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The protagonist, Tris (Shailene Woodley), and her friend Christina (Zoë Kravitz) jump from a train running through post-apocalyptic Chicago in a scene from the film Divergent. (Image: © Summit Entertainment)

We Asked Four Teenagers to Explain "Divergent" to Old People

The first movie in the dystopian young adult book trilogy comes out this weekend. Get ready

smithsonian.com

If you haven’t noticed already, something big is happening this weekend – ask any teenager. Divergent, the first of three books in author Veronica Roth’s post-apocalyptic trilogy, hits the big screen today.

Following in the footsteps of Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games, Divergent is the latest in a slew of teen novels to get the Hollywood treatment. Like its predecessors, the books boast a rabid teen fan base, but there's considerable debate as to whether the movie version of the book can differentiate itself from the pack of futuristic teen fantasy stories—especially for novice audiences. (Slate has even conducted a textual analysis of the Divergent books that suggests it's just a lot of nodding and head shaking.)

Whether you plan to see the movie this weekend with your kids (or were dragged to a midnight showing last night) or are totally new to the books, you might be wondering what exactly the fuss is all about. To get to the bottom of the books' appeal, we went straight to the experts: we sat down with four seventh graders – Nick, Maddie, Nils, and Nicole – and they gave us a beginner’s guide to the world of Divergent. Warning: Spoilers below.

Explain Divergent to your parents in one sentence. Go.

Maddie: That’s impossible.
Nils: It has so much plot.

Ok, you each get one sentence in a paragraph. Go.

Maddie: In dystopian Chicago, there are five factions, and there’s a girl who has to choose.
Nils: She chooses Dauntless, and then has to go through training, and yeah.
Nicole: She almost fails training, but then gets the best score out of everyone.
Nick: Then everyone gets infected by a serum and almost ends up starting World War... like 17!

What does it mean to be "divergent"?

Nils: It basically means that you have more than one personality.
Maddie: It means that you’re a normal person with thoughts of your own.
Nick: To be divergent is to fit in to more than one faction.

So, there are these five factions based on character traits, all of which are thought to have contributed to this dystopian future. What are they?

Nick: So, there’s Candor, which is honesty. They always wear black and white.
Maddie: Because they thought that truth was black and white, obviously. Abnegation is selfless, and they wear grey. Then there’s Erudite – they’re the smart people, and they wear blue.
Nick: Amity is the happy faction, the hippie faction.
Nils: Then there’s Dauntless, and they’re brave.
Nicole: So, when they’re 16 [years old], they take an aptitude test that determines which faction is best for them.
Nick: The test is basically a simulation.
Nils: But, some people are special.

Is it cool or dangerous to be divergent?

Nick: The thing about divergence is you aren’t obviously out there as a divergent.
Nils: It’s dangerous because at some point the Erudite leader wants to kill all of the divergent. But, also it’s good because you can manipulate the simulations. There are pluses and minuses.
Maddie: You can manipulate the simulations and break out of them. That’s a sign of divergence because your mind doesn’t work the way the people want their minds to work. So, that’s dangerous.

Who is Tris?

Nils: She is the main character, and she starts out as Abnegation.
Nick: Any time before you’re 16, you aren’t in a faction. You live with your parents who may be of a faction that you might join into.
Nils: Yeah, so she grew up in the Abnegation faction with her parents. And then she transfers to Dauntless when she's 16.
Nils: She acts selfless, but she doesn’t really fit in. Like in her head she knows that she’s not really all that selfless.

Who’s the villain of Divergent?

All: Jeanine, the Erudite leader.
Nils: She’s plotting to overthrow the government.
Maddie: Because she doesn’t like the faction system, and she wants to be the leader of everybody. And she wants to put everyone under her mind control, so that they can be like brainless people. She pretty much calls for an overthrow of Abnegation, who control the government. Because she thinks that they’re not doing a good job.

So, who are the factionless?

Nils: The people who don’t fit in with a faction. They either choose not to be in a faction, or they fail the training that they go through.
Maddie: They are basically the homeless of today.

Is there anything else we need to know about?

Maddie: Umm, Four.

Who’s Four?

Nicole: He’s Tris’s instructor.
Nick: He’s a buff guy.
Maddie: In the first book, he’s really mysterious. No one knows anything about him.

So, you have this female main character who is an action hero in a post-apocalyptic world. This is starting to sound a lot like the Hunger Games. How is it different?

Nils: Besides the similarity of a futuristic dystopia, there’s not much similar after that. There really isn’t.
Maddie: Divergent is different because it’s sort of like a new idea that no one has ever [explored]. I’ve never read any other book that’s like it.

Unlike the Hunger Games, there’s no love triangle (at least in the first book) in Divergent.

Nicole: Well, there’s [still] a lot of romance in it.
Maddie: Everybody likes love triangles, but they get sort of boring.

Do you think Divergent was written with boys or girls specifically in mind?

Maddie: I think it was definitely aimed at girls.
Nick: It was definitely aimed at girls.
Nils: Yeah, but it turned out to be fine for both.
Maddie: Because there’s the whole war and fighting aspect of it.
Nick: The Dauntless faction is definitely…
Maddie:…as Nick would say, “bad ass”.

What do your teachers think of the book series?

Nick: My teacher, no matter what it was, would describe it as “tight."
Maddie: My English teacher actually owns them – and Percy Jackson and The Hunger Games.
Nick: My mom gave a giant lecture to me about this how basically authors today don’t know what good literature is.
Nils: I’d rather have a fun read, than good literature.
Nick: Let me finish my mom’s lecture! Authors these days have no idea what real reading is. They just have a whole bunch of action, action, love scene, love scene, action, action, love scene, really bad ending, cliffhanger that makes everybody want to buy the next book in the series!

Do you plan to see the movie?

All: Yes!

What parts of the book are you most excited to see come to life?

Maddie: The zip-lining scene.
Nils: I want to see when she jumps off the building into the Dauntless pit.
Nicole: I want to see the part where she decides to be Dauntless.
Nick: I want to see when they jump off the train. The dauntless ride the trains, and they just jump on, when it’s fully moving.

Do you think the movie will live up to the book?

Nick: Oh no! We’re going to see the movie and rant at it.
Nicole: It better!
Maddie: It looks pretty accurate [from the trailer].
Nick: We expect way too much, though.
Nils: What’s going to happen is you’re going to expect it to be like the book, and then they’re going to cut out half the book.
Maddie: They’re not going to change it. If they change it, I will sue them!

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About Helen Thompson
Helen Thompson

Helen Thompson writes about science and culture for Smithsonian. She's previously written for NPR, National Geographic News, Nature and others.

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