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Films
by Kathi Maio

GIRL POWER IN DYSTOPIA


THERE has never been a rigid demarcation between children's literature and adult fiction—especially in the field of science fiction and fantasy. Even before filmmakers had the technological toolkit to vividly depict the mythical elements of J. R. R. Tolkien's Middle-earth, The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy were captivating readers of all ages. However, over the last sixty years, educators, librarians, and publishers have successfully constructed their own literary middle ground to suit the needs, tastes and buying-power of the influential teen market. Bookstores, school and public libraries, and even online purveyors of literature like Amazon are happy to separate out "Teen & Young Adult Books" for readers.

That doesn't change the fact that much of this literature can appeal to consumers outside the age-range of, say, eleven to twenty. Publishers hoping for more than modest library sales count on that crossover appeal for additional adult readers.1   Studios and producers hoping to cash in on the recognizable brand and built-in audience for Young Adult (YA) bestsellers are also hoping that viewers of all ages will be attracted to their screen adaptations.

The Harry Potter series symbolizes the brass ring (enchanted Galleon?) for publishers and filmmakers alike. Since the phenomenal success of both Ms. Rowling's novels and the subsequent eight blockbuster films, everyone has been looking for the next YA craze to ride to the bank. Although male-centered series like the Percy Jackson books and film adaptations have done well, the public imagination has (somewhat surprisingly) been sparked just as often by books and films focusing on female heroes in recent years.

The Twilight movies, based on the very successful novels of Stephenie Meyer, were the first out. And they delighted Twihards and Twilighters around the world. Alas, as a mere mortal with no particular interest in dreamy vampires and werewolves, I was less impressed, and said as much in a 2010 review. In particular, I found Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) to be as limp and uninteresting a female protagonist as I could ever remember. Despite her modern casual togs, she is a retro young woman defined by traditional concepts of romantic love, marriage, and motherhood. The fact that she becomes a vampire did not, unfortunately, make her any more compelling to watch.

Casually following box-office returns, I've noticed that other romantically inclined occult YA novel adaptations like Beautiful Creatures (based on the first of the "Caster Chronicles" novels by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl) have failed to find a significant audience. Better, it seemed to me, that a more active virgin huntress caught fire with the public. I am referring, of course, to pop culture phenom Katniss Everdeen of Suzanne Collins's bestselling Hunger Games trilogy, and of the first two Hollywood films in a series of four.

Pulling a character like Katniss off is more difficult than you might think. Tough chicks in action films tend to be catsuited adult women, sexualized and supernatural. Kate Beckinsale in the Underworld movies is just one example from scores of other female superheroes in "original" films and comic book and video game adaptations. But Ms. Everdeen is simply human—an impoverished teen from the Appalachianish District 12 in a dystopic North American country called Panem. And in keeping with her YA roots, Katniss needed to play younger and more vulnerable than most previous female action heroes.

Like most teen novels, Hunger Games is a "coming of age" story. It's just that in Ms. Everdeen's case, her journey to adulthood plays out in a kill-or-be-killed gladiator contest, a literal "Survivor" reality show that live streams for the entertainment of the privileged one percent in the Capitol. (Teen reader issues like getting dissed by the popular girls in the school cafeteria—or on Facebook—pale in comparison.)

Although the casting of a relative unknown like Jennifer Lawrence in the crucial role of Katniss was a bit controversial, in the hindsight of her Oscar win and status as hottest young thing in Hollywood, the choice seems brilliant. But it was a smart move not because Ms. Lawrence is a People Magazine fave, but because she has serious acting chops. (And this fact was already evident in Winter's Bone, the tale of another tough Ozarkian lass that released in 2010.)

Lawrence is able to give Katniss all the hard-scrabble strength of a girl who has been keeping her mother and young sister from starvation with her hunting skills for years. But she is also able to communicate the fear and horror of a young woman forced to hunt other young people or die violently herself. It would be so easy for a character like Katniss to become a garden variety kick-ass cartoon of an über-chick, but (guided by the work of director Gary Ross and co-writers Suzanne Collins and Billy Ray) Lawrence makes all the right moves for her Katniss to survive the Hunger Games and capture the imagination and sympathies of moviegoers for the novel cycle's entire film franchise.

