'Divergent': Derivative Dystopia?

A good friend—who also happens to be a good writer—recently asked me to read the first chapter of the young adult fantasy novel she’s currently working on. In the opening scene, a boy gives a loaf of bread to a poor, hungry girl he finds behind his parents’ restaurant. Now, keep in mind that my friend hasn’t read The Hunger Games; those who have, however, will instantly recall the scene in which Peeta, the son of the town baker, gives a loaf of bread to starving Katniss behind his parents’ bakery. I had to break the news to my friend that, though I knew she wasn’t merely ripping off a scene from Suzanne Collins (and this friend has never previously written anything that made me think of another writer), other readers wouldn’t necessarily make that assumption. She scrapped the scene and wrote a new intro.

My takeaway lessons from this experience were: (1) it’s apparently really hard not to be derivative in relation to The Hunger Games (which, in part, may be because The Hunger Games series bears a lot of similarity to other works like Battle Royale—or so I’ve heard); (2) if you’re writing young adult fiction and deliberately avoiding reading recent works for fear of contagious influence, it’s still important to have friends—or editors!—who have read them.

These two points came to mind repeatedly as I read Veronica Roth’s young adult novel Divergent, just released in May 2011. Divergent is set in a future dystopian Chicago, which is divided into five factions, each dedicated to celebrating and cultivating a single character trait: Abnegation (ascetics), Amity (Hufflepuff), Candor (tell-it-like-it-is folks), Dauntless (punks and goths), and Erudite (Ravenclaw). (Is it all too plain that I would be Erudite if I point out that some of those words are nouns and some are adjectives, and it would be much nicer if they were parallel?) On a set day, all the sixteen-year-olds in all the factions must come together and put on the Sorting Hat—I’m sorry, I mean “take a test involving computerized simulations”—to determine the faction to which they will belong for the rest of their lives (transferring from your birth faction to another faction at age sixteen is somewhat frowned upon, but fairly common). Beatrice Prior, like Harry Potter, receives an inconclusive result on the test—this makes her . . . wait for it . . . divergent!—and thus has to choose her faction. Though from Abnegation, she selects Dauntless.

From this point on, Divergent abandons all similarity to Harry Potter and begins to look more like The Hunger Games. Beatrice (now renamed “Tris”), along with other Dauntless initiates, must prove that she belongs: only the top ten initiates will be received as members. They must show their mettle through beating each other in brutal physical combat and through overcoming their fears with the aid of more computerized simulations. Like The Hunger Games’s Katniss, Tris is smaller than her competition and must find strategies to compensate.  Luckily—and quite unethically, I might add—she has some help from one of the Dauntless members responsible for training initiates, the mysterious eighteen-year-old named Four, who quickly becomes a romantic interest. Unsurprisingly, Tris also begins to discover that there are bigger threats and larger issues than her acceptance into the faction.

Divergent is the first book of a planned series. Like The Hunger Games series, it is narrated in first-person present tense, a device that began to show its wear even in Suzanne Collins’s writing. The prose in Divergent is fully functional, with none of the awkward flights of overworked metaphor that often characterize first novels (and Roth is only 22, so this is indeed an accomplishment). Roth shows promise: her style is always in service of the plot. In fact, if she has a cardinal flaw, it’s that the preconceived plot seems to drive everything, regardless of the internal plausibility of a character’s behavior.

This becomes particularly noticeable in the last third of the novel, when the action starts to pick up its pace.  Towards the end of the novel, our young lovers undergo a challenge more than slightly reminiscent of Peeta’s character arc in Mockingjay (and I’ll leave that fairly vague, in order to avoid spoiling either series). In The Hunger Games series, what happens to Peeta is devastating, since (a) Peeta is a saint; and (b) we’ve have two previous books in which to know and love his character.  Four, however, is less endearing, and his relationship to Tris is somewhat disturbing; the same plot points feel hollow, rushed, and obligatory without the emotional investment earned by Collins’s characters. Moreover, in Divergent, character deaths tend to feel both wholly expected and wholly unnecessary. They’re just marks ticked off according to the needs of the plot (which one could say is also true of The Hunger Games, but that is sort of a necessary function of the twenty-four-people-fight-to-the-death plot construction).

