Here’s the curious case of how the planned fourth and final film in The Divergent Series was nixed by the decision to switch to TV at the last minute.
In the past decade or two, there have been plenty of franchise non-starters based on young adult (YA) fantasy novels, flopping in the wake of the bigger box-office hits. For every Harry Potter-level juggernaut, there’s a Golden Compass. For every Lord Of The Rings trilogy, an Eragon. For every Twilight Saga, a Mortal Instruments: City Of Bones. In the scheme of things, it’s altogether rarer for a franchise to falter after three films out of four have been produced.
Based on the novels by Veronica Roth, The Divergent Series was very much modelled after the success of The Hunger Games, both in print and on screen. Both are dystopian sci-fi series aimed at the YA audience and on the cinematic side of things, both were produced for the screen by Summit Entertainment and Lionsgate Films.
If you’re not up on your YA dystopian series, a spotter’s guide would identify Divergent as the one that posits a society built on the results of one of those Zimbio personality quizzes that your relatives on Facebook went doolally over a few years back. In the futuristic walled city of Chicago, the obligatory social classes are named by thesaurus for the attributes that each of them represent – Dauntless, (Brave!) Erudite, (Smart!) Abnegation, (Selfless!) Amity, (Happy?) and Candour (Honest???).
The hero of the story, Tris Prior, (played by the great Shailene Woodley in the films) is dubbed as ‘Divergent’ because she embodies… more than one of these traits. Well, she’s special because she’s all five, but the label applies to anyone who makes this barking system into any sort of Venn diagram.
Anyway, over the course of the books and the films, Tris and her good-looking teenage allies zipline around a bit and start a revolution. The allegory is too broad to countenance that anyone over the age of 19 would question why their government thinks the happiest people are stupid, sad, lying cowards, and vice versa for each of the other categories.
In the end, three movies were produced on a more or less annual basis from March 2014 to March 2016. A fourth, titled Ascendant was meant to follow in summer 2017, but despite the third film, Allegiant, representing a series-low for both reviews and box office, there’s a seemingly simple but bizarre reason why the planned finale fell apart – Summit and Lionsgate decided to turn it into a TV series without asking any of the cast.
Summit picked up the option to film Roth’s first instalment back in 2011, after the success of Twilight but before the studio was acquired by Lionsgate. The mini-major was just about to have its own massive success with The Hunger Games, which turned Lionsgate into a force to be reckoned with – we’ve covered how the film transformed the studio’s fortunes in a previous episode of the Film Stories podcast, which you can listen to below:
With Divergent in development, Lionsgate and Summit both saw another Hunger Games in the making, to the extent that they boosted the budget of the first instalment from $40m to $85m during production.
The film performed solidly upon its release in 2014 and as well as greenlighting the sequel for a 2015 release, executives decided to split the third book, Allegiant, into a two-part finale to be released in 2016 and 2017.
While Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows and Twilight: Breaking Dawn had been lucratively divided into two separate instalments, this wasn’t to be the start of a trend, as Lionsgate discovered when Mockingjay Part 2 posted series-low returns for the Hunger Games franchise in late 2015. Everyone still washed their face, but the finale didn’t live up to its predecessors’ success.
This could have been an omen for Allegiant and Ascendant, which were already based on an unpopular finale. While it had a moderate reception from critics, fans by and large weren’t happy with the way in which Roth concluded her trilogy, with a eugenics-related twist and the anti-climactic conclusion for Tris.
Still, it’s not as if The Divergent Series ever brought in Katniss-level bucks, but they did well enough to suggest the series would chug along to its planned four films. Notably though, Deathly Hallows, Breaking Dawn, and Mockingjay all filmed their two instalments back to back, not as separate films.
Another bad omen ahead of Allegiant’s release was director Robert Schwentke’s departure from the series. Having made two instalments in two years, he exited Ascendant in February 2016, saying he needed a break. Lionsgate had a new director in place that same month, with Lee Toland Krieger lined up to take over and bring the finale out in summer 2017.
Then Allegiant hit cinemas. As well as being the worst reviewed entry in the series, the box-office bubble burst too. The film ultimately made $179m worldwide on a reported $142m budget, but the underwhelming opening weekend total alone was enough for reports about the fourth film’s precarious to emerge that Monday in The Hollywood Reporter.
Somewhere between March and July that year, executives decided that a TV series was the way to go. As planned, Ascendant would have brought back the ensemble of the film series but served as both a finale to the movie series and a feature-length pilot for the spin-off, which would go beyond Roth’s books and follow new characters.
In August 2016, Lionsgate Television producer Kevin Beggs told Variety: “The performance of the last segment of the theatrical didn’t really create a situation where we could commit the production resources necessary to really make the production we needed”.
“We got excited about the possibility of what the series could look like – resolving the novel in a season across 10 to 13 episodes and then expanding from there into multiple seasons. This is an example of what we call the virtuous cycle of content bouncing back and forth from TV and film. The economic upside on a long term series franchise is very substantial.”
One person who wasn’t on board with this was Woodley. Not long after this announcement, she signed up to appear in HBO’s Big Little Lies, so it’s not that she was averse to the “virtuous cycle of content” (good grief) but she made it abundantly clear from the off that she wasn’t up for a Divergent TV series. Given Tris’ fate in the second half of the book, you might even say she wouldn’t be seen dead in it.
Appearing on the US daytime show Today, she clarified: “I said that I didn’t sign up for a TV show… I signed up to tell the whole story of Tris. I would love to be able to do that. Nothing would make me happier.”
Lionsgate Television pressed ahead and by the time she was on the press circuit for Big Little Lies, Woodley had officially quit the franchise and the rest of the cast seemingly followed suit. Only Toland Krieger remained aboard the putative small-screen project.
Like several other YA movie graduates, Woodley has continued to be great in a whole bunch of less flashy and franchisable projects. In a 2018 interview with Porter Edit, she reflected on her old gig: “The last [Divergent movie] was a bit of a hard experience for everyone”.
“That was really what made me think I need to have some human experiences outside of this industry and fall in love with acting again, and Big Little Lies did that for me.”
There was further movement on Ascendant over the next couple of years for the Starz network, but ultimately, in December 2018, the project was no longer being developed for television.
What’s strange about all this is that Divergent has less personality in three films than some of those non-starters we mentioned at the top had in one. The series arrived late to the YA dystopia movie boom, right on the cusp of their over-saturation and decline.
And frankly, from the umbrella title down, it feels committee-designed to capitalise on a trend. Calling it The Divergent Series is a little like having films called The Twilight Franchise, Another Hunger Games, or Fantastic Beasts And How To Monetise Them. As a result, Divergent got two more sequels than most of these movies get, but ended in much the same way, on an unresolved cliffhanger.
The underperforming third film is what waylaid the series’ planned finale, but the decision to spin-off is what really sunk it. What The Divergent Series did have going for it was a good recurring cast, and once they jumped ship, Ascendant was very much in decline.
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