How will the decline of humanity actually go down? It’s a question that’s served as a primary theme in literature and film for the last century, finding various incarnations in books like 1984 and Brave New World as well as films like 2001: A Space Odyssey. In more recent years, the idea of a dystopian society has driven young adult literature — a craze that’s seen a surge of blockbuster film adaptations. Following the success of The Hunger Games franchise, several other young adult series have been greenlit for the screen — most notably Veronica Roth’s Divergent trilogy, the first installment of which hits theaters this weekend.
In the series, set in a future version of Chicago, society has created systemic order by categorizing itself into five factions — Erudite, Abnegation, Dauntless, Amity and Candor. Each faction is characterized by certain inherent traits; citizens must fit seamlessly into only one. In the film, which adheres closely to the novel in story, Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley) reaches her 18th birthday and is forced to chose between her original faction of Abnegation and the lure of Dauntless. The film follows her to Dauntless, where she encounters Four (Theo James) and uncovers certain problems within the faction system, raising the question of whether people can, in fact, be divided into discrete groups.
So for the cast of Divergent — which also includes Kate Winslet, Ansel Elgort, Tony Goldwyn, Ashley Judd and Miles Teller — what does it mean to be a part of another movie about a crumbling future, and what’s the cultural obsession with imagining that future all about? Theo James, who was born in Britain, says dystopian narratives help us grapple with the issues that circulate daily in the news.
“Young people in particular have such a fascination with this kind of story,” James tells TIME. “It’s becoming part of the consciousness. You grow up in a world where it’s part of the conversation all the time – the statistics of our planet warming up. The environment is changing. The weather is different. There are things that are very visceral and very obvious, and they make you question the future and how we will survive. It’s so much a part of everyday life that young people inevitably — consciously or not — are questioning their futures and how the Earth will be. I certainly do. I wonder what kind of world my children’s kids will live in.”
Tony Goldwyn plays Andrew Prior, a leader of the society and father to Beatrice Prior. The sort of power play that unfolds in Divergent is a far cry from Goldwyn’s weekly role as the president of the U.S. on ABC’s Scandal, but the actor sees some parallels between the two: in both iterations of America, the desire for power drives human behavior. Goldwyn wasn’t familiar with the book series when he was offered the role, but accepted it because the script’s story struck a chord.
“It was a young adult story that I thought really resonated for as an adult as well,” Goldwyn says. “The thing that really grabbed me was that for something that could easily could just be a genre movie, it was really elevated by the material. There’s something about dystopian stories. It’s the idea of: ‘Our world is shattered, and now what?’ The shattering of everything that is familiar is a classic, archetypal fear. It’s dramatically really interesting. What happens if our world is destroyed and we have to start over? What kind of society would we build?”
In Divergent, the young heroine Beatrice becomes a vehicle for change by challenging the status quo; Elgort, who plays Beatrice’s brother Caleb Prior, thinks this is integral to the cultural interest in futuristic tales.
“Everyone wants to know what happens in the future,” Elgort says. “We already know the past — movies about the past are interesting, but movies about the future are really intriguing because we want to know what will happen. That’s why dystopian stories are interesting to people. It inspires you. It makes you think that people can make a difference.”
Divergent is one of many film adaptations about this theme set for release this year: The Maze Runner, the first in a recent series by James Dashner, and The Giver, based on Lois Lowry’s classic young adult novel, are both on docket. Both center on the idea that humanity will have to be controlled by some means in order to avoid self-destructing entirely. In Divergent, Erudite leader Jeanine Matthews (Winslet) says that it is necessary to rid society of human nature to survive. But this dystopian scenario being realized is an actual concern for Woodley, who says she didn’t read these sorts of books growing up and has only just started to consider their weight since filming Divergent.
“If we’re concerned, we should probably change it to an optimistic future,” Woodley says of the flood of dystopian stories. “I think it’s a good platform for looking at our society as a mirror. We have drones in the sky now and we’re genetically engineering not only fruits and vegetables, but salmon. We’re creating robotic salmon that people are going to eat; is that going to create robotic humans? It’s interesting to me that we’re beginning to eradicate human nature. We live in a society that bases everything on fear and thought process versus intuition and heart-based impulses — erasing animalistic instincts.”
If the desire to create dystopian narratives arises from a communal fear about our future, then what’s the takeaway from a movie like Divergent? For several of the actors, it’s about realizing that if you can’t control the future, then at least you can control the person you become.
“I think, in a bigger way, this is a story about becoming one’s self truly,” Goldwyn explains. “All of us are in fact divergent. So the idea of being sequestered into one personality type is something everyone relates to and something we struggle with throughout our lives. We go through different points of identity crises of trying to figure out ‘How do I become who I am?’”
“It doesn’t mean that you have to go climb buildings or jump off trains,” Woodley says. “But you can find the courage to stand up for what you believe in and diverge from mediocrity.”