The second movie, Catching Fire (2013), was even more successful—both artistically and in terms of the all-important box office. The story is more complex, and director Francis Lawrence did an even better job of integrating taut action and convincing special effects into a developing plot of the Quell Games and a nascent uprising of the oppressed district-dwellers of Panem.

While we wait for the two-part finale of the Hunger Games films to release, one inevitable thing has occurred. Both in terms of YA publishing and Hollywood moviemaking, big book and ticket sales of one cultural product all but ensure that suspiciously similar product lines will spew from the cultural pipeline in short order.

In the case of Suzanne Collins's best-selling series, in 2011, a young woman named Veronica Roth published her first novel, Divergent, which seemed specifically designed (right down to the circular and sometimes blazing motifs on the book cover art) to appeal to readers going through Katniss withdrawal. In both stories, a young girl is abruptly catapulted into adulthood—and possible romance—by becoming a warrior, and eventually, a revolutionary. Ms. Roth claims that she worked, periodically, on her novel from her frosh year at college on, and I have no reason to doubt her. Still, the comparison between her Divergent trilogy—the third volume of which just released earlier this year—and the Hunger Games trilogy is inevitable. Likewise a comparison of the movies from both book series is also unavoidable.

In both the case of the books and first movies, Divergent suffers in comparison to Hunger Games. But when judged alone, Divergent makes a strong case for the entertainment value of an empowered young female hero attempting to survive and resist in a dystopian society.

The story of Divergent centers on a young teen named Beatrice Prior who lives in a shattered walled city that was once Chicago. To foster a peaceful and efficient society, the city-state had, a century ago, divided itself into five factions that determine a member's personality, profession, and even dress. At sixteen, Beatrice faces an aptitude test (a kind of Myers-Briggs-on-Acid) to determine which faction she should join for life. Although born into the selfless, bureaucratic Abnegation sect, Beatrice never felt like she belonged there. The other factions are a cheery, hippie-like agricultural group called Amity, the painfully honest and opinionated Candors, the intellectual Erudite clan, and the militaristic police class termed Dauntless.

When Beatrice takes her test, she learns that she actually has aspects of three different factions in her makeup. Sadly, in a society as rigid as hers, a multi-faceted "Divergent" identity is enough to get you killed. So at the Choosing Ceremony she rejects her family identity—I suspect that as a teen girl, she was turned off by the gray nun-like uniform!—and instead joins the daring Dauntless faction. And why not? They are raucous, impulse-driven thrill-seekers who zip-line off abandoned skyscrapers, revel in weapons of all kinds, eat lots of meat (as opposed to that dull vegetarian Abnegation fare) and favor a punkish look that matches piercings and tattoos with form-fitting black wardrobe that looks like it came from lululemon. What sixteen-year-old wouldn't choose that faction?

But immediately after Beatrice chooses her clique (I mean, faction) and dubs herself Tris, she realizes how dangerous and often brutal the Dauntless lifestyle is—especially for recruits who must prove themselves as warriors or be expelled into the abject pariah status of the "factionless." Before long Tris also realizes that her secret status as a Divergent is especially dangerous in her new, violent subculture.

As with the Hunger Games movies, and any proposed adventure series, casting the hero was the most important aspect of the filmmaking process. And, once again, a smart choice was made. The role of Tris went to a young woman named Shailene Woodley, who recently wowed audiences with her film work in The Descendants and The Spectacular Now. Although certainly pretty, Woodley is no raging beauty. Instead, she exudes a realness that makes for a believable and relatable protagonist. Her Tris quickly blossoms from a shy, awkward misfit into a young woman who knows her own strength and is willing to face tremendous odds for a just cause.

Although Divergent doesn't opt for the almost obligatory torn-between-two-suitors subplot that can be found in both the Twilight and Hunger Games storylines, it does favor a single love interest for our warrior heroine. And quite a little dreamboat, too! British actor Theo James portrays the stereotypically brooding and mysterious Four, instructor at the Dauntless boot camp, with just the right level of smolder.

The plot of Divergent is serviceable enough. Besides its focus on the arduous testing of the recruits, it soon becomes clear that a dastardly power-grab by the Erudite, led by a subtly venomous Jeanine Matthews (Kate Winslet), against the modest public servants embodied by Tris's parents (Tony Goldwyn and Ashley Judd) is afoot. And the harder-to-manipulate Divergents like Tris are the only ones who can counter the plot.

