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Why Divergent fails at everything it sets out to do

Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Divergent is that YA novel series and film franchise where everyone’s sorted into groups by personality. No, not Harry Potter. It’s a dystopia. No, not The Hunger Games. The less famous one. No, not The Maze Runner.

In both the books and the movies, Divergent borrows heavily, and poorly, from other YA franchises, and this is its Achilles' heel. It clearly does not understand the tropes it borrows, and this is why the Divergent films — the third of which is in theaters now — have never performed as well as studio executives expected them to, and why the books have been largely forgotten after their early robust sales. As much as it might have had the superficial trappings of the next big thing, it never laid the groundwork it needed to to become a bona fide phenomenon.

Divergent was supposed to be the next Hunger Games. It’s not.

When Divergent emerged on the pop culture scene, it was expected to be the next Hunger Games: a YA book-to-movie franchise that's set in a dystopian universe, features a butt-kicking female lead, and stars a promising, up-and-coming young actress.

Instead, Divergent became an also-ran. It’s certainly not an embarrassment to its studio on the level of Vampire Academy, but each new installment of the series has made less money than the one before, and now the Hollywood Reporter reports that the budget of the final movie will be slashed.

Perhaps more importantly, the Divergent franchise has nowhere near the cultural impact of its peers. No one is graffiti-ing quotes from Divergent around Ferguson, Missouri, as a political protest. No one is making millions by self-publishing their Divergent fanfic. No one hates Divergent as much as they hate Twilight, and no one loves it as much as they love The Hunger Games or Harry Potter.

Divergent fails because it doesn’t understand how to use the YA tropes it borrows

What makes Divergent such an anemic excuse for a pop culture phenomenon is that it borrows popular tropes from other YA franchises without understanding what makes them compelling. The Hunger Games became a runaway hit and is a dystopia, so Divergent is a dystopia. Harry Potter fans love talking about which Hogwarts house they’d belong to, so Divergent gives us the faction system. But Divergent fails to include the political commentary that gives a dystopia its power or the world building that gives personality sorting room to breathe.

A true dystopia exaggerates a trait in our own society, taking it to its worst possible extreme. If we don’t do something about this misogyny, we’ll become The Handmaid’s Tale; if we don’t do something about this communism, we’ll become 1984; if we don’t do something about this anti-intellectualism, we’ll become Fahrenheit 451. The Hunger Games, which contains some surprisingly sophisticated political commentary, includes among its targets income inequality, celebrity culture, and the glamorization of war.

Divergent takes place in a society where all citizens are sorted into five factions based on their dominant personality trait: The selfless are sent to Abnegation, the intellectual to Erudite, the kind to Amity, the honest to Candor, and the brave to Dauntless. Leaving aside the sheer laziness of naming two factions with adjectives and three with nouns, what trait could this faction setup possibly be mirroring in our own society? If we don’t do something about these BuzzFeed quizzes, Divergent warns us, we may find ourselves going down a dark path.

Of course, Divergent didn't invent personality sorting in YA: Harry Potter famously has the Hogwarts house system, and regardless of your feelings about the series, no one has ever claimed that Harry Potter is a failure because of it. On the contrary, fans are constantly sorting themselves and each other into Hogwarts houses; Tumblr is full of indignant posts about whether the world needs hybrid houses like Slytherclaw or Griffinpuff.

But unlike Divergent, sorting is not the single distinctive trait of the world of Harry Potter; it is one aspect of a carefully textured, well-developed world, and that allows Harry Potter to hand-wave the parts of the system that don't make sense. (It's so reductive! And are Slytherins evil or just misunderstood?) By making the faction system the sole defining attribute of its world building, Divergent puts pressure on the trope that it is not able to bear.

Divergent’s Tris is a poor copy of The Hunger Games’ Katniss

The world of Divergent is not designed to make any kind of meaningful comment on our own society. It’s designed for character study. And in theory, the protagonist’s journey from self-sacrificing Beatrice of Abnegation to badass, pleasingly selfish Dauntless Tris to serves-no-master-but-herself Divergent Tris could be compelling. The key word here is could. Instead, Tris is paper-thin — a flat, blank excuse for a Strong Female Character. She’s clearly modeled on The Hunger Games’ deliberately cold Katniss Everdeen, but that characterization is not earned.

There’s a telling moment early in the first book, on Tris’s first night at Dauntless headquarters, when she listens to one of her fellow Dauntless transfers cry himself to sleep. Tris knows she should want to comfort him, but instead she’s filled with loathing and disgust: "Someone who looks so strong shouldn't act so weak. Why can't he just keep his crying quiet like the rest of us?" It’s strikingly similar to Katniss Everdeen’s first night in the Hunger Games arena, which she spends filled with disgust for a fellow tribute who lights a fire. "You might as well be waving a flag and shouting, ‘Come and get me!’" Katniss fumes. Before long, she’s contemplating murder: "Obviously this person’s a hazard. Stupid people are dangerous. And this one probably doesn’t have much in the way of weapons, while I’ve got this excellent knife."

So what makes Katniss’s murderous rage work while Tris’s silent hatred falls flat? The Hunger Games grounds Katniss’s disgust in everything we know about her: She has a well-established survival instinct, honed through years of subsistence living. We hear her repeated admonitions to herself that emotion is a weakness she cannot afford, and we recognize that her life is literally on the line. All this groundwork makes Katniss’s anger understandable, even endearing.

Divergent is a character study about a blank and boring character

In contrast, Tris’s anger depends on one thing: the fact that she resents being raised to put others' needs before her own. Now that she has left Abnegation for Dauntless, she is ready to be brave and selfish and put herself first. And her needs, apparently, include indulging a deep and profound hatred for weakness.

Tris’s hatred for weakness is what animates her through the first book, convincing her that it is a good idea to demonstrate her own strength by repeatedly jumping onto and off of high-speed trains and trying to take down the corrupt government. It is her single distinctive character trait: She is not clever, she is not kind, she is not a survivor, she is not a hero, she is not manipulative, she is not a leader, she is not interesting. She just hates weakness.

That is not enough to build a compelling character out of — but it’s all Divergent has. And because Divergent is designed primarily as a vehicle for character study, the entire franchise feels empty.

Here's what we're left with: a dystopia that has no political statement to make; a flat world built around a single, flimsy plot device that can't support it; and a character study of a dull and unlikable one-note character. It's Harry Potter without the detailed world building, The Hunger Games without the social commentary or the charismatic lead character. Divergent didn't become The Hunger Games because, in the end, it doesn't understand what makes The Hunger Games compelling. It can only manage incoherent and superficial similarities.

Correction: An earlier version of this article said that there are four factions in the Divergent world. There are five.

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