Divergent, Directed by Neil Burger
Is human nature inherently flawed? Is resistance beautiful? At what cost should we be willing to obtain peace? These rather large questions and more are woven into the narrative of Divergent (2014). Divergent is based on the first installment of Veronica Roth’s bestselling young adult science fiction trilogy. In a post-war Chicago, the inhabitants have devised a political solution to maintain order and stability by dividing people into five factions: abnegation, erudite, amity, dauntless, and candor. Each is based on a virtue. There are also the factionless, much like the Dalits in the Hindu caste system, but their origins are not entirely clear from the film.
At a coming of age ceremony, children must decide which faction they will join. A personality test involving high tech gadgetry (not your standard Myers-Briggs), children are told which faction they match, but they can still choose otherwise. Children do not need to join the faction of their parents, but most do. In this society, it’s faction before blood, before family. But what if someone doesn’t fit into these five neat categories? Enter sixteen-year-old Beatrice Prior.
Beatrice is what they call “divergent”; that is, her test is inconclusive. At the choosing ceremony, her brother deserts his family by joining Erudite. Beatrice chooses Dauntless. A majority of Divergent is focused on her training. Initiates must show they have what it takes, and their rankings are posted on a scoreboard. Those below the red line are cast out of Dauntless. The whole thing smacks of The Hunger Games.
Without giving too much away, there is romance between Beatrice and Four, one of the Dauntless trainers. And together they learn about a plot between the leaders of Dauntless and Erudite to overthrow Abnegation, which currently rules the city. Jeanine (Kate Winslet), leader of the Erudite, is convinced that the Erudite, as the intelligent, should be the ones to run the show, rather than the selfless Abnegation.
Faction Before Blood
The mantra “faction before blood” says a lot about the society Beatrice is struggling to find her place in. In essence, this post-war city is attempting to impose a rationalized structure to human interaction. The philosopher Thomas Nagel coined the term, “the view from nowhere,” which tries to encapsulate the idea that humans are uniquely able to suspend their personal predilections and look at the world from a detached perspective. This objective perspective, paired with the subjective experience and personality of individuals, forms the divided human nature and the conflict between the two. Divergent is in essence a consideration of Nagel’s proposal, though Veronica Roth may never have heard of “the view from nowhere.”
The division into five factions is a clear objectification of human society that defies the subjective experience. Each person, not just “Divergents,” has all five of the virtues to varying degrees. The film gives a nod to this notion when children at the choosing ceremony can opt to join a faction not recommended by the personality test. There is something in us that rebels against being categorized through a cool, rational lens. This is why the audience is drawn into the story of Beatrice and the plight of Divergents that don’t fit into this artificial society–because we see ourself in Beatrice.
There is beauty in diversity, not because of its chaos, but because God’s triune nature is displayed in plurality. At the same time, diversity is not the source of the conflict. The Godhead’s unity within three persons can and should be reflected in diverse human society, but humanity’s fallenness stands in the way.
Human Nature is Flawed
Erudite leader Jeanine is determined to rectify human nature’s flaws by imposing a totalitarian order that keeps such flaws at bay. Jeanine is right. Human nature is flawed and is the cause of war. But a totalitarian regime is not the answer. The belief that any political system can possibly end conflict for perpetuity is a futile practice in utopianism. The answer must come from an actual change to human nature, which requires not a political solution, but a supernatural one.
Divergent ends with the balance between factions broken, as was inevitable. The film adaptations of Insurgent and Allegiant, the second and third books, are already slated for production through to 2016. They will tell the story of the factions and factionless going to war within and among themselves.
I have not read the books, but whatever ending Veronica Roth wrote for her trilogy, any hint of utopianism will be betray perhaps her most important message–human nature is flawed, but it cannot be eradicated. In one sense we yearn for a utopia where all are Divergent–no one is forced into a mold; we are allowed freedom to be who they want to be–but in another sense, we know that any utopia is artificial and ultimately totalitarian because human nature is crooked. And so the history of violence continues until One comes to bring an end to history, realigns human nature, and establishes true unity in diversity.