I have watched a number of movies lately that seemed to have a theme in common. The two that come to mind had a definite “teen sci-fi” flare to them: “Divergent,” and “The Giver.” While I hesitate to lump the two into the same category (and will no doubt be mentally excoriated for doing so by any who have seen both) they have a lot of similarities. Both are based on novels marketed primarily for teens, both involve dystopian futures in which an apparently benevolent government or cultural schema controls all aspects of life. However, this controlling, impersonal authority (personalized in the character of an older, neatly dressed woman in both cases) is revealed to have sinister designs, and the cultural schema is shown to have dark secrets. It must be resisted by the protagonist who is singled out in a coming of age ceremony. The protagonist has talents and abilities which set him or her apart from everyone else, and he or she must make the choice whether to use those talents to serve the power or to challenge it for the sake of true freedom. The choice to pursue freedom for themselves leads to the choice to sacrifice in order to provide freedom for everyone else in their society as well.
In fact, the main difference is the writing and the depth of the themes explored by the nature of the differences. These differences are significant; I would not consider “Divergent” worth a second watch, although I plan on reading the book. “The Giver” I would watch again, and I plan on re-reading the book several times, probably out loud to my children when they are old enough.
But the theme they held in common is what you might call the “set apart” theme. It is different from the lone hero theme, which is common to much great literature. For instance, Frodo Baggins is a consummate lone hero, but he is not a “set apart” hero. He becomes a lone hero by the end of the trilogy, but he does not start out that way. He starts out as a perfectly normal hobbit, just like every other hobbit. He is thrust into abnormal circumstances by external factors, and the experience of carrying the One Ring to Mordor sets him apart. When he departs from the Grey Havens, alone, he does so because he has sacrificed his ordinariness so that others might keep it.
The “set apart” hero is a little different. The set apart hero begins the story different from everyone else. Either he is born that way, or something (e.g. a mutated spider bite) makes him that way. The story is about him exploring that difference, coming to terms with it, and deciding what to do with it.
In “The Giver,” Jonas is different because he can see and feel things that everyone else has forgotten how to see and feel. He sees color, feels emotion, and looks beyond the surface of things. In “Divergent,” Tris is different because she has the ability to embrace the traits of more than one of the dominant social classes. They are born with these traits without knowing that they have them, but in the coming of age ceremony they discover them, and it is this discovery which prompts the growth arc.
What struck me about the “set apart” theme was how deeply it seems to resonate with people. I know one man (in his mid-thirties) who insists that “Divergent” could have been written about him. He doesn’t fit into everyone else’ categories, his brain works differently, he sees possibilities that no one else sees, etc. The “set apart” hero taps into a very powerful longing that everyone has to be different, to be unique, special, mysterious.
Perhaps this is why the ordinary hero tends to be better literature, in my opinion. It is more realistic. Ordinary people without special powers or special talents how have to rise to extraordinary challenges make better stories. We want to root for them, the people who have to struggle, fight for it, earn their specialness. We root even more for those who have no choice but to fight for what they love, and so specialness is thrust upon them when they would like nothing more than to remain ordinary.
But the “set apart” hero has a place too. It calls to the place in us that wants to be different, unique, special, because we are different, unique, special. At the very center of every human being there is an intransigence, something that is utterly incommunicable. The reason that these stories resonate so deeply, especially among the nerds, weirdos and outcasts, is that they are most used to not being understood. Everyone, however, knows what it is like to be misunderstood. Everyone goes through times when they feel that no one “gets” them. Everyone feels, occasionally, an uncrossable gulf yawning between them and even their closest friends.
There is a reason for this. It is important. It means something. In truth, each human being is unique because each human being: “is ‘alone’: this is to say that through his own humanity, through what he is, he is at the same time set into a unique, exclusive, and unrepeatable relationship with God himself” (John Paul II, Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body. 6:2). Each human person is, at his very core, utterly and irrevocably alone. That is why it is natural for everyone to feel at times like no one understands. No one gets you. Of course not. Only God can get you, because there is an aspect or facet of God that you, and you alone in all of time and space, were created to see and know and love.
Gaze on that face of God, allow it to suffuse your being. Then share that being with the world, and you will find that you are unique and original, without having to look at yourself at all.