This review is going to be fun.
The Twilight saga taught teenage girls to close their legs and wait for marriage. Now, Divergent is the new teen action movie with a coded conservative message, one more politically of-the-moment — that Christians are a punished minority that must fight for its freedom against big, liberal government.
The film has been universally panned, but Christians don’t care if films are embarrassingly bad (ahem, God’s Not Dead and Fireproof) so long as they get the point across. Christian movies tend to revolve around football. This one revolves around an emerging motif: a girl with a bow-and-arrow takes on the system. Sound familiar?
Doe-eyed Tris (Shailene Woodley) lives in a dystopia, of course — the very future that Obama-hating churchgoers think is rapidly approaching. She’s labeled “divergent” which means she cannot be classified into any of the government-enforced castes in which this beige-wearing society is organized. She is forced to flee and find other social outcasts.
The film is structured, as these films usually are, as an obstacle course — a series of challenges Tris must face before reaching a final showdown. There’s a sexy stud named Four (Theo James, my god) with whom she locks lips — but not legs — along the way.
Anti-state teen lit is nothing new. Alan Moore’s V For Vendetta, Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun, Orwell’s 1984, and Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (and, to some extent, Harry Potter) were all on my high school reading list when I was feeling angsty and subversive. But the Divergent franchise is something else. Instead of taking aim at fascism, the Vietnam war, racists, and government surveillance, this film (and the book it’s based on) takes aim at educated liberals and suggests the meek, humble servants of the world (an eye-rolling parallel for Christians) are being manipulated and controlled by “the media” and the secular, educated elite.
Those books I read in high school are powerful and dangerous and everyone should read them. All of them have been banned by some censoring institution at some point. The Hunger Games franchise, for all its pop-culture pomp, is the youth resistance fiction of today. Divergent is not — it’s a weakly disguised God’s Not Dead, a Left Behind without the Bible, a movie they’ll screen at megachurch youth group meetings.
Divergent is based on the novel of the same name by Veronica Roth, a self-professed Christian. In his brilliant review, David Edelstein notes the book’s treatment of intellectuals. One of the classes people are grouped into, “Erudite,” the intellectual arm of society, is depicted as control-hungry villains pitted against the “Abnegation” class — humble servants of society. Edelstein writes: “The novelist, Veronica Roth, reserves her loathing for the ‘Erudites’, who spend their days in intellectual pursuit. She appears to be one in a long line of religious conservatives (her first acknowledgment is to God, ‘for your Son’) who think there’s nothing more dangerous than intellectualism, which makes people apt to seize power and impose Maoist-like uniformity on entire populations — on pain of death.”
Call me a liberal elite, but I like my intellectualism, and I feel safer among smart people than conservatives. Divergent disguises its anti-intellectual colors just enough to be cool, and the effect is kind of embarrassing. Tris and Four are a little too cool to be believable recruitment tools, even for the Christian-rock-band populace who practice a “Jesus was a rebel” brand of faith (Divergent‘s audience). Tattoos have an out-of-place prominence: Four’s entire back is tattooed with tribalistic symbolism of the social classes and Tris has an eye-rolling Bible-girl tattoo of three birds on her collarbone representing the family members she leaves behind in her chosen, divergent life.
Like most college-educated liberals I know, I’m smart enough to see that a healthy amount of government distrust is good, because the only thing more frightening than a bunch of angry tea-partiers getting mad about same-sex marriage and forming citizen militias is the actual danger of totalitarianism. But the fact is, if we ever teeter in that direction, it won’t be with liberals in charge.
Christians have never been a punished minority — they just love claiming to be. The irony is that Christians are the ruling class of society and love state propaganda. They pass laws to make sure their beliefs are not challenged. They threaten and attack naysayers with hate and legislation. They hate colleges and other secular institutions. They hate cities and consider them dystopias — places where, heaven forbid, the throwing-together of cultures may result in a more equalizing, democratic space. Tris is victorious at the end of the film when she escapes the state-controlled city to the free countryside beyond its walls. (In a gay liberal story, victory would be arriving in a city, not leaving one.)
If you’re a college-educated coastal elite, watch Divergent if you want to feel like a villain. It’s exhilarating. And Theo James is so hot.
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