When the director and producers of the dystopian action-adventure film “Divergent” sought inspiration for the movie’s teenage heroine, they didn’t turn to Katniss Everdeen of “The Hunger Games” or “Twilight’s” Bella Swan, as might have been expected. The filmmakers instead recalled James Dean’s Jim Stark, the rebellious protagonist who defies his parents and his peers in 1955’s “Rebel Without a Cause.”
“He just doesn’t feel at home,” director Neil Burger said. “So he goes looking for something more.”
Such can be said of Beatrice “Tris” Prior, who struggles against the pressures of conformity in “Divergent,” based on the best-selling trilogy by first-time novelist Veronica Roth.
The tale, adapted for the screen by Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor, is set in a future version of Chicago — Burger filmed on location there — in which people are tested when they are young and subsequently divided into five factions based on their personalities and virtues.
“This is a sort of dream city,” said producer Douglas Wick of Lionsgate’s Summit Entertainment, the studios behind the box-office giants “Twilight” and “The Hunger Games” — films that reached heights that executives are optimistic “Divergent” can attain. “It is a city that saved the world from great chaos. It is a city that has great harmony and the factions worked — but that system is starting to fray, which is our story.”
At the heart of that story is Tris, played by rising star Shailene Woodley (“The Descendants,” “The Spectacular Now”). Tris is born into Abnegation, the faction that values selflessness, but her personality test reveals she is divergent, having an aptitude for multiple factions — something that is not allowed in the rigidly divided society. She hides her divergence and decides to join Dauntless, the faction based on bravery.
Her choice lands her among a group of tattooed warriors, including love interest Four (Theo James), and sees her leaping on and off trains, ziplining, shooting, knife-throwing and facing off against other kids as part of a brutal initiation into the faction. But as it becomes more difficult to hide her divergence, Tris realizes that the faction system is flawed.
“She starts out questioning where she fits into society, and then by the end of the movie, she’s questioning society itself,” Burger said.
It was a demanding role, and in casting, filmmakers sought someone who could hold her own in the company of more experienced cast members, including Kate Winslet and Ashley Judd, and embody the brave and at times reckless warrior as well as the ordinary, vulnerable girl. They found their heroine in Woodley, 22.
“She really is very, very self-sufficient and is her own kind of warrior in terms of she wanted to do her stunts herself,” producer Lucy Fisher said. “She has a huge amount of inner strength. . . . She’s very mature beyond her age, as is Tris.”
For Woodley, the draw was the story’s universal appeal, she said, and its parallels with the world we live in.
“It’s not just about young people figuring their way through life,” she said. “It’s about young people being in really adult situations, and they’re treated like adults, which is how adolescents are these days. Everybody’s incredibly smart, and there’s not a lot of movies that do that age range justice.”
That’s just what Roth was aiming for. And though she doesn’t necessarily consider Tris a role model — she can be impulsive and self-destructive — she is guiding her own story.
“Tris is a character with a lot of agency and a lot of power,” Roth said. “One of my rules for myself was Tris has to be somehow responsible for what happens to her, for better or for worse; no acts of God.”
A sequel titled “Insurgent,” based on the second installment in Roth’s series, is already in the works for March 2015 — evidence, Wick said, that the filmmakers have faith that “Divergent” will appeal to a wide audience.
“It’s just a really true, well-observed hero’s journey, and it happens to be a young woman, but above all, it’s a story about empowerment and facing your physical fears, your inner fears and taking your own measure,” Wick said. “Part of what sets it apart is someone really had something original and true to say. I think the audiences really smell the difference.”
At area theaters. Rated PG -13 for intense violence and action, thematic elements and some sensuality. 143 minutes.