Neil Burger (Limitless) keeps the movie rolling at a good pace through the first half. The extended and overlong second section, as the conspiracy unfurls, is more violent and muddled, but doesn't completely go off the rails. The screenplay by Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor does what it needs to do in terms of streamlining the supporting cast (the other recruits are little more than extras) and expanding the role of villainous lead (Kate Winslet, as befits her Hollywood status, gets many more lines than her novel counterpart).

A viewer who comes upon Divergent with no knowledge of The Hunger Games might well consider the movie a fresh and entertaining distaff variation on the traditional dystopian adventure story. But most movie-goers who would be attracted to this movie will be more than familiar with the fictional exploits of young Katniss Everdeen. For them, Divergent might be a copy-Katniss that fails to excite.

I liked young Tris—especially as embodied by Shailene Woodley. To see a young female hero this brave, strong and capable (but never seeming either superhuman or sex-kittenish) still seems like something extraordinary. So, even if I add a few demerits for lack of originality, I would still say that Divergent is worth watching.

I will likely be less forgiving to the next knock-off that comes to the cineplex, though. (And the success of the Hunger Games franchise and Divergent guarantees that even more hackneyed imitators will soon be hitting the screen.) As for TV? That spaceship has already launched. Recently, CW debuted a new adventure series about a group of teen felons shipped back, as test subjects, to an Earth abandoned after a nuclear holocaust ninety-seven years earlier. The series is called The 100 and it stars Eliza Taylor as the plucky young blond who tries to face every danger in her post-apocalyptic new world with bravery and intelligence. Like all CW shows, this one features a large assortment of very pretty (and quite interchangeable) young actors in a hackneyed high-concept series that utterly fails to entertain. The TV show is related to a book series by Kass Morgan.

Looking at the review snippets for the first book online, I couldn't help but laugh out loud. "A mash-up of The Lord of the Flies, Across the Universe, and The Hunger Games," Booklist is quoted as saying. "A mash-up of the hit TV reality show Survivor and traditional science fiction," said School Library Journal. "Likely to be a hit with readers who want their Pretty Little Liars mixed with Lord of the Flies," The Bulletin opined. And that's the problem. What people really want isn't a mash-up of anything. It is an original story with new and engaging characters.

I say that hoping to convince myself, of course. What I actually fear is that viewers are indeed drawn to the mind-numbingly familiar. Small, independent movies that explore unfamiliar stories and characters usually disappear without notice, as is the case of a little-seen movie from last autumn called How I Live Now. It, too, is based on a popular YA novel (by Meg Rosoff) and focuses on a young American woman coming of age during a time of conflict. In other ways, it has little in common with the heroic tales of Katniss and Tris.

Daisy (the fierce and gifted Saoirse Ronan) is a girl consumed with the anxiety and anger that constantly chatter in her head. Shipped off to Britain to visit an unfamiliar aunt just as society seems to be spiraling toward global conflict, Daisy is, at first, withdrawn and resentful—seemingly her normal state. Then, she begins to blossom in the pastoral beauty of the English countryside. Life relaxes into an idyll, with a budding romance with her eldest cousin, Eddie (George MacKay), and golden days of picnicking near a swimming hole—with no adult supervision! (Auntie is off trying to save the world in Geneva.) Then the terror of a world war descends on her paradise.

Unlike Katniss and Tris, Daisy isn't selfless and valiant from the start. She doesn't want to fight a dysfunctional future world like a true warrior. She doesn't want to fight anyone. She just wants to survive and get back to the boy she loves, her family, and her true home. Her story is less epic, but no less harrowing to watch. Don't look for a four-part movie series. (Nor related action figures, T-shirts and lunch boxes.) How I Live Now is a simpler tale about a young girl who finds her own power in a hostile world. In the battle-scarred world that is the movie business, this film deserves to find a place.

__________________________________
1 Perhaps it's noteworthy that where crossover books such as Salinger's Catcher in the Rye once were published as adult books with an understanding that kids would "read up," nowadays, such books are more likely to be published as YA fiction with the expectation that adults will "read down."—ed.

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