‘Divergent’ Owes Its Big Box Office To This One Major Change

Expanding the villain's role may have led to a huge box office weekend for 'Divergent'

Every good hero needs a better villain. But in Veronica Roth’s “Divergent” the big bad, Jeanine Matthews, barely shows up until two-thirds through the book, and isn’t even present for the epic final showdown. Enter the movie, which not only rectified this problem with Kate Winslet‘s take on Matthews, but made sure the movie significantly amped up the stakes — and may have led to the film’s major box office haul this past weekend.

In the book, Erudite leader Jeanine Matthews is the equivalent of Voldemort. She’s the baddie who brings down Tris’ world, kills most of the kind people in the Abnegation faction and controls the more violent Dauntless faction with a brainwashing serum. She even captures good guy Four, and forces him to control the whole situation from Dauntless headquarters.

Only problem is, she does this from the safety of Erudite headquarters. And before the last third of the book, she’s barely mentioned. She isn’t referred to until a passing remark in chapter four, and then not again until chapter 25. In fact, other than a brief scene in Tris’ fear landscape she doesn’t appear “on-screen” until six chapters before the end of the book.

Then as mentioned, at the end of the book — the Luke fighting Darth Vader moment, if you will — Jeanine isn’t even around. The climax is a fight between Four and Tris, where the heroic Divergent manages to un-brainwash her boyfriend through the power of love.

The movie is decidedly different, and better for it. Undoubtedly having a star like Kate Winslet helped flesh out the part — you can’t have Winslet in the movie and only have her show up in the last 10 minutes — but Jeanine is present throughout, from the choosing ceremony at the very beginning, to checking in with Tris (Shailene Woodley) at various intervals.

At first she seems like a friend, but it’s clear she’s only befriending Tris to get info on the Dauntless, and figure out if Tris is Divergent. It not only helps flesh out Jeanine’s character, it creates a real sense of betrayal when the Erudite serum takes over all of Tris’ friends. Oh, and Jeanine kills her parents. Which is also pretty bad.

In addition, the fight between Tris and Four is still in the movie; but Jeanine is in the next room, not halfway across the city. It’s far more satisfying to watch Shailene Woodley turn the tables on Kate Winslet than just watch her have a dust-up with Theo James.

Yes, they leave Matthews alive to cause more trouble — which she will, as “Insurgent” is already a go for next year — but they still beat her physically and mentally, a much more satisfying conclusion.

Where the end of the movie is like Darth Vader flying off, spinning out of control at the end of “Star Wars,” the book’s ending is like if Darth Vader were already on the second Death Star, nonplussed that his son had destroyed his life’s work. “Whatever,” says Darth Vader. “I’ve got other things to do.”

Did this revised character arc contribute to the success of the movie? Undoubtedly. Whereas book audiences can forgive a lot when it comes to the extra time for fleshing out characters — Tris and Four’s final battle means more in the book because we’ve been in their heads for so long at that point — movie audiences don’t have that patience.

Now let’s see how they solve the problem of what happens to Jeanine Matthews in “Insurgent.”

Writer/Editor at MTV News. You can follow him on Twitter, but not in real life because that would be weird.
@azalben