This post contains major spoilers of the Divergent and Twilight series.
Shailene Woodley, the actress who will star in the movie version of the Divergent trilogy, made headlines on Wednesday for criticizing another young adult book-to-film franchise, Twilight.
“Twilight,’ I’m sorry, is about a very unhealthy, toxic relationship,” she tells Teen Vogue in their April issue. “[Bella] falls in love with this guy and the second he leaves her, her life is over and she’s going to kill herself! What message are we sending to young people? That is not going to help this world evolve.”
Woodley’s criticism of Twilight is nothing new, but she is in a unique position to make that argument: The Divergent trilogy is an outstanding example of a young adult series that gets relationships right. Here’s a look at some of the lessons other YA novels can learn to be less like Twilight and more like Divergent:
1. Love takes time to develop, and so should fictional characters. In Divergent, the first book of the dystopian series, Beatrice ‘Tris’ Prior is a teenager conflicted about her identity. Struggling to hide certain aspects of her personality and accept others, Tris must decide where she wants to fit into society. Readers discover early on that everyone in Tris’s age group must choose to live in one of five factions for the rest of their lives, based on their individual values: Selflessness, honesty, knowledge, peace, and bravery. Within the first few chapters, Tris is informed that she’s ‘divergent’ — while others are stuck, she can easily belong to several factions. This complicates her decision to pledge allegiance to one, and sets her apart from people around her, whose singular affinities make their faction choice more clear-cut. As Tris grapples with loyalty, morality, and her own sense of self, readers immediately realize that Tris is a complex, multi-dimensional person. All of this happens before Tris meets her future love interest, Tobias ‘Four’ Eaton. In other words, author Veronica Roth gave the main character depth before introducing a love element to the story — unlike in Twilight, where Bella and Edward interacted in the first chapter. In the real world, personal development leads to more mature love; the gradual relationship between Tris and Tobias reflects that, and makes for a more interesting and relatable story than Twilight.
2. Love is not always easy. In stark contrast of Bella and Edward, whose individuality is overshadowed by their mutual, obsessive affection for one another, Tris and Tobias have two very distinct personalities. Although both left the faction they were born into (Abnegation) for Dauntless, the two struggle with their own demons — Tobias with forgiving his abusive father, Tris with the fact that she shot her friend to death. While the two lean on one another for love and support, they are not always of one mind. The two make decisions independently of one another, and distrust threatens the relationship on numerous occasions. Both ultimately have to grow as individuals in order for the relationship to work.
3. Love does not always win in the end. Divergent does not subscribe to the idealistic notion that love conquers all. That unrealistic portrayal of romance is rife in young adult fiction — and not just Twilight. From Harry Potter to The Hunger Games, characters don’t often lose a partner, emotionally or physically. But the Divergent series chooses not to shy away from death. Tris dies in Allegiant, the third installment of the Divergent series, and that makes the ending of the story all the more provocative and refreshing. Additional relationships in the series are cut short by death, which actually contributes to the plot and character development: Tris, Tobias, and their friends are constantly set back by grief and guilt, and must overcome unpredictable circumstances too succeed in their mission. As a result, readers experience the ups and downs of love and war, and ultimately learn that romantic relationships can fail. Roth gives young adults a more pragmatic representation of love, and undermines the destructive fantasy that it is invincible.
***Shailene Woodley is right. Books have the potential to shape young readers’ perceptions of the world. Young adult authors can write with this in mind, and promote signs of a healthy relationship when applicable. It’s not to say the Divergent series does not have faults, but Roth’s treatment of love proves that stories can be educational in a compelling way.