‘Divergent’ director Neil Burger: Tris Prior’s tale is a hero myth

March 14, 2014 | 4:05 p.m.
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Ben Lloyd Hughes, Zoe Kravitz and Shailene Woodley in "Divergent." (Summit Entertainment)

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Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley, Ben Lamb, Zoe Kravitz and Jai Courtney in "Divergent." (Summit Entertainment)

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Shailene Woodley, Ashley Judd, Tony Goldwyn and Ansel Elgort in "Divergent." (Jaap Buitendijk / Summit Entertainment)

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Theo James, Zoe Kravitz, Miles Teller and Ben Lloyd Hughes in "Divergent." (Summit Entertainment)

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Shailene Woodley, author Veronica Roth and director Neil Burger on the set of "Divergent." (Summit Entertainment)

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Theo James, left, and Shailene Woodley in "Divergent." (Jaap Buitendijk / Summit Entertainment)

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Shailene Woodley, left, and Theo James in "Divergent." (Jaap Buitendijk / Summit Entertainment)

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Director Neil Burger, left, Jai Courtney and Theo James on the set of "Divergent." (Summit Entertainment)

Tris Prior may be arriving on the big screen after Katniss Everdeen of “The Hunger Games,” Clary Fray of “The Mortal Instruments” and the princesses of “Frozen,” but “Divergent” director Neil Burger sees the film’s young protagonist as more than just the latest in a recent string of booty-kicking heroines.

Rather, Burger says, the leading lady in the film adaptation of Veronica Roth’s bestselling novel is an example of a classic mythical hero.

“Divergent,” which makes its theatrical debut in a week, follows Tris (Shailene Woodley) as she tries to find her place in a future world where people are categorized by their personalities and strictly divided into factions based on those virtues. Tris is born into Abnegation, the faction that values selflessness, but her personality test reveals she is divergent, meaning she doesn’t fit neatly into any single faction. It’s a quality that could get her killed, and Tris chooses to hide her divergence and join Dauntless, the faction that values bravery.

PHOTOS: ‘Divergent’ character posters

"Divergent" director Neil Burger, photographed in his Manhattan home in 2011. (Jennifer S. Altman / For The Times)

“Divergent” director Neil Burger, photographed in his Manhattan home in 2011. (Jennifer S. Altman / For The Times)

What follows is, more or less, a hero’s origin story as Tris blazes her own trail, discovering that her seemingly paradisiacal society is actually a dystopia.

Hero Complex chatted with Burger, whose previous credits include “Limitless,” “The Illusionist” and “The Lucky Ones,” about the hero’s journey Tris faces in “Divergent.”

Hero Complex: How did you decide that you wanted to make “Divergent”? What was the main appeal for you?

Neil Burger: I think it was a couple of things. As a filmmaker, it’s always interesting to create a new world and a challenge also, kind of a daunting challenge ’cause there’s lots of great movies that are futuristic or post-apocalyptic or whatever. But still, it’s a great opportunity as a filmmaker to come up with a visual language for the future. And then I really liked what it was about, which was linked with Tris’ journey of “Who am I? Where do I belong? Am I loyal to my group or to my family, or am I loyal to myself? And how far out on a limb do I go for any of that?” I like all those ideas, and I thought all those ideas were universal. I thought they were interesting whether you were a teenage girl or a 20-, 30-, 40-year-old man. I liked her journey, and I thought that those ideas were really tightly tied to the action of the movie. What happens in the movie really is an expression of those ideas, the trials that she’s put through to try to find her place in this society.

HC: In the past few years, we’ve seen “Twilight” and “The Hunger Games” and “The Mortal Instruments” — tons of books that are marketed to the same age group that have been adapted for the big screen. What sets “Divergent” apart?

NB: “Divergent” is truly about how do we live together, how do we ever live together as a society. It starts out as personal — she starts out questioning her place in society — and then it grows into questioning society itself. It’s like, how do we get along, and what if you don’t fit in, and how does society deal with that? And there’s this whole faction system about the way that society has been divided in order to keep it peaceful and harmonious, and what if that doesn’t work — then what do you do? And I think those issues are much bigger. It’s working on a much bigger canvas as far as those ideas go than those movies, and I think that what it does is balance that personal, intimate story of this young woman who goes on this larger journey and then becomes a part of this conflict in society that has real-world questions and consequences for us.

