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What To Do About A Failing Dystopian Saga Like Allegiant

Photo: Courtesy of Lionsgate.
Theo James and Shailene Woodley in "The Divergent Series: Allegiant"
Warning: Spoilers ahead.
When Veronica Roth’s Divergent hit shelves in 2011, it was a breakout success. Publisher’s Weekly called the book “edgy” and “definitely not for the fainthearted.” Told from the point of view of a heroine named Tris, it is the first instalment in a trilogy about a post-apocalyptic society that has been divided into factions based on its civilians’ dominant personality traits.

Many critics and fans hailed Divergent as the successor to Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games saga, which debuted in 2008. “For those who loved The Hunger Games and are willing to brave the sometimes sadistic tests of strength and courage Tris must endure, the reward is a memorable, unpredictable journey from which it is nearly impossible to turn away,” the review in Publisher’s Weekly concluded.

Divergent was part of a wave of young adult novels set in dystopian futures that followed the Hunger Games craze of the late aughts. Like Collins' saga, Divergent was adapted for the big screen. These trilogies make obvious fodder for movie adaptations. Fans anxiously await to find out who’ll be cast in as the beloved characters. Will the actress chosen to play the heroine fit the picture they'd always imagined? Will the big-screen version do justice to the original book?

On the other side of the equation, many of the actresses circling these roles feel nervous about signing onto them. It means giving up several years of their lives, since the three books usually end up becoming four movies so that studios can milk as much money as possible out of the franchise. It also means the actress will be subject to constant criticism from fans who aren’t happy with her casting.

When Jennifer Lawrence beat out a reported 1,600 other actresses for the role of 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games, devotees erupted that at 20, she was too old for the role, and that her hair and eyes were the wrong colour. Perhaps in response to the outcry (or to assuage fans’ fears), Hunger Games director Gary Ross gave a very even-handed interview to Entertainment Weekly in which he referred to choosing Lawrence as “the easiest casting decision I ever made in my life.” Ross also reported that author Suzanne Collins “saw every audition” and was also on board with Lawrence. Fans came around, too: The first instalment of The Hunger Games grossed a total of £282 million at the box office.

When Shailene Woodley was debating whether or not to take the lead role of Beatrice “Tris” Prior in the Divergent films, she reached out to Jennifer Lawrence for advice, aware of what Lawrence went through both before and after playing Katniss. Prior to Divergent, Woodley had mostly appeared in smaller-budget indie films. She earned rave reviews and a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actress for 2012’s The Descendants. That same year, she filmed the excellent coming-of-age movie The Spectacular Now.
Woodley emailed Jennifer Lawrence inquiring how the Oscar winning actress finally decided to sign on to The Hunger Games. “She basically was like, if you love the story and character, don’t pay attention to the budget and jump in. Don’t do anything stupid, don’t do drugs, or don’t make a sex tape, and you’ll be fine,” Woodley said during an appearance on Late Night with Seth Meyers in March 2014.

Woodley took Lawrence's advice and dove into Divergent with both feet. There's just one problem: The Divergent series isn't The Hunger Games. Sure, excitement for the first instalment of the Divergent movies, which came out in March 2014, was rabid. It grossed more than £200million globally at the box office. Some critics were kind, calling the film "better than the book." That's not exactly the highest of praise when the studio's goal is to launch the next Harry Potter or Hunger Games. Then again, producers would much rather hear from a critic that something is “better than the book” than tap-dance their way out of a nightmare like The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones. That YA series adaptation was such a dud that the second film never saw the light of day.

And it was a downhill slide from there. Insurgent, the 2015 follow-up to Divergent, did gross more than £205million, but reviews of the film were far less kind. It currently sits at 29% on Rotten Tomatoes's Tomatometer, compared to the first film's 40% rating. And predictably, before cameras had even started rolling on Insurgent, Lionsgate and Summit Entertainment announced that the final book in the trilogy, Allegiant, would be split into two films.

Listen, I understand why the studios are doing this. Warner Bros. did the same thing with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Summit did it with The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn. Lionsgate did it with The Hunger Games: Mockingjay. Money talks. More movies equal more butts in seats, and with franchises, there's an established fan base both in the U.S. and overseas. There's no need to introduce and explain new characters, worlds, and story lines to audiences.

Unfortunately, Allegiant (the novel) is where the Divergent trilogy falls apart. I liked the first book. I was eager to read the second. When Allegiant came out in October 2013, I read it in one night. Choosing the book over sleep was a huge mistake — and I’m not alone in this feeling.

“Readers Reactions to Allegiant Are an Online Fandom Horror Story,” reads a Flavorwire headline from October 2013. “The Big Problem With Divergent Is Allegiant,” Kate Arthur wrote on BuzzFeed in March 2014.

