‘Divergent’ director on why he cut, changed scenes from the book

March 26, 2014 | 5:00 a.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)

Adapting an already-beloved book for the big screen is no easy feat, but with “Divergent,” director Neil Burger says he wasn’t afraid of the fans.

In developing “Divergent,” based on Veronica Roth’s bestselling young-adult book trilogy, Burger made major changes to the details of heroine Tris Prior’s tale while aiming to stay true to the spirit of the story.

"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)

The movie follows Tris (Shailene Woodley) as she tries to find her place in a future society in which young people are sorted and divided into factions based on personality. Tris finds out she is divergent, meaning she has an aptitude for multiple factions — a trait that could get her killed in the rigidly divided society. She decides to keep her divergence a secret and joins Dauntless, the faction based on bravery.

For the film, Burger changed several aspects of her journey, including how the city (a future version of Chicago) is portrayed, cutting several death scenes, and altering the way Tris handles fear simulations, designed to test Dauntless initiates’ courage. Hero Complex chatted with Burger, whose previous credits include “Limitless,” “The Illusionist” and “The Lucky Ones,” about the reasoning behind those deviations from the book. Also, be sure to check out Part 1 of the interview, about Tris’ tale as a classic hero myth, and Part 2 of the interview, about Burger’s experience working with his young but talented cast.

Hero Complex: The book spends so much time in Tris’ mind. How did you go about translating that to something audiences could see?

Neil Burger: It’s a challenge. Basically you’re creating this world, but I felt it was very important that the movie be rigorously from her point of view. It was her journey, and what we see in the movie are things that she’s experiencing and the way that she’s experiencing them. It was important to keep it intimate and personal even as she was on this grand societal stage in the midst of what becomes a huge problem in society and real battle in society.

HC: Did you work closely with Roth in developing your vision for the film? Or did you seek to do something completely different?

NB: There’s a vision in the book, and so I had a lot of questions for Veronica, ’cause as a filmmaker, you’re going to see everything. Even when you’re writing a book, you can steer the audience to whatever it is you’re writing or talking about, whereas a filmmaker, in a film the audience’s eye can roam anywhere. So I had a lot of questions for Veronica about how did the world become this way, how did the world work, did they use money, where did they get their food, was there a marketplace, what did people do in their leisure time? Just things that were in the book, and things that as a filmmaker you need to know so that you’re creating a credible world, even if they don’t appear in the movie. I had a ton of questions for her and about where it was going, as well, so that as we set up things or went down certain paths, we made sure we were going in the right direction.

HC: You mention wanting to know where the story was going, and the third book “Allegiant” came out while you were working on the film. Did knowing the way the story ended change the way you approached things?

NB: A little bit, yeah. It’s funny, ’cause “Divergent” is really act one of the story, and there’s a lot that’s not answered in “Divergent” that is really just setting up the later books. That actually really was challenging because the story, it’s close-ended in the sense that there’s this battle with Erudite and Abnegation, but there’s a lot of questions that aren’t answered in the first book, so the real challenge was making the movie feel like it was finished and had a conclusion even though it was leading off in these other stories.

HC: How did your vision differ from the book’s?

NB: One thing that I did in the movie was that I tried to actually make the world almost more of a communal utopia than it is in the book. In the book, everything is crumbling and you see the cracks in the system from the beginning. But for me it was important — because Tris is trying to find her place in the society, she wants to be a part of the society — that the initial depiction of the society needed to be a positive one, that we needed to be with Tris, that it was a place that seemed worthy of her wanting to join it. So in a way, at the beginning what’s different in the movie is that the society seems like it is successful. They’re human beings, so it’s not a utopia, but it is a working society. They’ve come up with a political system, this faction system, that works, and Tris is trying to find her place in it. She wants to be a part of it, so visually that meant doing things in a slightly different way. There’s a sort of a glow to it and a warmth and an illuminance, and then obviously when the cracks develop in the story, her perception of the society visually starts to change.

HC: You decided not to include a death scene that occurred early on in the book, when a Dauntless initiate dies during a jump from a train.

NB: I did take out those early deaths. The whole way I portrayed the world was just slightly different in the beginning, and it was to work toward the spirit of the book and what I thought was most powerful about the book, but in a way that would work for the movie, and that is that she very much wants to be a part of this society. She wants to find where she belongs. So I felt like in a larger sense, I was portraying the society initially through her eyes as successful. I portrayed it as a communal utopia rather than an already-crumbling dystopia, because I felt like I wanted the audience to be with her in her choice. She wanted to fit in with this society, and if I showed the society as a place not worth fitting in, then we wouldn’t be with her. And then particularly with Dauntless, if we showed it to be just a brutally cruel place right from the moment she leaves the choosing ceremony, with jack-booted fascist guards and things like that, it’s like, why would anybody want that? Why would you choose that? You wanted to be with her in her choice, and you wanted to feel like she had found a home for herself, the place where she belongs, and you wanted to be with her, at least briefly, on the first day’s journey. I felt like if somebody’s dying on that train and nobody cared, it was like, you’d already be thinking, why does she want to be a part of this place? In the book, Veronica has pages and pages to write her way around those events. … In the movie, you don’t have that ability. If you show those people dying and nobody doing anything about it, you’re like, I don’t like them, and I don’t know why Tris likes them, and so I don’t like Tris, because I don’t get her.

