Ever since ''The Hunger Games,'' movies based on young-adult novels have hit a slump; the genre's future may now rest on the box office fate of one film: ''Divergent'' ...no pressure

By Sara Vilkomerson
Updated February 28, 2014 at 05:00 AM EST
  • Movie

It’s the hype that’ll get you. When you’re the star of any high-profile movie, everyone wants to get into the act, declaring you either the Next Big Thing or (worse) not. But if you’re Shailene Woodley and Theo James, the stars of Divergent, that ambient chatter gets turned up to a roar. There have already been magazine covers (like ours) and glossy fashion spreads and MTV appearances and posters and billboards. Hey, fans can even preorder a Divergent Barbie doll (only $24.95) now!

So the duo weren’t surprised when, after they zip-lined onto Jimmy Kimmel Live! on Feb. 3, the host’s first question was the one that everyone has been asking them for almost a year: Are you ready for life-altering fame?

“It comes up a lot and it’s completely impossible to answer,” James says 10 days later in Los Angeles. “If you say anything, you sound like a douche bag because who knows what the f— is going to happen?”

Indeed. When Summit Entertainment bought the rights to Veronica Roth’s novel in 2011, it was just an unpublished galley from an unknown 22-year-old author — not yet the New York Times best-selling trilogy it would become — and Hollywood was gripped in a kind of young-adult fever. Harry Potter had changed conventional thinking about book adaptations aimed at youth, and Summit’s Twilight franchise had been a blockbuster phenomenon so huge even its executives were left blinking in disbelief. The Hunger Games would be released the following year to record box office and gushing reviews and would launch its star, Jennifer Lawrence, into the stratosphere. Every studio wanted a piece of the YA pie.

Oh, what a difference a couple of years can make. Remember Beautiful Creatures? How about The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones or last month’s Vampire Academy? Nope, us neither. These films, all adapted from best-sellers, hit the big screen with resounding thuds. All eyes are now on Divergent (rated PG-13, out March 21) not only to deliver Twihard bucks and Hunger Games grit but also to settle the jittery nerves of an industry that is trembling to see whether the YA biz is boom or bust.

“The pressure for the box office is excruciating and unfair,” says Divergent producer Lucy Fisher. “We’ve gotten calls from other people who have young-adult stuff saying, ‘You better not screw this up!’ If we don’t succeed, it will be really horrible for some of the other ones.” For Fisher and her Oscar-winning producing partner and husband, Doug Wick (Gladiator), all that expectation is a little irksome because their goal was to make a quality film, not cash in on a trend. “The audience really can sniff when there’s some sort of cynicism [involved in making a film],” Wick says. “It’s like saying because of Gravity, let’s do more space movies. Forget that this is a YA book. When you read it, you see scenes, you visualize the world. That suggests a great movie.”

Directed by Neil Burger (Limitless), Divergent takes place in a future Chicago where all people are separated into distinct groups, or “factions,” by their particular strength or virtue: Erudite (intelligence), Abnegation (selflessness), Amity (peacefulness), Candor (honesty), and Dauntless (bravery). At age 16, boys and girls must choose which faction they will commit to for life — aided by a mandatory virtual-reality test that tells them where they supposedly belong. Beatrice “Tris” Prior (Woodley) has grown up in an Abnegation household but is informed after her test that her results are inconclusive and extraordinary — she is “divergent” and could fit into three factions, not one. For reasons that become clear later, that complexity makes Tris dangerous to the status quo; her results must be hidden. She opts to join Dauntless, where she meets the mysterious instructor Four (James) and inadvertently antagonizes a powerful Erudite leader (Kate Winslet).

On the surface, the tale is a kinetic sci-fi action thriller, but that’s not why the books have resonated with teens. Divergent pokes at the universal anxieties of growing up: leaving home, discovering who you are (and aren’t) and what you are capable of if you dare. “So many of these YA movies value things that are entertaining to watch but, on a deep level, don’t do anything positive,” says Woodley (The Descendants). “What’s so powerful about Divergent, and the reason I chose to do this, is that it’s about being brave. What makes each of us divergent? What’s the one thing that makes you diverge from the mainstream, from mediocrity? It’s great for young people to think about their own lives — who they are and where they belong.”

