The Divergent Problem: Do You Jump Onboard a Film Franchise If You Know the Books Ended Poorly?

Photo: Summit Entertainment

I did not like the third book of the Divergent series. This is just an opinion, though I’m not entirely alone; scroll through the wilds of YA message boards and you will find disappointed, sometimes bewilderingly irate diary entries about the final act of Allegiant. (You will also find some hand-wringing about that title, which: fair.) The non-spoiler-y version of my Allegiant dissatisfaction is that the story gets too cerebral; the series is mostly interested in teen self-discovery and people fighting — until the end, when it’s all about fake science and the philosophical implications of said science. Were you bored reading that sentence? Yeah, so was I, even though I’d spent two books investing in these kids and their plot to reclaim society.

Ordinarily, this letdown would be my own personal penance for wasting a weekend reading a book meant for children. But the first, endlessly hyped Divergent movie will be released on Friday, and as a so-called expert I’ve already gotten the question from many friends and co-workers who haven’t read the books: “Should I see it? Is it worth it?” To which there is a short-term and a long-term answer. If the movie is loyal to Veronica Roth’s first novel, then it could be another creepy, gripping dystopian action movie with impressive knife-throwing and a very hot love interest. But if you like the film and become invested in Tris’s world, then you are likely to be very angry and disappointed in about three years when the last movie comes around. So the question becomes: If the first installment is great but you know the ending sucks, is it worth getting involved?

Recently — in a YA context, at least — the general trend has been for people to go all-in on movie adaptations even when fully aware that it is heading for an anticlimax. [Light spoilers follow.] Harry Potter’s epilogue is not the proudest J.K. Rowling moment (nor is that whole forest section, or the “he died but he didn’t!” mishmash, to be honest), but people went bonkers for the films anyway. Twilight’s Breaking Dawn ending, in which the heroine’s werewolf suitor falls in love with her infant child and then nobody fights, was roundly mocked (even in the context of Twilight); the third Hunger Games book is not a fan favorite by any stretch of the imagination, in part because it’s a PTSD nightmare and also because the most dramatic action happens off the page. In the last two cases, the first movies for each franchise were released after the final books were published, and they became cultural phenomena anyway. Many grown adults, with full knowledge of the stupid imprinting or Prim’s fate — or at least with the ability to Google for said plot points — still agreed to go on this cultural journey. Some of them even camped out for the privilege.

It’s also worth remembering that crappy finales are not exclusive to YA series; almost no one — in film, television, or serialized fiction — gets them right. Which brings me to an admittedly contrarian theory: Maybe it’s better to confront disappointment ahead of time. Think of how betrayed many felt at the end of Lost, or True Detective, or Justin Cronin’s sequel to The Passage, or even The Dark Knight Rises (sorry, that “he detonated a nuclear bomb but is still alive” bit was wack). We were all so very sure going into the finales that there must be a brilliant explanation for everything we had seen so far; the universe was going to be explained, right there on our screens — except then it wasn’t, because it never is. Endings are impossible. So isn’t it better to be prepared for that reality — to not be so fucking mad when no one explains the four-toed statue or when the vampires don’t even fight? Isn’t it just a spoiler-y way of setting expectations?

This is all predicated on the idea that you actually enjoy the rest of the series, which, for Divergent, might not be the case. (Do you like fast trains? Tattoos? Kate Winslet in evil scientist mode?) I haven’t seen it yet, either, so I can’t tell you if it’s good. But I see no reason to say no to Divergent, or any other long-running, reasonably popular movie franchise, just because the very last bit of it might piss you off. At least you’re prepared! And who knows, there’s always the possibility that the film will fix the book’s mistakes, as with Breaking Dawn and its fake-out battle scene. They couldn’t fix the imprinting, though. Some wrongs can’t be undone.

Is It Worth It? On Divergent and Bad Finales