Shailene Woodley in "Divergent." (Jaap Buitendijk / Summit Entertainment)

Shailene Woodley in “Divergent.” (Jaap Buitendijk / Summit Entertainment)

HC: Shailene Woodley is new to action, but then again so is Tris when she first starts out in Dauntless. Unlike the book, which sees Tris rise quickly in the Dauntless rankings, in the movie she really has to struggle, especially in the fighting ring. Why is that?

NB: I think because I wanted to show her transformation as the result of hard work. She slowly works her way up, but when she begins, she is really the least likely to succeed. Tris just has a yearning for a kind of freedom, actually, and a yearning to be herself and to find herself. So she puts in that hard work, and she does change. She’s not at the bottom the whole time. When she first steps into that ring — and that is a slightly different scene than in the book, and it was something I wanted to explore — she steps into that ring opposite Molly and is told to fight, and I wanted that feeling of what would that really be like, and what would you do? I don’t want to be told to get into a ring. Somebody says get in and you have to fight for your life, you don’t want to do it. So she prepares herself and backs up and backs up and backs up, hoping for the right moment until she backs up out of the ring and is humiliated. But from that, she resolves to do something about it and to make herself stronger and better.

HC: You also adjusted the way fear simulations works, particularly the way Tris deals with them. Was this an effort to simplify that concept for the screen?

NB: In the books it’s complicated, because the longer you stay in [a simulation], the better, but you don’t want to stay in too long, because then that’s too long. It was complicated, and she has 400-plus pages and three books to write her way around how it can be a little bit of this and a little bit of that. In a movie, you want to understand what’s happening, and what happens if this goes on too long, and it has to have impact, and you have to understand the stakes immediately for it to be dramatic, for you to connect with the character. So I kind of simplified what were those stakes, and also tried to make it more universal, like how somebody is feeling through that. And I basically tried to relate it back to her being divergent, to know that being divergent gave her a bit of a sense of self-awareness in those controlled nightmares, but if she showed her self-awareness, because they are watching you, that would give her away and potentially get her killed. I also just want it to be scary, like what is your universal fear? I don’t want to be attacked by birds, I don’t want to be caught in a place where I can’t breathe like in that tank and be losing my air. I wanted to play with that.

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

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

HC: And as a result, you had her solve the simulations differently than she did in the book?

NB: I was trying to come up with a methodology within it. How they worked and what the Dauntless would be looking for, and how she’d be able to sort of subvert that.

HC: You also added that beautiful scene where Tris and the other Dauntless initiates are lifted and carried.

NB: It was to show she felt like she finally had found where she belongs.

Read Part 1 of this interview here and Part 2 of this interview here.

– Noelene Clark | @NoeleneClark | Google+


Tris (Shailene Woodley) in a character poster for "Divergent." (Summit Entertainment)

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Kate Winslet shakes things up with a villainous turn

Winslet, Judd share thoughts on Shailene Woodley

‘Divergent’: Shailene Woodley in warrior mode

‘Divergent’: Maggie Q talks Tori, tough heroines

Ansel Elgort talks ‘Divergent,’ ‘Fault in Our Stars’

‘Divergent’ director: Tris’ tale is a hero myth

‘Divergent’: Ashley Judd talks Natalie Prior

‘Divergent’: Jai Courtney, Miles Teller on being bad

‘Divergent’ trailer, director Q&A tease ‘brutal’ action


9 Responses to ‘Divergent’ director on why he cut, changed scenes from the book

  1. cadavra says:

    And where were Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor, the credited and presumably actual screenwriters, when all this was going on?

    • blackbird says:

      screenwriters rarely originate the script. they're often work for hire, just writing down whatever the producers and directors tell them to. it's not the same thing as writing a spec script

  2. Tiffany says:

    My friends and I very much enjoyed the movie and completely understand that you can never follow a book to the tee, but things that were changed in the book were unnecessary. Also, some of the characters didn't even remotely come close to their descriptions in the book. I'm excited for the second movie and hope that it stays more in line with the actual story.

  3. Holla says:

    I overall loved the movie but I was sad that tris wasn’t ranked first cuz that was a big part in the movie, and that four didn’t really tell tris he liked her, and since my friend didn’t read the book she didn’t know of fourtris until they kissed. But I thought it was the best movie I’ve ever saw.

  4. Kenneth says:

    So since you made an awesome change in the movie, will insergent and allegiant be different from the book? Will Tris Live?

  5. Hayley says:

    I would like to know what happened to Eric (Jai Courtney) getting stabbed in the eye I found that important in Insurgent? I was pretty disipointed that that didn’t happen :(‘

  6. hannah says:

    I personally loved the changes made in the movie. especially when it came to the fear simulations. (especially Four's) love the movie and the books, can't wait for the other movies.

  7. ALEJANDRA says:

    This was a good movie but the book is great I can only hope that the next movie is taken more off the book people are missing a lot of good stuff.

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