By Bryan Reesman
Veronica Roth's young adult sci-fi tale "Divergent" is the first of a trilogy and part of a multi-million selling book franchise that is now being turned into what could potentially become the next big Young Adult film franchise. Directed by Neil Burger ("Limitless"), the big budget production features Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Jai Courtney, Zoe Kravitz, Kate Winslet and many other familiar names. MSN got the chance to go on set in Chicago to check out the action.
For those who don't know, "Divergent" takes place in a future, post-apocalyptic Chicago where society has been split into five factions -- Abnegation (The Selfless), Erudite (The Intelligent), Dauntless (The Brave), Amity (The Peaceful) and Candor (The Honest) -- that help maintain a societal balance. When teenagers reach 16 years of age, they are tested and then allowed to choose to stay in the faction of their family, or choose a different faction they feel suited for that will also result in severing ties with their loved ones. When Beatrice Prior leaves her Abnegation family for the Dauntless, she renames herself Tris and takes a dark, often violent journey during her warrior training. She begins to fall for one of her trainers, a mysterious male by the name of Four, and becomes aware of a growing conspiracy among certain factions that threatens peace. An even bigger problem is that her rare aptitude test results did not find her suited to one faction and thus she has been labeled "divergent," a fact she has been asked not to reveal lest her life become endangered.
It seems that the YA formula includes an awkward teenage girl learning who she is while residing in a world that seeks to pigeonhole her and break her down. Add the inevitable cute boy, various real world dangers and a quest for truth and freedom, and you've got yourself a book! Okay, I'm teasing a bit.
"I think one of the most easy parallels to make is 'Hunger Games'," observes Amy C. Newbold, who plays Molly. "The difference I think with Dauntless [in 'Divergent'] is that all of the initiates have chosen this. In that way they feel that it's a characteristic that they are close to, this idea of bravery, and it's something that resonates with them. I feel like that's a little different than your name being pulled out of something and being thrown into this arena where you have to kill. We aren't asked to kill anyone, so it is brutal but it's chosen. It's more about the characteristic, the virtue of bravery than it is about the actual inflicting pain on others or pushing you to your breaking point."
An interesting aspect of Roth's writing style is how she gives just enough detail about character appearance and locations to give readers an idea of the picture she is painting, but then leaves them room to finish the canvas. Which made me all the more intrigued when I arrived in Chicago for a set visit this past May to check out the exteriors of the Abnegation houses, the interior of the Prior household, the "rooftop" where the Dauntless jump to and The Pit, i.e. the cavern where the Dauntless fraternize, plus viewing sketches of various sets.
Divergence from 'Divergent'
Naturally fans of "Divergent" are wondering how a compelling 500-page book is being distilled into a compelling two-hour movie without losing its magic.
"There are some things in the book that logic-wise wouldn't make sense in a theatrical way," notes Shailene Woodley, who plays Tris. "We had to switch the way we are presenting it because logically it just didn't line up."
Zoe Kravitz, who plays Christina, remarks that her character's romance with Will, played by Ben-Lloyd Hughes, needed a little fleshing out onscreen. "It's hard because even in the books there isn't that much [flirtation]," she explains. "All of a sudden they're a couple. So we're trying to find ways in scenes to add little flirtatious moments and chemistry. But we have great chemistry, so it's easy to do."
Theo James, who plays Four, reveals that they have kept Four's age unspecified. The idea is that his onscreen character is a few years older than his book counterpart. "I think for him to have the experience as a leader and as someone of high skill that he is -- the jump that he joined two years ago and now he's this legend -- it makes more sense that he's been there a bit longer, only a few more years," he says. "But it means that he's had more experience than these initiates who come in."
I intently watch the filming of a scene where Tris and Four chat at a party while he is in an inebriated state. The way in which he hints at his attraction to her in the book becomes more blatant onscreen when he overtly tells her she is beautiful. With less time to tell the tale, compromises have to made. "It has to be different," stresses Woodley. "There are some things about the book that I miss. I think their relationship in the book is slightly different. Obviously there's only a certain amount of scenes that we can play in this movie, and so we had to pick the most important ones. But it's good, don't worry."
Christian Madsen plays Al, the gentle giant whom Tris befriends and boosts his confidence and self esteem. In moments of weakness and peer pressure, he betrays her. The actor felt that an important scene showing Al being nice to Tris before turning on her was necessary as it had not been included in the script. "I told Neil there should be something, one more thing between Al and Tris just to give him some compassion, so when he turns on her it's a little bit more like the book," says Madsen. "So they rewrote the scene where I'm sitting talking with her, and it shows this nice side to him before he turns on her. It was awesome, so that's what I was looking forward to. I just shot that, so it's downhill from here."
Ben-Lloyd Hughes, who plays Will, reveals that while there is a Dauntless initiate death early in the book, that does not surface in the film. "What I love about that early on is it cuts the excitement of the whole thing and brings a dose of reality about how this is life-and-death and just got real," he says. "And I love that about the book. Although it is about young people and it's exciting, there's a real life-and-death element to it and high stakes. We don't have that at the beginning of the film, which I personally love. But they do have the stakes, which is the most important thing. They convey it in a different way, although they don't have someone literally dying."