragmatic Jeanine, a faction leader trying to overthrow the other faction that actually serves in city-wide government. They spend quite a bit of time talking, and not about men. No, they are interested in matters of ethics and politics. Jeanine represents the nadir of an overly controlled society designed to fly in the face of human nature itself. Tris represents everything that is supposed to be good and true about human nature — instinctive moral reasoning and compassion that cannot be overcome by unjust social stratification.

I hear Fair Play Friend Caitlin in my head now saying that I am giving this story an awful lot of credit for complexity that isn’t well-developed but…I think I describe the highest intention of the story, anyway. Back to the film…

There is a minor plot line about Tris’ romance with an older fellow faction-member, Four. He is attracted to Tris for her bravery and strength, a refreshing change of pace from the typical YA romance trope. It’s extraordinarily chaste even for a children’s story, and Tris makes a point that she wants their emotional and intellectual relationship to develop before their physical relationship.

Throughout the film, women are portrayed in modest dress — so that you don’t really notice what they are wearing or what their bodies are like but instead, hear what they are saying (which is strong and powerful…but at times, woefully poorly scripted). In fact, the worst portrayal of female bodies is in one of the movie posters:

DivergentPosterTypical of the face-ism we’ve come to expect in advertising, the focal points are Four’s face and Tris’ body and curves.

Now as I have said, this is not a good film. The writing is cheesy at times and the acting does not improve that. But all of that being said, it is really good representation of gender, in a sea of really terrible movies about gender. Is this something I recommend taking your child to see? Absolutely. On balance, four pinwheels:

Let’s turn to the books.

DivergentTrilogyI loved the first book. It was feminist, gender-fair, and not atrociously written. I dragged myself through the second book. I could not bring myself even to open the third book.

I read these books while I was hospitalized last Fall. To give you some context for how much time I had for reading, consider this: I re-read the entire Harry Potter series (and HP 1-3 in French) in waiting room time alone. I read roughly a novel a day while I was hospitalized and another 20 books or so while I was recovering at home. I had a lot of time on my hands, and on account of the severity of the surgery and some complications, I was virtually incapable of doing anything else. I was an extremely captive audience and my standards were…well, low.

The first book stands alone. It is compelling, thrilling, and refreshingly counter-stereotypic. It ends on a cliff hanger, as many excellent books do. I highly recommend the first book. The second book takes a turn for the worse in two ways. First, the story becomes increasingly unbelievable (and a little fast and loose with the holes in the plot…). Second, it becomes significantly less gender-fair. By the end, I was pushing myself to finish. I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty weird about abandoning a book before the bitter end.

We’re giving the first book five pinwheels:

We’re giving the second only two:

Getting Reel is a series in which we review movies and television. Book Review is a series where we review one or several books, often pertaining to a theme or holiday. This week we combined them both! Want something in particular reviewed as part of either series or in general? Request a Review or leave a comment on our Facebook.

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