Divergent should have been the next big teen movie franchise. It had all the ingredients: it was based on a popular book series, had a strong female lead and featured heroic teens fighting an evil government. And yet audiences, after the first couple of instalments, lost interest. So what went wrong?
The first Divergent novel by Veronica Roth was very successful. It focused on a young woman in a post-apocalyptic world where humans were divided based on character traits. The different “factions” in the story are Dauntless, Abnegation, Candor, Erudite and Amity – or bravery, selflessness, honesty, intelligence and kindness respectively.
Critics commented from the beginning that Divergent bore a strong resemblance to another post-apocalyptic novel, The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins’ story which became an incredibly popular movie series. Indeed, comparisons to the films would dog the Divergent franchise right from the beginning.
However, the series was still popular, and in May 2011 it went to sixth place on The New York Times Children’s Chapter Books Best Seller list. Clearly, people were reading it, and movie companies picked up on the attention. Indeed, Summit Entertainment, a subsidiary of Lionsgate, quickly snapped up the rights to a movie adaptation and hired director Neil Burger.
From there, a cast of young actors joined up to play the main roles. Shailene Woodley would portray the story’s protagonist, Beatrice “Tris” Prior. It was a daunting prospect for her. “I was a little trepidatious saying yes to a franchise, simply because I’d just come off [TV show The Secret Life of the American Teenager] where I had a six-year contract,” she told The Guardian in 2015.
“The thought of signing another four-year contract was quite daunting,” Woodley went on. “Also I had said, growing up as a child actor, that I’d never be a part of a big studio franchise, because I never wanted that sort of recognition around the globe.” But eventually, and with help from other people, she changed her mind.
Indeed, The Hunger Games star Jennifer Lawrence helped convince Woodley to accept the role. “She said, ‘You’d be a fool not to take it,’” Woodley recounted to Vanity Fair in 2013. Lawrence had also told her, “Don’t make a sex tape, don’t do drugs, don’t go to Whole Foods when the movie opens.”
And Woodley wasn’t the only up-and-coming young name to be cast in Divergent. Alongside her included Zoe Kravitz as Christina, Miles Teller as Peter, Ansel Elgort as Caleb, and Downtown Abbey actor Theo James as Four, the male lead. And the role of Jeanine Matthews, the baddie of the books, went to Oscar-winning British actress Kate Winslet.
Winslet used some method acting and purposely stayed away from her younger co-stars on set. And her pregnancy helped a lot with that. “I wanted to break it and say, ‘It’s OK, I’m really fun. I promise,’” she told USA Today in 2013. “But I thought, just for today, I’d let them think that I am a complete bitch.”
But Divergent’s release in March 2014 received a lukewarm reception from critics. Many compared it to other popular young adult adaptions: Harry Potter, Ender’s Game, and of course The Hunger Games. And yet it did well at the box office, earning $288 million around the world.
Subsequently, a sequel, Insurgent, based on the second book in the series, was greenlit in May 2013. All the main cast – Woodley, James, Elgort, Kravitz, Winslet and more – were reprising their roles. And they gained several new co-stars, including Octavia Spencer, Daniel Dae Kim, and Naomi Watts.
The casting of Watts caused a little controversy. Her character Evelyn was supposed to be a person of color, but the actress is white. “There are equally talented actresses of color who would have come closer to capturing Evelyn’s physical description than Watts is…,” the website Bustle wrote in 2014. “Her character arc in the book is not directly affected by her race, so why change it?”
Insurgent also chose a new director. Due to timing issues – Neil Burger had to do post-production on Divergent at the same time that Summit Entertainment had wanted to begin filming the former – producers called someone else in. That ended up being Robert Schwentke, director of The Time Traveller’s Wife.
Woodley didn’t seem entirely happy about the director being replaced. “I just found out a few days ago,” she told Entertainment Weekly in January 2014. “It’s kind of strange to think that it’s his baby, and it’s going to be passed on to the next person – and I guess this happens all the time in franchises.”
