Tris Prior (Shailene Woodley) lives in a post-war future in the semi-ruined city of Chicago. Fenced in against the devastated outside world in battered but still habitable wind-generator equipped skyscrapers, the El trains still run and society still functions thanks to "factions." We have the Candor faction, famed for popping off without self-censoring, and Amity faction, the earnest workers and land-loving farmers.
The Erudite, let by imperious Kate Winslet, are the scientific, smart class, and Dauntless is the reckless "soldier" faction of young fighters who dive off the El rather than waiting for it to stop.
And then there is Abnegation, which, if you look it up, means "self-denial." They are the self-sacrificing public servants.
Tris, or Beatrice, as her parents (Tony Goldwyn, Ashley Judd) know her, grew up in that class -- redistributing food, governing by consensus, liberal. It's an easy fit. Abnegations may "reject vanity" and wear drab clothes in shades of gray, but that doesn't mean a girl can't have makeup, lip gloss and highlights, never a hair out of place.
When teens hit a certain age, they go through The Test and are told where their strengths lie. And like a college kid declaring a major, there is a Choosing Ceremony where you cut your hand and, with a drop of blood, declare your faction -- for life.
Tris is confused; she's empathetic but fearless, smart but earthy. Her test doesn't take. The tester (Maggie Q) tells her she's Divergent, and that the other factions fear Divergents. So Tris has a secret she keeps as she declares Dauntless and undertakes Darwinian training with the leather-jacketed jocks, learning to fight with guns, knives and her fists, learning to conquer her fears.
Woodley is a wonderful, transparent actress who lets us see her thoughts, especially when it comes to the hunky stand-offish Dauntless lad (Theo James) who trains her. No, she doesn't have any memorable lines. And yes, she seems too dainty and fragile to be up to this soldiering thing. Especially when you compare her to the raw-boned and gangly Jennifer Lawrence of "Hunger Games."
But Woodley makes Tris vulnerable and cunning as she is given drugs that play tricks on her mind to test her.
What novelist Roth was aiming for here was a parable about creating well-rounded, compassionate adults in a world where The System is literally inside your head. As science fiction, it's no heavier than Stephenie Meyer's "The Host," or "Ender's Game" or any of the other young adult fare in this genre -- a world we recognize, sliced up into stark metaphors of social strata.
But "Hunger Games" fans shouldn't feel superior in looking down on this sci-fi variation on a rebel teen theme. This latest franchise is not inferior. It's pretty much the same "Games," give or take a bow and arrow.
And by not diverging from that simple formula for a young adult sci-fi hit, the author and filmmakers reveal the shallowness of both series.