Author Veronica Roth was still in college when she sold the story of a dystopian Chicago and a girl finding her place in a world that tried to tell her who she was. Roth penned a trilogy that wove together civil war, heartbreak, and questions of identity into the wildly popular Divergent series.
Divergent has a massive fanbase and an ongoing three-movie adaptation starring Shailene Woodley as hero Beatrice "Tris" Prior. The series has sold more than 10 million copies as of January 1, 2014 and the first movie made almost $300 million worldwide at the box office. The second of these films, Insurgent, came out in theaters on Friday, March 20.
Here's a primer to the series for those who haven't had time to read it just yet.
What is Insurgent?
Insurgent is a book written by Veronica Roth. The movie based on the book is directed by Robert Schwentke.
It's the second installment in the young-adult, sci-fi dystopian Divergent trilogy, which is made up of Divergent, Insurgent, and Allegiant. The first two books have been adapted into films, while the third will see its cinematic version hit theaters in 2017. The trilogy was Roth's first major work as an author, and Divergent was her debut novel. Roth also released a collection of short stories from the perspective of a secondary character titled Four: A Divergent Collection.
All three books take place in a futuristic version of Chicago in the aftermath of an unspecified cataclysm.
What is the Divergent series about?
We can summarize this in two sentences:
Divergent is a series about a society divided among assigned factions and and a girl who doesn't fit into any of them. The moral force of the books lies in the constant reminder that you should always, under all circumstances, make decisions for yourself, rather than letting society dictate these decisions to you.
What are the factions?
The five factions are based on personality, virtue, and strength. Each group possesses certain qualities they mutually value and excel at. The factions are called Abnegation (selfless), Erudite (intellectual), Dauntless (brave), Candor (honest), and Amity (peaceful).
Beatrice, the main character, was born into Abnegation, but she's far from selfless. Strong-willed and hard-headed, when she receives the results of her aptitude test, she learns that she is "divergent," meaning she doesn't fit into any one clan. Instead, Beatrice fits into three: Abnegation, Erudite, and Dauntless.
The world Beatrice lives in isn't an easy one. After receiving the results of the aptitude test, a divergent person can choose to stay in the faction they were born into or test into a more fitting faction. If they fail the test, though, they become "factionless" and are forced to live in poverty.
OK, OK. I know how this genre works. Who's the love interest?
In the first book, Tris leaves Abnegation in order to take the test to become Dauntless. The Dauntless instructor is an older, attractive boy called Four. (Beatrice gains her "Tris" name while engaged in these Dauntless initiation tests.)
Four is a troubled boy whose father abused him and who has unexpectedly found himself in the middle of a war among the factions. Throughout Tris's initiation, the two become closer and closer, revealing Four's character and his past.
What's the conflict in this series?
The world (or, actually, just Chicago) is run by the Erudite clan and its fearless leader, Jeanine. The Erudites want to ruin Abnegation by using a serum to basically brainwash those in Dauntless. Please take a hot second to note that these are the three clans that Tris tested into.
By the end of the first book, Tris has lost a family member, almost died, and is on her way to safety. In the books that follow, her collision course with Jeanine causes the conflict to grow.
Is this like The Hunger Games at all?
Divergent was released so soon (2010) after Suzanne Collins' immensely popular Hunger Games series (2008) that it's almost impossible not to compare the two series. Both series aimed to corner the young-adult market that had made Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series such a success.
The fact that Divergent and The Hunger Games both are set in futuristic dystopias only drives further comparisons. Yet the similarities extend beyond setting and genre, too. Both series feature stubborn, female teenage protagonists living in divided societies scarred by long civil wars.
Still, it's unfair to classify Divergent as a knock-off of The Hunger Games. Roth finished writing the books right around the time the first Hunger Games novel was released. She was simply fortunate enough to ride a wave Hunger Games helped build.
The real blame for the protagonists' similarities likely lies with Twilight. That series' weak, malleable protagonist, Bella, caused young-adult fiction readers to call out for a stronger, less vapid protagonist, who had goals beyond falling in love. Collins and Roth both responded to that challenge in ways readers enjoyed.