Sitting in a vegan café in Venice, Calif., Woodley, 22, radiates the unruffled calm of a seasoned pro; she’s worked more than half her life, including a long TV run on The Secret Life of the American Teenager. She doesn’t play coy, she doesn’t do fragile, and with her clear-eyed sincerity and killer hair, she has quietly evolved into the rising queen of YA adaptations. Aside from Divergent, she starred in last summer’s The Spectacular Now and this June takes center stage in the must-see love story for millennials, The Fault in Our Stars. Her life, in other words, is about to get a lot less private, but she’s not interested in musing on hypotheticals. “It’s something that hasn’t happened yet,” she says. “Anyway, change is inevitable; it happens every day. I’m not going to change my life at all — I love the way I live. I’m not going to worry about it.”

Kate Winslet, who navigated the fame frenzy surrounding Titanic 16 years ago, signed up for Divergent because, she says, “frankly, I wanted to play a baddie.” Still, the Oscar winner also took the opportunity to offer Woodley some advice on how to survive the coming blitz. “She was like, ‘Listen, it’s going to get crazy and then it’s going to go away,'” says Woodley, who was 6 years old during Titanic mania and used to act out the Jack/Rose scenes with a pal. “She said, ‘Be smart and be safe and be you.'” Asked about this conversation later, Winslet says, “She’s going to be just fine, mark my words.”

Of course, in Winslet’s case it was her costar Leonardo DiCaprio who bore the brunt of fandemonium, as did Robert Pattinson during the Twilight years. Critics and journalists may trumpet the positive messages of female empowerment in the YA genre, but let’s face it: A leading man who sets millions of adolescent (and grown-up) girls’ hearts aflutter is often the deciding factor between a box office wave and a tsunami.

So when the filmmakers set about finding the right man to play Four, the strong and charismatic Dauntless leader, they were, well, daunted. “Shailene is a powerful person,” Burger says. “She can roll right over [another actor].” The usual suspects were called in, all the good-looking dudes on casting agents’ hot lists. “We read sooo many people,” Woodley says. Fisher jokes that they auditioned 100 guys, but in fact it was 15 to 20. “There’s so many pretty boys in town who desperately want to be Steve McQueen,” Wick says.

Nothing quite clicked until the relatively unknown James (Golden Boy), 29, walked into the room to read with Woodley. “There was this energy there,” Burger says. “He was almost more powerful than her. She was slightly intimidated and attracted to him, and he was — in the best way — kind of amused by, and attracted to, her. They had this dance from when they first met.” He laughs. “He’s a movie star, right?”

Not to add to the hype here, but the answer to that question is not just “Yeah” but “Oh, hell yeah.” The British actor’s previous claim to fame was dying in Lady Mary’s bed in the first season of Downton Abbey (Mr. Pamuk!), but the buzz about him, following a series of early screenings of the film, is close to deafening. The camera flat-out loves the guy. “Some people have it, that inner furnace,” says Wick, who compares James to Montgomery Clift. Woodley says he reminds her of George Clooney. Fisher thinks he’s got a “sensitive and manly” James Dean thing going on. Whatever it is, the guy’s days of anonymity are almost certainly numbered. During filming last year in Chicago, the whole cast took a night off to go to a Rolling Stones concert. As James danced by himself, uninhibited and unrecognized, Fisher and Wick looked on. “There was definitely a moment when we thought, ‘He’s not going to be able to do that next year,'” Fisher says.

In person James is warm and chatty, but he’s more interested in analyzing Oscar contenders and asking questions than answering them. He’s also a bit of a prankster who likes to work blue. (Mention that you’ve seen his Four Barbie doll, for example, and his first question is “Does he have a penis?“) Discussing how he plans to field the inevitable red-carpet question “Which faction would you belong to?” he says his top contenders at the moment are “Awkward Sex” and “Gryffindor.”

