'Divergent,' 'The Giver,' and the Limits of the 'Hunger Games' Formula

Have we reached mass-market teen-dystopian film fatigue?
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If the look and feel of “Divergent” – a film adaptation of the 2011 blockbuster young adult novel – seems familiar, that’s because it is. An adolescent is singled out for her special talents, talents that ultimately pit her against an authoritarian society on the verge of upheaval in what turns out to be a grim dystopian future. We've seen those films before.

Call it the “Hunger Games” effect. “Divergent” author Veronica Roth was able to find success on the bookshelves after the “Hunger Games” trilogy (the first of which came out in 2008) opened up the world of young adult fiction to new audiences and forged a path to the big screen. “The Hunger Games” additionally established the film aesthetic “Divergent” imitates, a style emulated also by older YA stories that have recently earned big-budget Hollywood treatments, such as last year’s “Ender’s Game,” an adaptation of Orson Scott Card’s 1985 YA novel. Judging by the trailer released this week, “The Giver” – based on the Lois Lowry children’s chapter book that has been a staple on middle-school reading lists for two decades – will be more of the same.

It figures that combining three of the most surefire ways to make box-office riches these days – franchises, action films and young fan bases – would pay out in spades, with the most recent "Hunger Games" installment, "Catching Fire," making nearly $900 million worldwide. Like any Hollywood success story, it has inspired a wave of wannabes, but to diminishing returns. "Ender's Game" has only made a little more than a 10th of the bounty brought in by "Catching Fire."

To be fair, Card’s and Lowry’s stories predate Katniss Everdeen, and it’s encouraging that it was a female-led series that paved the way to the screen for Card's and Lowry's young male heroes. However, in realizing there was an appetite for films like “The Hunger Games,” Hollywood has made the mistake of thinking they all must repeat its formula to every detail. Expect to spend much time focusing on the protagonist's individual training – too much time in the case of “Ender’s Game” and “Divergent”; it's how these films attempt to replicate the intimate experience of reading a story set in the main character's head.

Things will pick up once the stakes of the hero's actions – usually some sort of large-scale rebellion – are truly revealed, just in time to cut off for the sequel. (Two more films are expected to follow "Divergent," and "Ender's Game" has the potential for a movie series as well.) You usually also can count on an EDM-flavored soundtrack ruled by Top 40 artists and an established, Oscar-winning actor to show up to play the villain.

In the process, putting a book on-screen can make the source material's issues more apparent. The “Hunger Games” books said smart things – not just about a crummy social system, but about celebrity culture, economic inequality and war propaganda as well, which played impressively in theaters. While the “Divergent” film is entertaining – in no small part due to the performances of its star, Shailene Woodley, and her character’s love interest, played by Theo James – the problematic subtext of its origin material is even more pronounced. The plot’s anti-intellectual underpinnings – manifested by the chief bad guy, played by Kate Winslet, who leads a group of brainiacs to evil, Nazi-like ends – has spurred some critics to equate it to the Christian right’s crusade against science, a message that ultimately distracts from the film. While wearing a “Hunger Games”-like shell, “Divergent” is hollow and even troubling at its core.

Though we’ve only seen the trailer, “The Giver” may be the most worrisome example of this trend. It includes all the touch-points of “The Hunger Games” and its discontents: space-agey set pieces, scary jets, barren landscapes and Meryl Streep subbing in for Winslet's role as the icy evildoer.

Yet the book that inspired it includes limited references to elaborate technologies, and it was just as easy to imagine its world looking like a village (as many have), rather than Tomorrowland. Furthermore, "The Giver" could have differentiated itself from all the mass-market, teen-dystopian, special-effects schlock it follows by presenting a stripped-down tableau that matches the book’s minimalist language. As this week’s many lukewarm “Divergent” reviews have noted, the film has a baked-in fan base with its books that will show up in theaters regardless, and “The Giver” likely faces similar prospects.

It all begs the question: If Hollywood's not willing to take any chances in how it imagines the fictional worlds it presents (look to last year’s “Her” to see a particularly fresh take on the future), how much longer will it get away feeding “Hunger Games” lovers more fodder, without changing the way it tastes?

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