Is ‘Divergent’ more than a ‘Hunger Games’ clone?

BY LEAH PICKETT AND NICO LANG

Nico:

Greetings, initiates! Welcome to this week’s LitChat, a weekly GChat on all that’s trending in literature. As forever and always, I’m your co-host, Nico Lang, the Opinion Editor at The Daily Dot.

Leah:

And I am Leah Pickett, Nico’s lit-nerd other half and contributor here at the Daily Dot.

Today we discuss Divergent, the first novel in a trilogy written by Veronica Roth that now is enjoying the big screen treatment in a theater near you.

Nico:

It’s relevant that you lead with that only because I felt like, reading Divergent, one of its strengths and weaknesses is that it was clearly designed to be a movie. Like The Da Vinci Code, the writing feels so cinematic that it’s almost like a storyboard of events. Unlike Dan Brown, though, Roth has a keen eye for details, down to the look of Lake Michigan in a post-apocalyptic world.

I just think that the book feels so calculated toward the Hunger Games market. Are young girls interested in nothing else these days than killing their peers and toppling governments?

Leah:

Ah, yes. The too obvious parallels to The Hunger Games—a crumbling, dystopian future that is creeping under totalitarian rule, teenagers beating each other to a bloody pulp, et. al. is my main issue with the book. They have the same target audience, the same focus on high-stakes action sequence to drive the story, and very similar heroines too, even down to the names (Katniss and Tris? Come on, now).

But overall, I agree with you about Roth getting the cinematic quality of her writing to work for her. Hey, if I published a New York Times bestselling book at the age of 22, I would be more than happy to reap the benefits too. But honestly, I enjoyed the fast-paced flow of the book on its own, regardless of whether the story would eventually jump from page to screen. Her brisk prose is what hooked me in, in addition to her imaginative descriptions and the impressive internal dialogue of her main character. I was surprised that I liked Divergent as much as I did, actually. I couldn’t put it down.

Nico:

Veronica Roth has an immensely addictive writing style, and I thought her prose was a nice palliative for Suzanne Collins’ overly breathy inner monologues. One of the things I’ve loved about Katniss in the films is that they cut out the “Dear Diary” aspects of the Hunger Games, and Roth was smart to do the same here. Her writing is clear, crisp and economical, written with a bare bones grace that compliments the narrative well. For a book marketed to teens, Divergent is surprisingly spare.

But I think that Roth has a lot of work to do when it comes to world building. The universe that Divergent takes place in feels very sketchily defined, and I didn’t feel at home in it the way I did Collins’ District 12. Roth relies on a lot of really, really on-the-nose plot points to drive her narrative, especially giving the factions labels like Abegnation and Candor. If it bothered you that the lead’s name was Tris, hearing the Candor described as dressing in black and white drove me to constant distraction.

In the future, no one knows what subtlety is.

Leah:

I agree somewhat. While I had a hard time believing that only a handful of people would be “divergent,” I see the point that Roth is trying to make albeit in broad strokes. Brainwashing is a legitimate fear, and novels that obviously had a strong influence on Roth (Brave New World, 1984, and yes, The Hunger Games) play into that. It’s hard to believe that a city as variant as Chicago, with cultural attitudes and lifestyles that often shift radically from block to block, what become a society of five factions. At times, the premise stretches credibility, more so than the 12 districts of The Hunger Games, in my opinion. However, in a post-apocalyptic world, ruled by fear and the desperation that comes from limited options, anything is possible—whether it be blackmail or a readiness to bend to any sort of authority that promises peace.

Nico:

I’m with you, to an extent, but I wonder how this world could have ever developed. I know people do crazy things in a time of unrest (it got Bush elected a second time), but the premise comes off as so far-fetched. Think of all the people you’ve ever met in your entire life, the variety of types and personalities. How could you ever fit them into five distinct categories? The Myers-Briggs test gets criticized for suggesting there are only 16 types of people, and here, the options are even more constricting. For me, it’s not just that a small handful of people are Divergent. It’s that everyone isn’t Divergent.

