Before the dystopian genre became all the rage for Hollywood, there was a children’s book released in 1993, written by Newberry Medal winner Lois Lowry called The Giver. Its about a world that dealt with the aftermath of war by eliminating every element that may cause conflict in the lives of the new world. I read the book a couple of years ago and thought it was shocking, haunting and brilliant, especially for a book targeted at middle schoolers. Now that it merited its own movie, I was curious how the book would translate to the big screen.
Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) is a teenager on the cusp of leaving his childhood in a community living peacefully in Sameness — where rules are effected to avoid conflict. Rules like never lie, precision of language, number of children allowed per family unit, taking a dose of daily injections, with all of their actions monitored by the Elders at all times. It is also a world devoid of color and strong emotions, where people go about their business like automatons. During the ceremony where the teens graduate to be members of the community, Jonas is chosen to be the Receiver of Memories, a distinguished and difficult position that only ten years prior, pushed a trainee to ask for “release.” When the Giver (Jeff Bridges) starts Jonas’s training, he encourages him to forego the rules that he grew up with, and instead embrace the joy and pain that comes with receiving all of the memories of the world before them. But as he discovers the wealth of information, his education pushes him to do more to free the people from the Sameness borne from fear of uncertainty.
A lot of anticipation came with The Giver movie, mainly because it was such a well loved book. This came before The Hunger Games, Divergent, Delirium, Matched, Enders Game, Partials, and the whole host of dystopian novels targeted at young adults. One of the noticeable differences of the book from the movie was the age of its main characters. While movie Jonas was well in his teens, book Jonas was only 12, and of course, the “stirrings” he felt with his friend Fiona, who was also a 12 in the book, was hyped up in the movie version. A lot of people did not like the change but it was completely understandable for the film to age the the characters a little bit because they were going for The Hungers Game market (teens) and they had to have a charismatic cute boy and a love interest to do that. Even Game of Thrones made their characters a bit older because it would be weird to see 13 year old Robb Stark and Jon Snow wielding swords or 12 year old Sansa getting married on cable television.
But messing with the original material comes with pros and cons. And while the movie succeeded in getting its target market engaged in the story because of the teen romance angle, what was lost was the originality of the premise of children being weaned on the illusion of safety in Sameness, which was more shocking and sad. The part that really spoke to me about the book was Jonas’s youth and the responsibility that he had to bear in wanting to save his community from ignorance of the truth. It was what made The Giver so different from the others in its genre. It was the gradual loss of innocence and call to courage.
I didn’t hate The Giver, or thought it was substandard to the book. I thought it did the material enough justice, but because it came after a parade of other films with the same genre and the same audience, it felt too familiar. Because audiences were already used to kids and teens killing each other to stay alive, or being used for war, the message of the Giver seemed a bit on the mild side and Jonas’ adventure or mission seemed staid compared to the competition. Even the set designs seemed too familiar. At the end of the day, it didn’t matter that it was written first, because it was adapted later than the others, and truthfully, since its the trend in Tinseltown, these YA adaptations have been trying to outdo each other with a vengeance because they’re battling for the same audience.
The Giver had a lot going for it though and its best weapon was Academy Award Jeff Bridges who portrayed the titular role with a vengeance. The contrast of the depths of his emotions to the stoicism of the rest of the community was a master class in acting and his torment at the loss of his daughter was heartbreaking. The best moments of the movie were always with him in the scene. Thwaites was not bad as Jonas but he needs to polish up his acting if he wants to be more than just a pretty face in Hollywood. With the type of roles he’s landing, he shouldn’t waste the opportunity and step up his game. Of the supporting cast, Alexander Skaarsgard really stood out as Jonas’ father. Despite not knowing the gravity of what he was doing, there was a quiet battle raging in him that he struggles against and the subtlety in his acting was great. I loved the slight change in his look when he was forced to bend the rules.
All in all, The Giver was a good adaptation by director Philip Noyce. Sure, it took some liberties with the original material but not enough to destroy the essence of the literature. It took upon itself to expand on some of the events to add to the drama and the suspense and it was a good call to add some spice to the movie for people who read the book so it didn’t become too predictable.