This contains spoilers from both the Divergent movie and book and may be triggering with discussions of sexual assault.
Translating a book into a movie is always a difficult feat, even with the author's blessing for the project. This month's blockbuster Divergent, based on Veronica Roth's novel, is no different. Despite making some changes in the translation, particularly the removal of Edward as a character, the movie was ultimately a great representation of the original work. With one exception: the added sexual assault scene in Tris' fear landscape.
Writer Beth Lalonde posted a wonderful, thoughtful post on the Divergent movie rape scene via Medium, but it's based on the movie alone, and it does not discuss changes from the original book. She writes:
Tris has one especially unique fear, and it’s an important one: fear of sexual assault.
Every woman knows Tris’s terror, knows the horror of walking home late at night, clutching keys like knives between her fingers. Every woman lives with the looming fear that her refusal, her no, won’t be taken seriously.
Unfortunately, in the latter, she is right. But as readers know, the former doesn't jibe with the book. I understand that movies should be taken as individual works, but I still think it's important to look at why major changes were made. In Roth's novel, Tris has a fear of intimacy, shown in her fear landscape as sexual intimacy. It can't be expressed enough: A fear of intimacy is not the same as a fear of sexual assault. And many people on Twitter agree:
A note in the second tweet is important to call out specifically. In the movie, Tris wakes up from her simulation to a room of people applauding her reaction to the attempted sexual assault from Four. Lalonde says,
Have you ever seen anything like this? Have you ever seen a teenage girl fight off a rapist on camera, let alone be congratulated for it?
She's right; I haven't. However, this is still part of the fear landscape. Those people are not actually cheering her on.
But back to the actual depiction of the assault on screen. After repeatedly telling Four to stop, saying no, she becomes aggressive, fighting him off, throwing punches, and ultimately succeeding. Many people on Twitter, as well as Lalonde see this is a triumph for women.
Then the dream ends, and she awakes to a crowd of exam proctors applauding her. Cheering her on. Patting her on the back. Telling her how brave and smart and strong she is. Telling her that she did exactly the right thing. That she’s a model for the other trainees.
I want to stop here and say that I'm glad Lalonde was able to see it this way. As a survivor of sexual assault, along with the many other women who are, it's very positive to find empowerment over those who commit these disgusting acts.
However, it's just not as easy for me to see this as a triumph. By saying that Tris "did exactly the right thing" or it was "the appropriate way for young women to respond," aren't we just putting the impetus on preventing sexual assault back on the women? So it someone not as strong as Tris is unable to fight off her attacker, is she not responding "appropriately"? Then, aren't we just saying she didn't do everything she could, and thus, it's partly her fault?
Let's go back to the idea that all women know the fear of sexual assault. As I said, currently, that is unfortunately true. But Divergent doesn't take place in the current day. You could argue that Tris doesn't have this fear. She supposedly lives in a world where women are powerful thanks to their minds, like Jeanine Matthews, or because of their strength, as girls and boys fight alongside each other in Dauntless. Women are measured to the same standards as men. Disdain doesn't seem to come from being one gender or another, but from one faction or another. Is it that hard to imagine that in this dystopian world, women aren't plagued with this fear as women are today?
The scene in which Tris is grabbed by masked people and threatened with death over the chasm adds a sexual assault element in the novel:
"A heavy hand gropes along my chest. "You sure you're sixteen, Stiff? Doesn't feel like you're more than twelve." The other boys laugh. Bile rises up in my throat and I swallow the bitter taste. "Wait, I think I found something!" His hand squeezes me. I bit my tongue to keep from screaming. More laughter."
I was relieved to find this missing from the big-screen adaptation. I'm tired of people using rape as a plot device, and it was unnecessary in the book from the start. The reason they tried to kill her was because they saw her as a worthy adversary, not because she was a woman or weak. It doesn't fit. Which is why it was particularly problematic they added this attempted rape scene later.
As a Divergent reader, I also knew watching the movie that Abnegation was not exactly big on touching, even hugging or holding hands. But this was a choice removed from the film, which again made the attempted sexual assault scene even more troubling. It could have been considered part of that unknowing, but it wasn't.
If this is a real fear, why doesn't it appear ever again in the movie? Like the birds or drowning. Is the movie simply saying that women should always fear rape, even from men like Four who has always respected her, her choices, and her body? A fear of intimacy is not easy to relate on screen, as writers are quick to note, but couldn't they find a way? Shailene Woodley is a talented woman, I'm sure she could figure it out, instead of making this massive leap and changing her fear to rape in a seemingly haphazard manner. Adding in this scene without much forethought is irresponsible, and though it may outwardly seem like a representation of a girl beating her attempted rapist, it's more troublesome for women than it seems under the surface.