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How "Divergent" Turned Into A Disaster

The Shailene Woodley–led movies were supposed to be the next Hunger Games — but they failed miserably.

Posted on December 18, 2018, at 4:54 p.m. ET

Lionsgate

In this world of remakes and reboots, it may be that nothing is actually dead forever. But as of now, it's safe to say that Divergent is as dead as it gets.

The Divergent movies — based on Veronica Roth's trilogy — were supposed to be the next blockbuster young adult franchise. Summit Entertainment bought the rights in 2011 when the studio was nearing the end of its streak with the multibillion-dollar Twilight movies. The next year, when Summit itself was bought by Lionsgate, that meant that The Hunger Games studio had bought the Twilight studio, merging the two companies that had led the YA boom. The combined studio would be betting on Divergent as its next book-to-screen success, and it seemed like a slam dunk. Lionsgate even increased Divergent's budget, from $40 million to $85 million.

That was then. Now, a spokesperson for Starz, which is owned by Lionsgate, tells BuzzFeed News that a continuation of the franchise is no longer in active development. What's more frustrating for its tens of fans, the story ended on a cliffhanger.

During the post–Harry Potter boom, there were a number of YA book-to-film adaptations that fizzled at the box office, resulting in either one movie (The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, Beautiful Creatures) or two movies (Percy Jackson).

But there has been nothing quite like the spectacular flameout of Divergent.

Woodley
Lionsgate

Woodley

One possible reason for its collapse is the weakness of the source material. The structure of Divergent's fictional world was hard to understand, the plots were hard to follow, and the stakes were unclear. That made Divergent different from the YA books that have worked as movies. In Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games, for example, it's obvious from the start that Katniss is the revolutionary figure who will end the Hunger Games, destroy the repressive state of Panem, and help bring about a more equitable world. In Twilight, Edward and Bella need to be 2gether4ever and, along the way, defeat the elitist Volturi vampire coven.

Roth's story never had that clarity. Its muddled plot is set in postapocalyptic Chicago, where everyone over 16 is divided into five personality-based factions in order to prevent society from falling into the destructive chaos that led to the end of the United States. As the three books go on, there are different villains in each, with no obvious goal for our heroes to achieve. The novels are confusing, humorless, and derivative. And though they provide some interesting visual opportunities (trains that run through Chicago without ever stopping, an exciting zip line scene in the first book), the final novel — Allegiant — revealed that Roth had no real vision to conclude the story.

And worst of all, in Allegiant, Roth kills her lead character, Tris, in a nonsensical, anticlimactic moment that infuriated fans.

Casting for the movie began in earnest in fall 2012. After winning an Independent Spirit Award for The Descendants, and finishing up on ABC Family's unlikely teen pregnancy hit, The Secret Life of the American Teenager, Shailene Woodley was cast as (the ultimately doomed) Tris. Theo James played Four, her love interest; Ansel Elgort played Caleb, her brother and sometimes rival; and Miles Teller played the villainous Peter. Zoë Kravitz and Maggie Q were cast as Tris’s friends. It was a solid group.

The first two movies were medium-sized hits: Divergent took in $288 million worldwide and Insurgent made $297 million — but that box office was nothing compared to The Hunger Games. Yet as soon as the first Divergent movie made money, Lionsgate/Summit announced that Allegiant, the final book in the trilogy, would be split into two, following the money-making template set by Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games. With Divergent, it seemed to be an especially risky cash-grab, given that most fans hated the final book. The decision was made in 2014, but the studio was confident enough to announce release dates into 2016 and 2017.

The box office bottom soon dropped out. Allegiant, the first part of the final story, made only $179 million worldwide on a reported budget of $110 million. (The general rule is that a film needs to roughly double its budget to earn a profit for the studio, and that's not counting marketing costs!) What was worse than its overall performance was its $66 million take in the United States, a fraction of what the previous two films earned, and a clear symbol of audience rejection. Allegiant was released on March 18, 2016; by March 21, the Hollywood Reporter said that Lionsgate would slash the budget for Ascendant, the last movie in the series.

Four months later, Lionsgate’s strategy evolved into an even more desperate phase, with the news breaking in the Hollywood Reporter that the fourth film would instead be a TV movie that would launch a spinoff series. Though the story said that Woodley had been approached, Deadline quoted her at Comic-Con the next day saying she’d had no idea. “Honestly, I was on a plane when all that happened and I landed, and I’m like, Whoa, what’s going on?!” Woodley said.

One by one, the lead actors all expressed their lack of interest in moving Divergent to television, with Woodley — who had always been passionate about playing Tris — delivering the death knell: “I didn't sign up to be in a television show,” she told Screen Rant.

Lionsgate

In August 2017, seven months after Lionsgate bought the premium cable network Starz, an Ascendant TV show was once again put into development for Starz with the writer (Adam Cozad) and director (Lee Toland Krieger) who had been attached to the feature version.

But now the project — though still Lionsgate’s intellectual property — is effectively dead.

At the end of Allegiant, Tris, Four, and Caleb have temporarily defeated David (Jeff Daniels), who wanted to wipe the memories of everyone in Chicago in order to bring back the factions — all to impress his overseers in Providence, Rhode Island, of all places. David also wants to keep the wall up between Chicago and the rest of the world, for no discernible reason.

Tris, who until now has been reluctant to be the public face of the revolution, addresses the city on massive screens for all to see. “So here we stand together. Not as five factions, but as one city. And we're going to tear down their wall," she says. Knowing David can hear her, she says, “Chicago is not your experiment — it is our home.” The movie’s final image is Tris snuggling Four as a hologram of David ominously lurks behind them. “And it always will be,” she says to Four lovingly.

Perhaps Tris was being prescient. Because she and Four will literally always be there in Chicago, frozen in time on a cliffhanger. Well, at least she didn’t have to die for no reason.

From left: Jeff Daniels, Woodley, and James, frozen in time forever. And if you're thinking they look weird, it's because they're pixelated in some ill-conceived special effect.
Lionsgate

From left: Jeff Daniels, Woodley, and James, frozen in time forever. And if you're thinking they look weird, it's because they're pixelated in some ill-conceived special effect.

CORRECTION

There were three movies in the Chronicles of Narnia series. An earlier version of this article misstated the number.


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