How popular is the series?
The first book in the series was published in May 2011, where it subsequently took the top spot on the New York Times children's best-seller list. It stayed there for 11 weeks.
Insurgent also debuted at no. 1. When the third book Allegiant was released in October of 2013, it set a first-day selling record for Harper Collins with 450,000 copies. Allegiant outsold the final book in the Hunger Games series Mockingjay, according to Inquisitr. As a book series, sales for Divergent and The Hunger Games are neck-and-neck, but as a movie, well the Divergent series hasn't been that great. Both reviews and box office pale in comparison to that of The Hunger Games movie series.
Is the series any good?
While Divergent sells well and has all of the makings of being a massive global hit, it has spent most of it's time stuck in the shadow of the immensely popular Hunger Games series. The two are simply too similar for Divergent to have been a huge stand-out hit, and the comparisons might have kept readers outside of the young adult age group from giving it a shot.
Where Roth trips herself up is in plot structure, and character relatability.
Unlike the Hunger Games' Katniss, Tris is often an immovable force. When terrible things happen to her family and friends, she accepts these tragedies with an uneasy grace that makes her difficult to relate to as a reader.
Part of what made The Hunger Games such a riveting and broadly appealing novel was that Katniss had one very obvious and possibly attainable goal: to protect her sister and survive. The goal of the Divergent series isn't so obvious. Tris's goals change constantly in a world where the goal is both survival and some kind of moral upheaval. The lack of a central, forceful narrative makes it easy for the books to lose momentum, and even easier for Roth to become enchanted by subplots that turn into plot twists but have very little impact on the story.
As in the movies, Roth's characters have an uncomfortable habit of announcing their intentions before they move. "Now isn’t the time for debates about ethics," Tris tells her father in the first book, in the middle of a conversation about killing someone for the greater good. It's a stance that pulls the reader out of the story and forces them to ask why, why isn't now the time for a debate about ethics? And it's those little mistakes by Roth to add mystery and suspense that completely break the world she has created.
Will the dystopian young adult fiction craze ever end?
As far as trends go, the run of teenage dystopias hasn't been all that long. It only seems that way because Hunger Games and Divergent have been running series at almost exactly the same time. We've spent about the same amount of time with dystopias at this point as we did with vampires and werewolves in the wake of Twilight. As such, the teen literature landscape is due for a change.
Two potential crazes are just now emerging in young adult fiction. There are a slew of John Green-esque books about quirky characters living in emotionally tumultuous lives. A Fault in Our Stars was such a beloved, high-selling, and gripping novel that it's no surprise that imitators are starting to pop up. The trend even has a name — "sick lit" — and it's populated by books like Cynthia Hand's The Last Time We Say Goodbye, Gayle Forman's I Was Here, and Michelle Falkoff's Playlist for the Dead.
Books like Lee Bross's Tangled Webs, Joe Schreiber's Con Academy, and Paula Stokes Liars, Inc., are part of the other trend poking up on the horizon, it seems like the next big young adult fiction may may come from an unexpected source: crime novels. Sure. Bring on the bold teenage cops, forced to choose between two incredibly mysterious and sexy robbers.
Should I see the Insurgent movie?
If you haven't read the books or seen the first movie, definitely not. The Rotten Tomatoes score for Insurgent is only at 33 percent. As my colleague Alex Abad-Santos wrote in his review:
It's as if the movie doesn't trust its talented ensemble cast to portray basic emotions or convey the characters' ambiguities....The movie's writers clearly don't trust the audience to remember these cribbed SAT words. Instead of letting an Erudite or Abnegation action speak for itself, those actions must also, like the characters' plans and feelings, be explained.
That said, audiences do seem to be enjoying the movie (giving it 71 percent on Rotten Tomatoes), so if you're already a Divergent superfan, there are worse ways you could spend your Saturday than with Shailene Woodley.