Be honest — you've been counting down the days until the Divergent movie's release ever since you read the book. Same here. We just can't get enough of that post-apocalyptic world. Don't even get us started on the chemistry between Tris and Four. The flick is finally upon us (March 21 if, for some weird reason, you don't have your calendar marked), but it's been a long time coming. And, it all started with a script. Co-screenwriter Evan Daugherty, who garnered fame for his work on Snow White And The Huntsman, was given the daunting task of turning Veronica Roth's bestselling book into a riveting onscreen drama. Below, he lets us in on the process in his own words.
The process of adaptation can be challenging, particularly for a book as beloved as Divergent. The screenwriter must remain faithful to the original material, while ensuring that the story works as a feature film. Talking purely in terms of numbers, we must condense a 400-page book into a 110-page screenplay. That’s 80,000 words distilled down to 20,000. Mathematically speaking, those are big changes. How does one choose what stays and what goes? How do we tweak, mold or reshape the original material to make it work as a feature film?
For the answers to all those questions, I look to one of the greatest screenwriters of all time, William Goldman (The Princess Bride, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), who wrote that a screenwriter’s first job is to find what is "absolutely crucial" to the story. He called this process "finding the spine."
So, what is the spine of Divergent? What is "absolutely crucial" in the story? I would argue that Veronica gives us the answer on the last page of her novel:
"I am no longer Tris, the selfless, or Tris, the brave. I suppose that now, I must become more than either."
For me, that’s what Divergent is all about. At the beginning of the story, Tris belongs to Abnegation, one of five personality-based Factions living in a post-apocalyptic Chicago, a Faction devoted to selflessness.
In this society, teenagers are given a chance to choose which Faction they wish to join. They may either remain in the safety of their own Faction, or bravely move into another Faction. Tris loves her family — and her Faction — but she can’t shake the feeling that she doesn’t really belong there. She’s not selfless enough. So, she makes the bold decision to join Dauntless, the Faction devoted to bravery.
Throughout the story, as Tris tries to survive the dangerous Dauntless training, she also struggles to reconcile her old Faction and her new one. Is she selfless or is she brave? But, early in her journey, when she’s branded a Divergent, someone who doesn’t belong in any Faction, she wonders whether she can become more than just one thing. More than selfless. More than brave.
"I must become more than either."
When Tris finally accepts that she is Divergent, when she finally accepts that she’s more than any one personality trait, more than any one set of beliefs, her emotional journey is complete. And, for me, that’s the spine of the film. From there, the adaptation is easy. Once the spine is found, all the hard work is done. Elements from the novel that reinforce that spine find their way into the film, while those that don’t are either removed or reshaped slightly so that they do strengthen the spine.
For many adaptations, finding the spine can be laborious, even painful, but with a book as well-crafted as Divergent, it was a joy. The spine was there. It was strong. All I and the other filmmakers had to do was find it.
Divergent hits theaters Friday, March 21, 2014.