Dark World and Anti-religiosity in 'Divergent' Dystopian Flick

The Movie, a.k.a. the next 'Hunger Games,’ has hit the big screen. But its dark message is different.

Amy Klein
Amy Klein
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Shailene Woodley, left, and Theo James in 'Divergent,' in an image released by Summit Entertainment.
Shailene Woodley, left, and Theo James in 'Divergent,' in an image released by Summit Entertainment. Credit: AP
Amy Klein
Amy Klein

Is the new dystopian flick “Divergent” anti-religious?

“Divergent,” a film based on Veronica Roth’s best-selling young-adult trilogy, topped the box office last weekend, guaranteeing it a franchise like “The Hunger Games.” Both series feature a reluctant 16-year-old girl tasked with saving her postapocalyptic society from evil totalitarians while she figures out her love life.

But the 2014 movie seems to have a very different message.

“Games” (for those who went to sleep after Harry Potter closed up shop) takes place in a future where America has been divided into 12 districts, and as punishment for their rebellion, 11 of them must send two children each to compete to death for the amusement of the rich capital. It’s a macabre commentary both on war – how the poorest fight for the richest – and on the price we pay for our current form of reality entertainment. (“Honey Boo Boo,” anyone?)

“Divergent” is also set in an alternate world (one whose origin is not made clear until the second book, “Insurgent”) where people are divided into factions by temperament; the idea is that all the world’s conflicts have been caused by human personality and its inclination toward evil.

Those who believe dishonesty caused conflicts join Candor. Those who fault ignorance join Erudite. Those who fault aggression join Amity. Leery about cowardice? Join Dauntless. Hate selfishness? Join Abnegation. Each faction lives in pursuit of the one quality its values.

The story opens with Tris getting ready for her aptitude test, which will determine her temperament and the faction she joins. Her mother is cutting her hair on her birthday, but she’s not supposed to look in her house’s one mirror or celebrate this day because the family is part of Abnegation, which eschews vanity and values modesty, selflessness and charity.

Sound familiar? Even though not all Abnegation people are religious, their austere way of life, drab uniforms, shunning of leisure activities and devotion to helping the factionless (those who fail initiation and become homeless) sound to me like a metaphor for religious people today. And when you consider that Abnegation also runs the government – the idea is that only selfless people can be entrusted with power – you really start thinking about theocracies and countries where the religious hold a lot of power. (Ahem.)

But something is rotten in the state of Abnegation. Its leader turns out to be a child abuser, and other factions begin to resent Abnegation; they suspect it of withholding luxuries from other factions in order to impose its values on them and call into question Abnegation’s absolute power. People call them “stiffs” and “self-righteous idiots.”

And there are other insults. “I’m sure you’re exactly what you seem: a faction of happy-go-lucky do-gooders without a selfish bone in their bodies,” says one disgruntled Candor. A revolution is at hand.

The Jewish connection

As someone who was raised religious but left the fold, many of the accusations against Abnegation ring true to me in real life. Sometimes a lifestyle of devotion was humorless, dutiful and unfun.

“The goal of my life isn’t just … to be happy,” Tris tells a member of Amity, whose devotion to peacefulness has that group singing songs and picking apples, the hippies of the world. “Wouldn’t it be easier if it was?” the Amity guy says. A religious lifestyle can also be annoying – people so afraid of gossip can’t have real intimacy, Tris learns, and they’re very judgmental to make sure everyone is in line.

In the real world – Israel can be seen as an example – secular people sometimes view the religious the way they’re castigated in “Divergent.” They suspect them of having ulterior motives and of imposing their will on nonbelievers.

It seems like a screed against the religious, or at least the religious in power – especially given that Abnegation holds secret knowledge that could change everything.

Even Tris leaves Abnegation. Her aptitude tests show her to be “divergent” – a dangerous term that means she can think like a number of different factions and is therefore a threat to the system . She feels she is too selfish for Abnegation and joins Dauntless, hell-raisers who prize fearlessness and bellicosity.

Perhaps metaphorically they represent atheists who view themselves as courageous, living life without the faith safety net. Dauntless people are forever jumping off moving trains without a net.

But when you leave your faction, you learn both the bad and the good about it – both Tris and I can attest to this.

“I have a theory that selflessness and bravery aren’t all that different. All your life you’re training to forget yourself, so when you’re in danger it becomes your first instinct,” her teacher tells her. They discover that Abnegation – although led by power-hungry people – really does want to share its earth-shattering secret and help others, especially Tris’ parents.

Perhaps “Divergent” isn’t so antireligious after all. It turns out the young author, Roth – who wrote the trilogy while still in college – comes from a secular family but became Christian on her own. “Thank you, God, for your Son and for blessing me beyond comprehension,” she begins her acknowledgments at the end of the book.

“It’s important to me not to send any kind of [religious] message – subtle or overt or anything. I don’t even want to do a moral preaching,” Roth told Elle magazine. “Religious questions are essential to our growth and development. Even if you question yourself and you come to a decision that you don’t believe in anything, I think those questions are important.”

That’s what “Divergent” wants us to do – if we’re in the habit of learning life lessons from young-adult franchises. Ask questions, accept nothing blindly, and refuse to be a fanatic who focuses only on one quality, one value, one way of life.

“I think we made a mistake,” Tris’ teacher says. “We’ve all started to put down the virtues of the other factions in the process of bolstering our own. I don’t want to do that. I want to be brave and selfless and smart and kind and honest.”

A lesson for us all.

Shailene Woodley takes a ride in 'Divergent.' Credit: AP / Summit Entertainment
Author Veronica Roth poses at the premiere of 'Divergent' in Los Angeles, March 18, 2014.Credit: AP

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