Directed by Phillip Noyce. Starring Jeff Bridges, Brenton Thwaites, Alexander Skarsgård, Taylor Swift, Meryl Streep, Odeya Rush, Cameron Monaghan, Katie Holmes, Emma Tremblay. Written by Robert B. Weide, Michael Mitnick, from the novel by Lois Lowry.
The future is an emotionless 1950s nightmare in The Giver, a stark, often beautifully realized adaptation of Lois Lowry’s popular novel that nevertheless lacks the courage of its convictions: too often does the film gloss over the novel’s inherently strong story elements to deliver a more box office-friendly young adult action-adventure.
Popular young adult franchises like The Hunger Games and Divergent owe a lot to Lowry’s novel, which won the Newbury Medal in 1994 and has become a classroom staple. Star Jeff Bridges bought the rights to the material shortly after the book was published and spent nearly twenty years trying to get the film made; at one point, he even shot a version in his garage starring his father in the title role.
2014’s version of The Giver, meanwhile, owes a lot to The Hunger Games, Divergent, and other recent big-budget YA adaptations: the genre’s surging popularity helped the film to finally get made, but also led to alterations to the source material that have left the film feeling like just another entry in a crowded marketplace.
The Giver opens in a stark black-and-white future that seems to be rooted in the ideas of a Cold War-era suburban utopia. Eighteen-year-old Jonas (Brenton Thwaites), who narrates the proceedings, is part of a “family unit” that includes Mother (Katie Holmes), Father (Alexander Skarsgård), and younger sister Lilly (Emma Tremblay). Everyone is cordial, but entirely devoid of emotion – they all dress alike, look alike, and sound alike, in a society that has achieved “sameness”.
Jonas, however, feels that he is somehow different than everyone else – including friends Fiona (Odeya Rush) and Asher (Cameron Monaghan) – which causes him some anxiety over the upcoming ceremony where every graduate will be assigned a life career. As he watches his friends get assigned to become a caregiver, or a drone pilot, he’s left alone on the stage.
That’s when the community is informed by the Chief Elder (Meryl Streep) that Jonas is, in fact special: he’s been chosen to become the Receiver of Memory, the one member of society tasked with carrying memories of the old world and advising the elders on their decisions. These memories will be passed on to him almost telepathically by the titular Giver (Jeff Bridges).
As the Giver begins to pass memories on to Jonas – represented, mostly, by a range of stock footage and ethnic faces from the late-20th/early-21st century – color begins to enter Jonas’ palette and the world of The Giver: red, then blue, then green are introduced to this black & white film, slowing turning it to a fully color picture. It’s a striking visual effect, and one of the more memorable aspects of the film.
Unfortunately, the film doesn’t take enough time to explain the world of the novel and the laws that govern it, leading climactic scenes to come off as silly – or even unintentionally funny. The central device that drives the second half of the film is never explained to any kind of satisfaction – we simply have to accept that Jonas must go somewhere, to do something, which will resolve the plot for some arbitrary reason.
Tone-deafness is also real issue. It’s as if the filmmakers didn’t even consider that a line like “My name is Jonas” (straight from the Weezer song) might get a laugh. Or that calling a stuffed animal a “comfort object” (why do the children need a ‘comfort object’, anyway? They’re medicated the same as the adults) might induce a similar response. Or an inexplicable scene in which everyone is chanting “Jonas, Jonas, Jonas…” and Lilly asks her mother what happened to Jonas. “We don’t speak of him anymore,” is the response, as she continues chanting “Jonas, Jonas, Jonas…”
These scenes, and others like them, are played completely straight-faced, but the filmmakers haven’t developed this world enough for us to abandon our preconceptions and fully buy into it. As such, the film often gets a “huh?”, or a “what?”, or an outright laugh. The Giver is well put together by director Philip Noyce (Salt, Clear and Present Danger) and fully engaging, but the adaptation by Michael Mitnick and Robert B. Weide leaves a lot to be desired.
This is a better film than something like Divergent – which it shares a number of surface similarities with – but it’s much less sure on its feet. It’s as if the filmmakers didn’t trust their source material, and amended it to fit a marketplace that has already been over-saturated with young adult fare. Lois Lowry’s novel was disturbing portrait of a future dystopia, but this film version is just another slickly made would-be YA franchise starter.