In the book’s reviews on Amazon, fans take the most umbrage with its ending, and I’m inclined to agree with them. Allegiant completely blows up the faction system set up in Divergent and Insurgent to reveal that the people living within the walls of what used to be Chicago are merely part of a societal experiment that sorts civilians based on personality traits. Outside the walls of the city, scientists have been watching the faction system from the Bureau of Genetic Warfare. If an organisation with a name like that makes the hairs on your arms stand up, I’m with you. It sounds like some straight-up eugenics bullshit, and it is.
You see, the first two books in the Divergent series never actually explain what caused the apocalypse that led to the dystopian future in which Tris and Co. find themselves. In Allegiant, it’s given a name: the Purity War. The first time I read The Hunger Games trilogy, I saw obvious thematic similarities to the Holocaust. They didn’t feel contrived or heavy-handed. In Allegiant, these same attempts to portray a group obsessed with restoring genetic purity feel painfully obvious and overwrought. They also upend the entire groundwork laid in the first two books. It’s as if Veronica Roth takes the characters we get to know early on and inserts them into an entirely different story about a post-apocalyptic, dystopian world that’s like Hitler’s Aryan dream meets the society in The Giver.

The other problem with the third book's pseudoscientific BS is that the story ends with Tris becoming a Christ-like figure who sacrifices herself to save society. I actually wouldn’t mind her dying for everyone else’s sins — or dying at all (I’m good on Christ allegories, but to each his or her own taste in messianic tales), because that would certainly count as a total curveball in most typical YA dystopian-future fare. There aren’t many teen series in which the protagonist dies in the end. Could you even imagine Katniss Everdeen biting it at the end of Mockingjay? Suzanne Collins couldn’t even kill Peeta or Gale, and we all know one of them is totally expendable (I’ll let you choose which one).

Roth doesn’t provide enough of a reason for Tris to die, though. This is my — and many fans' — gripe. And when a book provokes this kind of negative backlash from readers, maybe a movie studio should take it seriously. Allegiant, the first movie in the final book’s two-film adaptation, opens this Friday, and it’s already tracking for a subpar opening at the box office. Early reviews call it “dull dystopia” and “more like redundant.”

Perhaps it’s time for the studio to heed the petition started two years ago by a fan named Steve Pattison, begging Lionsgate — to the tune of almost 2,000 signatures — to “Let Tris Live in the last Divergent movie (Allegiant Part 2).”

So...will the studio heed the call? In September 2015, MTV revealed a new tagline for Ascendant: “The End Is Never What You Expect.” Via Tumblr, Veronica Roth fuelled further speculation that a change would be made to the much-loathed ending. “[I]t means there are going to be some changes, but it’s really too early to know exactly what those changes will be or the extent of them. I know changes always make fans of the books — and the author! — nervous, but hopefully the characters we know (and love. Or sometimes love to hate?) will still be intact, which is really the important thing,” she wrote.

The coy, let's-have-it-all-ways ambiguity might just be the death of us all, if not the certain death of one Beatrice “Tris” Prior.

So really, what’s a failing — and flailing — dystopian saga to do about lacklustre reviews, waning interest, and a fourth movie with an ending that should most definitely be changed if producers wants fans to feel even remotely excited about the fact that it’s being made at all? Well, the promotional machine for Allegiant is churning at full, reeking-of-desperation force.
Behold, the charismatic Zoe Kravitz and Miles Teller wishing their characters had a love story in a Tumblr GIF set. There’s a special Allegiant Snapchat lens that lets you find out if you’re 100% Divergent like Tris, the chosen one. Star Ansel Elgort is having the New York City premiere double as his 23rd birthday party. The #sheo tag (that’s the Shailene Woodley and Theo James ship) on Tumblr has some incredibly strong GIF game.

All the stops have been pulled out, but will any of it help? I feel for the cast, actually, who are surely aware of the dwindling interest in these movies and still have to promote Ascendant, the final film, when it's released in 2017.

Just once, I wish that a movie studio would put its thirst for the almighty dollar aside and listen to the very same teenagers' voices it’s pretending are omnipotent in series like The Hunger Games and Divergent. Breaking the final books into two films not only results in awkward screenplays and disjointed movies, it also only works for franchises with fan-approved endings like Harry Potter and The Hunger Games — and even the latter saw declining box office numbers for Mockingjay: Part 2.

No matter what, we’re getting a fourth Divergent series movie. Do you want to know how to guarantee people like me will watch it, though? Admit that Four (Theo James) and Tris really do have sex the night before she sacrifices herself to save her society. Veronica Roth remains mum about whether or not they actually consummate their relationship. Can we finally be real about teens giving into their urges without some bullshit innuendo? I promise I’ll watch that movie...when it finally starts airing on HBO in like, 2018.