“But I’ve never been part of a franchise, and I’ve never experienced anything like it. It was shocking,” Woodley went on. “This entire movie has been about [Burger’s] vision, and one of the reasons I did it was because I thought his vision was so beautiful and so strong. So yeah, it was just more shocking than anything.”
The first teaser for Insurgent didn’t seem to meet expectations after its release in December 2014. “Not only is the [CGI] over the top, but it also makes no sense whatsoever to introduce moviegoers to the film using that moment,” Collider wrote in 2014. “No, you can’t judge a film based on a teaser alone, but it’s still a disappointing way to kick off the marketing campaign.”
And when Insurgent’s release came in March 2015, reviews were more negative than the ones for its predecessor. The film received a mere 29% on Rotten Tomatoes. It added, “Shailene Woodley gives it her all, but Insurgent is still a resounding step back for a franchise struggling to distinguish itself from the dystopian YA crowd.”
By that point, YA dystopias were crowding the market somewhat. In addition to The Hunger Games, The Maze Runner, The 5th Wave, I Am Number Four and The Giver had all been made into movies, with varying levels of success. And it seemed that the dystopian fiction craze was coming to an end.
But there was still one Divergent book to go in the series. And in adapting it, Summit Entertainment followed in the footsteps of other adaptions – they decided to split it into two: Allegiant and Ascendant. Indeed, Harry Potter, Twilight and The Hunger Games had all also split their final instalment into two parts.
The odds were against an Allegiant adaptation from the start, because many fans of the Divergent series hadn’t liked the book. Not only was it a departure from the narrative style of the first two books, it threw fans a huge curveball. At the end of the story – spoiler alert – Tris Prior dies for the sake of her brother.
The backlash was such that author Veronica Roth ended up defending the movie on her blog. “I’ve said before that this ending was always a part of the plan, but one thing I want to make clear is that I didn’t choose it to shock anyone, or to upset anyone, or because I’m ruthless with my characters,” she wrote in 2013.
Some of the stars of the franchise thought the ending was a good, bold move, however. Indeed, in her 2014 interview with Entertainment Weekly, Woodley was unequivocal. “I thought that it was such a badass decision of Veronica Roth, and so incredibly powerful,” she said. “Men die all the time in films – heroes do. But a lot of sweet heroines don’t.”
Theo James approved of the ending, too. “I thought it totally made sense,” he told Buzzfeed in 2014. “[Prior’s] whole philosophy in life is selflessness… She’s almost like a semi-Christ figure in that way. She’s endlessly selfless, and it seem like an obvious, natural course for her to give her life for the sake of others.”
Part one of Allegiant came in March 2016, with Robert Schwentke returning to direct again. And unfortunately, it was a complete bomb. Not only was it the lowest-grossing film in the Divergent series, making only $179 million against its budget of $142 million, but critics absolutely mauled it.
“This movie isn’t just adhering to a formula; it’s carefully following a recipe designed to offset any good ingredients that get mixed in there by mistake,” wrote A.V. Club. Entertainment Weekly was even harsher. “Allegiant aches to be a thought-provoking, moving allegory of the current world. Instead, it’s an unwieldy two hours too unintentionally silly to validate how seriously it takes itself,” the review said.
Indeed, the failure of Allegiant appeared to sound the death knell for the last Divergent film. Not only that, but the series was down a director. In February 2016 director Robert Schwentke had walked away from the franchise. “Schwentke just needed a break, after making Insurgent and Allegiant back-to-back,” Deadline reported at the time.
Schwenke had burned himself out directing the other instalments, according to producer Lucy Fisher, who spoke to Den of Geek in March 2016. “He was just too exhausted. This was two movies in a row 24/7, literally 24/7. We needed to make a decision and he honestly hadn’t slept in like two months,” she said.