James comes from a large family — siblings will be flying in from Australia and England for the film’s premiere — and he’s determined to carve out space for a private life apart from the din of Hollywood. Case in point: He has a longtime girlfriend but prefers not to talk about her in interviews. “The one thing I tell my family is not to do the Googling thing,” he says. Or, at least, he’s not going to be Googling himself. “I think it’s something you can get addicted to, and it’s meaningless, really, because it’s not relevant to you or your life.”

We won’t know till the end of March whether Divergent will have the box office life its studio is hoping for. Production on the sequel begins in May, but it will take a while longer to tell if this franchise will join the ranks of YA’s crown jewels Twilight and The Hunger Games. The filmmakers know the comparisons are inevitable, but they’d rather not stand in the shadow of some other film. “Divergent probably wouldn’t exist without The Hunger Games,” says Burger. “But it’s a different story and it’s a different journey, and we’ve made a pretty intense, different movie.”

Woodley, for her part, sees no point in sweating stuff like this. “Hey, I think it’s good for our movie if they compare it to The Hunger Games,” she says. “The Hunger Games is awesome! Keep comparing us!” In that case, may the odds be ever in their favor.

Meet the Cast
A guide to key Divergent players

Peter, Miles Teller
Like Shailene Woodley’s Tris, the cocky Peter is a Dauntless initiate who transferred from another faction; he becomes one of Tris’ chief antagonists.

Caleb Prior, Ansel Elgort
Tris’ older brother surprises his family when he — like Tris — decides to leave Abnegation for a different faction, choosing the book-smart Erudite.

Christina, Zoë Kravitz
Tris’ closest friend among the Dauntless initiates, Christina — who transferred from the Candor faction — still has a tendency to speak her mind.

Eric, Jai Courtney
A Dauntless instructor who trained with Theo James’ Four, Eric seems to delight in making the trials of the initiates as difficult as possible.

Al, Christian Madsen
Though he’s large and strong, the psychological pressure of becoming a member of Dauntless seems to weigh most heavily on Al.

Will, Ben Lloyd-Hughes
The Erudite-born Will, always good at knowing facts and figures, grows particularly close to Christina during Dauntless training.

Behind The Music
The soundtrack’s indie stars

To help balance Divergent‘s sci-fi dystopia with more delicate character moments, director Neil Burger turned to a secret muse: Ellie Goulding. The U.K. songstress has three entries on the soundtrack, including the original “Beating Heart.” (Kendrick Lamar, Tame Impala, A$AP Rocky, and Zedd also contribute.) “I’m a sucker for soundtracks,” Goulding says, “so the prospect of getting involved in such an intimate way was really appealing.” Burger tells EW he chose her because “her voice resonates; it’s intensely intimate and personal…. Perfect for a movie about a young woman searching for identity as the world around her falls apart.” —Kyle Anderson

The Boy with the Faction Tattoo
The secrets behind Divergent‘s iconic ink

Step aside, Lisbeth Salander. Ever since the Divergent trailer hit the Web last November, fans have been fascinated by the full-back tattoo on the lead male character, Four (Theo James). In the film, people are divided into one of five factions, each with its own symbol: Dauntless, Abnegation, Candor, Erudite, and Amity. The tattoo, conceived by Divergent‘s Oscar-nominated production designer Andy Nicholson (Gravity), features symbols of all five factions running the length of Four’s spine, signifying the character’s resistance to being defined by any one thing.

As inspiration for the design, only hinted at in the best-selling book, Nicholson looked to 1920s abstract Russian constructivist art. The stark lines may look staid on paper, but on James’ body they clutch and curve. They’re meant to be touched. “It was about following the lines that your hand might follow if you’re feeling someone’s back,” says Nicholson. To apply the temporary tattoos, makeup head Brad Wilder (The Help) cut the transfer paper into about 40 pieces, creating a “giant jigsaw puzzle,” he says. It then took three people more than three hours to assemble the pattern on James’ back. The Brit actor supplied his own music to pass the time: jazz. —Lindsey Bahr


  • Movie
  • PG-13
  • 140 minutes
  • Neil Burger