Director Neil Burger, left, Jai Courtney and Theo James on the set of "Divergent." (Summit Entertainment)

Director Neil Burger, left, Jai Courtney and Theo James on the set of “Divergent.” (Summit Entertainment)

HC: So you view “Divergent” as a superhero story? Or a hero myth?

NB: I always feel like hers is a true hero’s journey. It has all those hallmarks, all those steps that a classic hero from mythology takes. Tris is a hero, but actually not a superhero. She doesn’t have supernatural powers. She’s divergent, but that really just means that she’s different, and the only sort of advantage that she has is that she’s self-aware in her fear landscapes, in those psychological tests that they put her through, and that’s about it. That, I suppose, gives her a certain advantage, but it doesn’t give her any kind of magic. It doesn’t give her a supernatural advantage. What she does and what she accomplishes, she really earns. She gets it and survives and solves her problems through real, hard work and determination, and that’s what appealed to me. She gets into a situation, which is joining Dauntless where she’s completely over her head, and what’s at stake for her is that if they find out she’s divergent, they’re going to kill her. She’s different in this society where you have to be the same. She’s most at risk in Dauntless, because they’re really the ones that are going to do the killing, so she’s right in the lion’s den. And the way she gets through that is that she has to hide in plain sight, and she has to be more dauntless than the Dauntless. She has to solve her problems and survive just through that hard work and by trying to figure it out herself.

But I think that it does have similarities to — if you think of Spider-man, where it’s a teen hero who feels inadequate and worthless and alone, and then who comes into this great power. On that hero’s journey, whether it be a mythological hero or a superhero, the protagonist realizes that they’re different. And that they have to come to terms with their new abilities or with their new powers, and to put them to use in a different way. With her, what’s different is that she doesn’t have great power, but she has great resolve. And what I like about it is that she’s different, but she’s no different than any of us. That’s what’s great about the conceit. She’s Divergent, she feels different, and in her world, if you’re different you’re in danger. That’s great, because we all feel different. We all feel like we’re outsiders. We all have those questions of, “If I’m different, do I just try to blend in? Do I conform? Or do I embrace my own voice, do I follow my own heart? And if I do go my own way, what’s the cost to me?”

Shailene Woodley, left, and Theo James in "Divergent." (Summit Entertainment)

Shailene Woodley, left, and Theo James in “Divergent.” (Summit Entertainment)

HC: So it’s an origin story.

NB: I think that’s really right. I think it is an origin. It is a classic origin story in the sense of that “Divergent” is the first movie in a planned trilogy. The book “Divergent” is the first act in the larger story. And that is the origin story — how our hero came to be before she goes on her further adventures in the next act, in the next book, in the next movie. I think that what’s great, and what is like these superhero stories, is that she begins on kind of a classic hero’s journey.

If you think of Joseph Campbell sort of having laid out and helped us define the great template for the heroes, you begin as an ordinary person in kind of this mundane life, and then there’s some kind of great opportunity that happens or some sort of call to adventure. Tris starts out as the least likely person to be the one to save society. She’s unassuming, she seems ordinary, she doesn’t seem like she has any strength. And she has this test done that everybody takes to learn where they belong and what group she’s destined to be in, and all she finds out is that she’s different. She’s divergent. But in a way, that’s a great opportunity, because she suddenly has a choice to make. It’s not pre-ordained. She can decide. The test hasn’t determined where she should go. She has to decide for herself. And she does, and she goes off running with the Dauntless. She jumps, she takes that leap into that dark abyss, into that hole. She jumps into that dark, ragged hole, and it’s like going down the throat of the dragon or into the belly of the whale. And you don’t know what’s at the bottom, but she takes that leap, and because of that, she’s transformed.

Read Part 2 of this interview here and Part 3 of this interview here.

– Noelene Clark | @NoeleneClark | Google+

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