Pop Culture

'Divergent' battles to become next 'Hunger Games'-style hit series

It's easy to compare "Divergent," which opens Friday, to "The Hunger Games." Both are dramatic visions of bleak futures where society is segregated into social groups and a strong young woman must fight for her very life against her world's restrictions.

But can "Divergent," based on a best-selling three-book series by Veronica Roth, soar to "Hunger Games" levels at the box office?

Thanks to the runaway successes of "Hunger Games" and the "Harry Potter" and "Twilight" films, every studio is desperate to establish its own young-adult franchise. Emphasis on the desperation. The failures outnumber the hits: "Beautiful Creatures" and "Ender's Game" failed to connect, "The Chronicles of Narnia" fantasies and "Percy Jackson" young gods adventures fell off, and "The Mortal Instruments" is in development limbo. 

Jaap Buitendijk / Today
Theo James and Shailene Woodley star in "Divergent."

To succeed where others failed, "Divergent" needs to avoid the pitfalls of the weaker franchises and learn the right lessons from the success stories. 

Offer a strong, empowered female lead
Give credit to this new wave of YA franchises for the proliferation of roles for young women in dynamic, heroic roles. The superhero films haven't offered much in the way superheroines yet (there's Black Widow and …. um …). But "Harry Potter" gave us Hermione and "The Hunger Games" transformed steely survivor Katniss into a ferocious warrior. Tris, the young woman looking for her identity among the Dauntless soldiers of the "Divergent" world, is courageous, committed, and her own woman in a culture of conformity. She'd make Katniss proud.

Jaap Buitendijk / Today
Shailene Woodley made a name for herself in "The Descendants," but "Divergent" could make her a true star.

Mint your own star: Shailene Woodley
The smartest move "Hunger Games" producers made was casting Jennifer Lawrence. Though she wasn't unknown (she already had an Oscar nomination for "Winter's Bone"), it was "The Hunger Games" and "X-Men" that made her a major movie star. Like Lawrence, Shailene Woodley is an intelligent, talented young woman with experience and acclaimed performances on TV ("The Secret Life of an American Teenager") and film (George Clooney's troubled daughter in "The Descendants"). She anchors "Divergent" as Tris, a young woman who discovers just how much she is capable of, in a potentially star-making performance. 

Elevate an unknown to hunkdom: Theo James
"Twilight" transformed Robert Pattinson from Harry Potter minor player to pin-up dream boy. "Divergent" hopes to do the same with the broody, darkly handsome Brit Theo James, until now best known as the Turkish suitor who died in Lady Mary's "Downton Abbey" bed. Strong and steadfast, with the looks of a male model and the moves of an action hero, this hunk is not Tris' savior. He's her partner in rebellion against tyranny.

Theo James, who played the lover who dies in Lady Mary's bed in "Downton Abbey," could break out in his role as Tobias/Four in "Divergent."

Cast an acclaimed veteran as the adult nemesis: Kate Winslet
Daniel Radcliffe's Harry Potter went head-to-head with two-time Oscar nominee Ralph Fiennes. Jennifer Lawrence's Katniss makes an enemy of cruel despot Donald Sutherland. Woodley takes on Oscar-winner Kate Winslet at her most ruthless. That alone elevates the stakes of their conflict, and Woodley rises to the challenge just like the character she plays on screen.

Hire a director with vision
Once upon a time, Hollywood actively discouraged distinctive voices for their franchise films, preferring malleable filmmakers who took directives instead of creative control. The superhero revolution changed that, from Sam Raimi injecting his quirky energy into the original "Spider-Man" run to Christopher Nolan giving "Batman Begins" its comic-book noir sensibility. 

Make the metaphor work on its own terms
"Everyone knows who they are and where they fit." "Faction before blood." "If you don't fit into a society, they can't control you." "Divergent" puts its themes of conformity versus individuality right out front in bullet-point dialogue. "The Hunger Games" made its dark commentary on political control and media manipulation not just through its twisted gladiator games but through the vivid worlds of impoverished districts and desperate citizens. The challenge in "Divergent" is creating a reality on screen where its themes are embodied in the fabric of its life and the challenges of its characters. The lesson is only as powerful as its story.