On the heels of such blockbuster young adult franchises as "The Twilight Saga" and "The Hunger Games," the creative forces behind the big-screen adaptation of the dystopian novel "Divergent" know that winning over the fans of the international best-seller is a tall order to fill. But as far as the book author Veronica Roth and one of the film's stars, Ansel Elgort, are concerned, their first impressions of the movie interpretation are spot on.
"You never know what you're going to get when you make any movie, whether it be based off a book or just a movie outright, but we sat in a screening room in Los Angeles -- me, Jai Courtney, Zoe Kravitz, Tony Goldwyn, Mekhi Pfeiffer and a few others -- and we all looked at each other and held our breath before we started," Elgort recalled for me in a recent interview. "But afterward, we were all beaming and so happy that we made the movie. It was great and pretty close to the book, but also it was just a good movie. It was such a relief."
As a relative newcomer, Elgort says he sensed great things for the film going into the project, in that the young cast would be surrounded by a solid foundation of film veterans such as Kate Winslet, Ashley Judd, Pfeiffer and Goldwyn.
Roth was especially relieved since the actors lived up to the expectation of the characters she put on the pages of her 2011 international best-selling young adult novel. She told me that she didn't have a huge amount of input on casting because she was knee-deep into writing "Allegiant," the third book in "Divergent" trilogy, when the film's roster came together.
"I'm very much interested in just writing books and letting the movie people do what they do best," Roth told me. "For me, it was just a 'Let it go' process and hope that they do a good job. I don't know what would have happened if I disapproved of anyone, but it just didn't come up. I got pretty lucky. I think they did an excellent job. Even the actors who don't quite look like I imagined them to look in the book still capture the spirit of who they are. I still feel their personality. So I didn't have one worry with the cast."
Opening in theaters and on IMAX screens Thursday night, "Divergent" is set in the future Chicago, where the city's residents are divided into five different factions, which each represent different values. The Abnegation faction consists of the selfless people, while the Amity are those who are peaceful. The Candor faction is for the bluntly honest ones, Dauntless is for the fearless and Erudite is meant for the intelligent.
All residents of the city find out what faction they are meant for when they turn 16 and are administered an aptitude test, and must determine whether they want to remain with their family or choose a new faction that will separate them for the rest of their lives.
On the rare occasion, however, the test will find somebody who doesn't fit the characteristics of any factions, and in turn they're labeled a "Divergent." Seen as a danger to society, Divergents, such as Tris (Shailene Woodley) must shield her identity before she falls victim to a master plan to destroy all those of her kind. Elgort plays the pivotal role of Caleb, Tris' conflicted brother.
Elgort said he didn't necessarily feel any pressure living up to the expectations of what the fans wanted out of Caleb, and instead felt the filmmakers are the people who had to deliver on a bigger set of responsibilities.
"With 'Divergent,' it was all about establishing the world of and capturing the spirit of the book," Elgort said. "All I had to do was be a good Caleb and be a real guy. The real pressure was on the director, producer and screenwriters to bring the world to life. It was also on the costume designer and the set designers, and they did a spectacular job. I have another movie coming out called 'The Fault in Our Stars' (also co-starring Woodley) and there was more pressure on me because there was less world-building and more about establishing a relationship, but for this one, there's so much world-building, and they nailed it."
Roth said she heard from fans on the Internet over casting expectations, and while the reactions were varied, they were civil.
"Anytime you cast anyone in a movie, and for roles in this movie in particular, no one is going to agree whether that person is right or not -- especially when the judgments are being made on what they did in previous roles or something as simple as a picture of them," Roth said. "The true test comes when the movie comes out and everybody gets to see how the actor portrays the character. I heard some concerns early on, but I'm pretty sure the concerns have mostly disappeared and will continue to disappear with the other movies."
The next movie in the "Divergent" trilogy, "Insurgent," will reportedly come out in 2015, while the final film, "Allegiant," is pegged for a 2016 release.
Tim Lammers is a nationally syndicated movie journalist and the author of the new ebook Direct Conversations: The Animated Films of Tim Burton (Foreword by Tim Burton).