One of the things I love so much about 1984 is how meticulous Orwell is in detailing how this universe came to be. Something about his society not only feels natural but inevitable. Here, it often felt like not the way society might be 100 years from now but how the future looks if you read a lot of YA novels.

Leah:

I like the names of the factions, personally; they are straightforward enough that they don’t involve an excess of exposition on Roth’s part. I also think that the kind of rich detailing of how a futuristic totalitarian society came to be was more necessary for pioneering novels of the form, like 1984, before the dystopian genre specific to YA literature became a “thing.” I like how much of Divergent‘s world remains ambiguous—we don’t know what lies outside of Chicago, for example—and the pull of the unknown is in step with Tris’ journey, to figure out why and how this world that she was born into came to be.

Full disclosure: I have not read the second and third books of Roth’s trilogy, nor have I had the chance to watch the film, but the first book has certainly lured me in to doing so.

Nico:

I would absolutely be interested to read the second and third books. I realize it sounds like I must have hated the book, but I quite liked it. I feel like Four, being hard on Divergent simply because I really care about these characters and feel invested in what happens to them. Part of the agony and ecstasy of reading the first chapter in a trilogy is that you’re just getting a fraction of the story. Veronica Roth could have this world meticulously detailed by Book Three; I’m not sure. I just feel like her blueprint for the house she’s building is a bit ill-defined, like the layout of that house in The Shining. It’s a bunch of halls leading nowhere.

But that may change. Divergent is all set up for what’s to come, so much so that when we really start getting to the larger plot, the shadowy totalitarian underbelly, the book ends. But where I think it succeeds is in establishing character and theme, the existential crisis of being a 16-year-old girl in any society.

Leah:

Yes! What I perceive as the central theme of Divergent, the painful realization that becoming one’s own person means leaving one’s family beyond, whether that be physically, emotionally, or ideologically, is perhaps one of the main reasons the series has been such a success. My minor qualms about the book, overt similarities to The Hunger Games and repetition of certain phrases (“tasted bile” as a reaction popped up a few dozen times too much) are just that: nitpicks.

As a whole, Roth is adept at creating suspense and captivating readers, as evidenced by the Divergent series’ status as Harper Collins’ best-selling e-books of all time up until this point. So, as much as I was ready to hate this book after reading The Fault in Our Stars and having an axe to grind against the YA literature “genre” as a whole (don’t even get me started on why this shouldn’t be a “genre” in the first place, just as books written by women aren’t a genre either, ahem), I really enjoyed it. Nothing extraordinary or groundbreaking to be found here, but a fun ride nonetheless.

Nico:

Personally, I’m fine with whatever gets the kids reading again. I think Divergent is great for exactly what it is: Intro to Dystopia. With the flurry of interest in science fiction amongst teenage girls, I would love to see them pick up some Ray Bradbury or Arthur C. Clarke. Urusula Le Guin is prime for a comeback, although I highly doubt that Hollywood will get around to putting Shailene Woodley in The Lathe of Heaven anytime soon. I just hope that the industry takes the right message from this. Veronica Roth so often eschews the breathless romance angle, telling a more difficult story of women trying to make their way in the world, figuring themselves while also just surviving. I want to see more of that.

Leah:

Right? Four and Peeta are great and all, but Katniss and Tris have worlds to save. No time for shenanigans.

Nico:

Speaking of shenanigans, Leah and I are going to be crushing Donna Tartt’s 700-page-spanning The Goldfinch for next week, which recently won the Pulitzer prize. A Secret History is one of my favorite books, so I’m excited to see what Tartt has up her sleeve next.

Leah:

I too am excited for this one! We hope that you’ll join us for the many thoughts and complicated feelings that will let go, like a goldfinch in flight. (Spoiler alert: This book is not a story about birds who fall in love, if that was the impression you got.)

Nico:

As long as it’s not about two cancer birds who have a twee romance and go to the Netherlands before one of them bites it, I’m cool.

Leah:

There you go, invoking The Fault in Our Stars again in my presence. UGH. I will have my revenge.

Nico:

You will just have to wait until next time. Stay classy, Internet.

Photo via MingleMediaTVNetwork/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)