Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Hazards of Book to Film Adaptations: Further Reflections on Attempted Rape in Divergent

Shailene Woodley and Theo James in a still from Divergent, courtesy of Summit.

I wrote about the Divergent movie last week and touched only briefly upon the problematic attempted rape scene that was inserted into Tris’ final fear landscape. Since then, many more people have seen the film and weighed in on this scene. Some, like Beth Lalonde at Medium, found the scene empowering. Lalonde’s piece is extremely personal, and because of that, it’s impossible to write off her reaction as “wrong.” But the piece is problematic since it doesn’t put the scene in context with its source material – the book.

As readers, we have to be careful about how we judge movies made from the books we love. The movie is not the book, nor should it be. They’re different mediums and communicate in different ways. I think book fans are often too quick to denigrate film adaptations for simply deviating from the source material that they love. A film must deviate from the book, and sometimes these deviations must be major ones in order for the film to work as a film.

That said, we cannot look at a film completely on its own. As viewers, we have the right – perhaps even the responsibility – to compare the two and decide whether the changes the filmmakers decided upon worked, whether they served the story and its characters.

It would appear Lalonde hasn’t read the book, which is fine. The movie wouldn’t be successful if it only attracted readers of the novel. But when I consider the fact that there is no such scene in the book, I must then ask “Why did the filmmakers feel it was necessary to put this in there?”

From there, I speculate. Maybe one day an interviewer will ask the screenwriter or the director or whoever was responsible for the scene about its inclusion, but until then, speculate is all I can do.

The kindest answer to my question may be that the filmmakers thought it would be too difficult to communicate Tris’ fear of sexual intimacy – or just affection in general – on the big screen. The book is told in first-person, making insights into Tris’ mind natural and easy. Here’s an excerpt:

My fear is being with him. I have been wary of affection all my life, but I didn’t know how deep that wariness went.

But this obstacle doesn’t feel the same as the others. It is a different kind of fear – nervous panic rather than blind terror.

He slides his hands down my arms and then squeezes my hips, his fingers sliding over the skin just above my belt, and I shiver.

I gently push him back and press my hands to my forehead. I have been attacked by crows and men with grotesque faces; I have been set on fire by the boy who almost threw me off a ledge; I have almost drowned – twice – and this is what I can’t cope with? This is the fear I have no solutions for – a boy I like, who wants to…have sex with me?

Simulation Tobias kisses my neck.

I try to think. I have to face the fear. I have to take control of the situation and find a way to make it less frightening.

I look Simulation Tobias in the eyes and say sternly, “I am not going to sleep with you in a hallucination. Okay?”

Perhaps the filmmakers thought that showing the beginning of a consensual sexual act – which is stopped by words, not violence – would be confusing for viewers without this narration, that viewers would be left wondering why on earth Tris fears something that looks so nice.

I think this is probably the most likely explanation, but it’s also confusing to me as a reader, a viewer, and someone who used to be a teenager. There may be nothing more terrifying than having sex for the first time, even with someone who respects your boundaries, as Four clearly does with Tris (both in the book and in the movie). Just because something feels good doesn’t mean it’s not also scary; the two are not mutually exclusive.

This fear would have come across just fine on the screen, had the filmmakers given it a shot. Woodley is a fine actress, and this fear is so nearly universal, it would be easy for viewers to relate to it and understand it. After all, we already know that it’s Tris’ fear landscape, which means we already know that the things in it are meant to be frightening. It wouldn’t take a great logical leap to conclude that Tris is afraid of sexual intimacy.

Rather than simply omitting this scene, which the filmmakers may have deemed too difficult to convey on film, they chose to make it into something else. Perhaps they did not intend to explicitly tell readers and viewers that they felt Tris’ fear of sexual intimacy was equivalent to fear of rape, but by making the choice to exclude the book’s scene and create the attempted rape scene, that’s exactly what they have done.

The less charitable part of me has another answer to my question: that the scene was created to heighten the drama, to show how tough Tris can be, because rape is, as we’ve all been told over and over, the worst thing that could happen to a girl or woman. Therefore, we may conclude, this is the ultimate test of a female Dauntless. The Four in the movie simulation even says something to that effect, taunting Tris, “Aren’t you a Dauntless?”

If this is the reason, it’s lazy. It fails to dig deep into the characters and show us a fear – a really scary one – that Tris may have based upon her unique personality and situation. This is not a change that serves the characters or their story. What’s more, it doesn’t function well even when considered separately from the book. There’s no precedent for Four committing sexual violence given to us in the film. He willingly backs off when Tris asks him to. He puts no pressure on her to take it further than she wants. Perhaps the filmmakers assumed that all girls innately fear rape, but then why wasn’t it perpetrated by Peter or one of the masked attackers assisting Al? She certainly has reason to fear those people, though again, their violence did not have sexual overtones previously in the film. (Note that I don’t think this is what the filmmakers should have done either, but it would have been truer to the characters as they were portrayed on the screen.)

Melissa Montovani at YA Bookshelf writes about this in her three-part series focusing on this scene. It’s a thorough and respectful piece, which both responds to Lalonde and expounds upon the many different ways this added scene is problematic. She talks a lot about how it actually reinforces rape culture, teaching girls and women that they should be afraid of a boy or man with whom they previously felt safe, as well as putting the onus of not getting raped on the victim. It’s well worth a read and adds the necessary context that Lalonde’s piece is missing.

I know there will be a lot more discussion of this in the coming weeks. If you have thoughts or opinions, I’d like to read them in the comments.

2 comments:

  1. I think this is particularly interesting when you consider how the movie changes the way the Dauntless are supposed to overcome their fear landscapes. In the movie, they fight them. But in the book, they give in to them. In Four's fear landscape, he jumps from the height, they make themselves smaller in the box. In Tris's fear of intimacy, she has to work past her fear by becoming a sexual participant. Since they changed the way of defeating the fear landscapes in the movie, that wouldn't work. They make her fight against the fear instead of feeling the fear and doing it anyway. The book way works better in the climax of the story, because this is how Tris is able to snap Four out of his simulation, but of course the movie way we get a big fight scene as she tries to fight the simulation first.

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  2. In the book, Abnegation isn't very affectionate, but they were not portrayed that way in the movie; therefore, it wouldn't make as much sense for Tris to fear intimacy.

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