A perhaps less predictable aspect of Divergent occurs on the Acknowledgments page at the end of the book, where the first sentence reads, “Thank you, God, for your Son and for blessing me beyond comprehension.” Yes, Veronica Roth is one of us: on her blog, she describes herself as “a graduate of Northwestern University, a Chicago-suburb resident, a Christian, and A Tall Person, among other things.” If Divergent is imitative, at least it’s not imitative in the “I’m going to write a Christianized version of The Hunger Games” sort of way. The novel is published by an imprint of HarperCollins (full disclosure: my husband is employed by a different division of HarperCollins), not by a “Christian” publisher. Only a couple of explicit references to religion occur within Divergent: in one, Tris’s family gives thanks to God at the table, though she mentions that “not every Abnegation family is religious.” In another, Tris sees that Four has painted the words “Fear God Alone” on the walls of his room. Beyond that, there are few overt hints that Divergent’s author is a Christian. I get the feeling, however, that it might become more apparent in later books, since at the end of Divergent, Tris and Four go into hiding accompanied, for no apparent reason, by Four’s abusive father and Tris’s archenemy, a boy who participated in a mild sexual assault against her. It’s looking like a forgiveness setup is to come, and one that, as a reader, I’m not entirely comfortable with. I ardently hope that, in future books, Roth doesn’t turn the to-be-forgiven archenemy into part of a love triangle.

If anything, Roth’s Christian author status probably shows up most in her devotion to the gritty. There’s something of “proving I’m one of the cool kids, too” in the way that young Christian writers published by mainstream presses go about writing violence, in particular (for this trend, my husband blames the adulation of Flannery O’Connor by Christian writers who lack her skill or humor). In comparison to The Hunger Games, in which the actual depiction of violence is very restrained, Divergent is quite visceral.

Many of us here at Christ and Pop Culture have spent time criticizing Christian products that simply aim to baptize a popular secular trend. It’s heartening to see that Divergent doesn’t follow this pattern. Yet it is, if not evangelical-subculture-derivative, still derivative—and, for this, I’m more likely to hold the editor(s) to blame, since I consider it entirely possible that, like my friend, Veronica Roth had no intention of borrowing plot elements from Harry Potter or The Hunger Games series.

There’s also a bigger question here, the question of how desirable—or even achievable—the elusive quality of originality is for any writer, Christian or not. That’s a question that requires a more in-depth answer than I can give here, but here’s the short version: I don’t believe that Christians should embrace a Romantic model of artistic creativity, seeing the writer as a grand figure solely responsible for bringing his or her work into being. As the poet Richard Wilbur writes in “Lying,” “In the strict sense, of course / We invent nothing, merely bearing witness / To what each morning brings again to light.” I sometimes fear that, in reaction to the copycat works that have dominated evangelical subculture, newly liberated Christian artists will rush to the opposite extreme, making individual creativity into an idol. It’s simply not possible to create a wholly original work of art; nor does creativity happen in a vacuum. To the extent that a writer does possess a unique stamp, it is in part due to the community of influences that surround her.  These include the writers she has read, those who have shaped her style, whether she is aware of it or not. It also includes the people who read her manuscript, who have the responsibility to let her know if her work is too similar to others. Of course, both Hollywood and the publishing industry are all too eager to find the perfect formula that will create a failsafe bestseller, and so this responsibility falls by the wayside in favor of other interests. And this is a shame, because it impedes the development of young writers like Veronica Roth. But at least that problem is not unique to Christian culture.

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  • Jeff Hewgley

    There are some who would say that it is impossible for anyone to create something new – that all creative efforts are derivatives of our collective knowledge. This goes not only for writing but all creative efforts. God is the only original Creator :)


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