Producers then hired a new director, Lee Toland Krieger, to replace Schwentke. But Ascendant was still in jeopardy – Allegiant had done so badly it had actually affected Lionsgate’s stock price. The former’s planned opening date had been June 9, 2017. But suddenly it seemed likely it would become a TV movie instead.
But how did Divergent fall so fast? Lionsgate CEO John Feltheimer copped to possibly making mistakes with the franchise in a conference call to Wall Street, The Wrap reported in May 2016. “Maybe we rushed the third movie a bit instead of taking our time with it,” he said. “We wanted to hit a date.”
Other people blamed it all on the decision to make the final book into two parts. James Dashner, author of dystopian series The Maze Runner, agreed. “I honestly think the problem was splitting the last Divergent book into two movies,” he told the Radio Times in 2016.
“I just feel like too many people had done it by that point,” he said. “Harry Potter did it, Twilight did it, Hunger Games did it, now Divergent’s doing it. I think that was the mistake. I think if it had done one final film it would’ve done just fine.” However, though the final Maze Runner movie was released in only one part, it didn’t do very well either.
Granted, Maze Runner: The Death Cure made $288 million after its February 2017 release, but it didn’t get particularly good reviews. The Boston Globe described it as “another pedestrian, overlong post-apocalyptic entry that fails to capitalize on some decent character dynamics.” Indeed, it seemed the YA dystopia bubble had well and truly burst.
In a final crushing blow for Divergent fans, it transpired that Shailene Woodley wouldn’t be returning for the potential TV movie. “From what I know, they want to proceed with a television show, which is not something that I signed up to do,” she told E! News in September 2016. “Out of respect to the whole scenario, there could be things that have changed, but I didn’t sign up to do a TV show.”
Woodley reiterated the sentiment on Today the same month. When asked if she would do the fourth movie, she said she only would if it had a theater release. “I signed up to tell the whole story of [Tris Prior]. I would love to be able to do that,” she explained. “Nothing would make me happier.” But it seemed she wasn’t going to get to do it.
As for her co-star Theo James, he too has said he most likely won’t continue to play his role in the franchise. He told TooFab in December 2016, “I think it’s a shame that we can’t finish the story, but I think it’s evolving in a place where the actors that have been in the three movies probably won’t be in whatever it evolves to in the future.”
In fact, the failure of the Divergent series almost convinced Shailene Woodley to quit her acting career. In June 2018 she revealed this to Net-a-Porter’s PorterEdit. “The last one was a bit of a hard experience for everyone, and that was really what made me think I need to have some human experiences outside of this industry and fall in love with acting again,” she said.
“I felt it was time to do something different,” Woodley went on. “I called my agents and said, ‘Please don’t send me any more scripts, I need to explore other avenues.’” In the end, that other avenue turned out to be the show Big Little Lies. Woodley plays Jane Chapman in the series and has been nominated for a Primetime Emmy for her work.
Likewise, the other Divergent actors have gone on to other things. Theo James appeared in two films in 2018, Backstabbing for Beginners and How It Ends. Zoe Kravitz is seeing her acting career soar with the Fantastic Beasts franchise, and she also appeared in Big Little Lies.
Now, sadly, it appears the final part of Divergent may not make it to any sort of screen. In December 2018 Buzzfeed announced that Starz, the company producing the Ascendant TV show, had cancelled all development. They didn’t give a reason, but the actors refusing to return may have had something to do with it.
So unfortunately, that would appear to be it for Divergent for now. Indeed, it currently stands as a monument to the dangers of rushing a franchise, and of splitting a film in two when it could work as one. However, the 2016 Den of Geek interview with producer Lucy Fisher reveals how tremendously pressurized the creatives were.
“There was so much pressure on the first book where people would say to us, ‘If this movie doesn’t open it’s going to mean the death of YA. Are you ready for that?’” Fisher remarked. “We said, ‘No. That’s a really unfair thing to plant on our movie.’” She added to the website, “… You need a little bit of luck.”