Would ‘Divergent’ be getting such bad reviews if ‘The Hunger Games’ didn’t exist?

March 22, 2014

Shailene Woodley in “Divergent” (Jaap Buitendijk – © 2013 Summit Entertainment, LLC.)

“Divergent,” the YA dystopian film based on the hit book series, opens this weekend.  The reviews are in and generally speaking they’re … not great.

No surprise there: “Divergent” never really had a shot to stand on its own. No matter what, it was going to constantly be compared to “The Hunger Games,” its wildly successful predecessor. The success of “Hunger Games” set expectations sky high. But if this were an alternate world where the Suzanne Collins series didn’t exist, would “Divergent” have been given a much different reception?

The similarities between the two are numerous, as so many have pointed out. Both are young adult novels about a feisty female heroine who must battle against all odds when her dystopian society starts to fall apart. In “Hunger Games,” Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) heads to an arena to kill or be killed; in “Divergent,” Tris (Shailene Woodley) must fight to survive in a society that divides its citizens by faction based on character traits.

Most critics are disappointed by a dull plot and lack of cohesiveness, and many fall back on the fact that it seems like a pale imitation of other, better films (hmm, guess which one?). However, the reviews aren’t all terrible (The Post points out it’s better than the book it’s based on), and many say that the very talented Woodley is the movie’s highlight.

As of Friday, “Divergent” had a 39 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, while the first “Hunger Games” movie released in 2012 stood at 84 percent. “Divergent” is expected to make around $60 million this weekend, a great number though a far cry from the first “Hunger Games” and its $158 million opening weekend.

Still, with the exception of a few, pretty much every single review of “Divergent” mentions the “Hunger Games” — the comparisons are inescapable, and in so many ways.

Flat-out comparisons:

“Certainly you can do worse in this genre…But you can do better, courtesy of ‘The Hunger Games,’ to which ‘Divergent’ bears a more-than-passing resemblance.” (Chicago Tribune)

“It’s impossible to ignore the overwhelming sense that we’ve seen all this before, only with better execution, in this fall’s ‘The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.'” (Time)

“In fact, mass distraction is the whole point of ‘The Hunger Games,’ which — despite its excessive sadism — offers a far more convincing metaphorical universe than this mild knockoff.” (New York Daily News)

“‘Divergent’ is ‘Hunger Games’ light” (CTV News)

“‘Divergent’…is very much in ‘The Hunger Gamesvein: a smart, buff heroine defying the system, and maybe getting a little romance going while she’s at it.” (Philly Inquirer)

In a mean way:

“Hey, we gotta kill time between ‘Hunger Games’ installments somehow. Why not ‘Divergent’?” (Dallas Morning News)

“This film exists because of ‘Hunger Games’’ success.” (Sacramento Bee)

Comparing Woodley to Lawrence:

“She may not have the blazing, rock-star power of Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss in ‘The Hunger Games,’ but there’s a subtlety and a naturalism to her performance that make her very accessible and appealing.” (rogerebert.com)

“Unlike Jennifer Lawrence’s shrewdly resourceful and ever-watchful Katniss Everdeen in ‘The Hunger Games,’ Beatrice, soon to change her name to the more awesome-sounding Tris, isn’t as quick to inspire in ‘Divergent.'” (Toronto Star)

Weird back-handed compliments:

“On the other hand, the supporting cast backing Woodley up manages to be even more forgettable than the slaughtered kids in the first ‘Hunger Games’…” (TVWithoutPity.com)

Actual compliments:

“Woodley and [Theo] James have substantial chemistry, forging a bond that feels more believable than the competing love stories at the core of ‘The Hunger Games.'” (USA Today)

And to sum it all up, a headline:

“‘Divergent': The Humdrum Games” (Wall Street Journal)

Emily Yahr covers pop culture and entertainment for the Post. Follow her on Twitter @EmilyYahr.
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