Melancholy, cheap, and disappointing, my experience watching “The Giver” was nothing like I expected. Maybe it was because I just finished reading the book, maybe it was because I’ve heard the film hyped up for weeks, or maybe it was because I thought I was about to watch the next “Hunger Games,” but whatever the reason, I left the movie theater feeling emotionally drained.
Based on Lois Lowry’s polarizing young adult novel of 1993, “The Giver” follows the story of a young boy growing up in yet another dystopia. In predictable fashion, everything in “the community” seems perfect, but it becomes rapidly clear that things in this little black and white society are far from ideal. The houses are the same, the rules are strict, and it is a completely emotionless society — literally, each citizen takes daily injections to rid themselves of their feelings and the adolescents swallow pills to eradicate their new, lustful “stirrings.” The elders of the community assign spouses, children, and jobs to community members as they see fit; the average citizen makes no decisions, because what if they chose wrong?
Crime in the community is non-existent, except for the occasional, calculated murder of infants and senior citizens when they begin to overcrowd the community. These victims are injected and then released to a vague “elsewhere.”
This is a community where “sameness” is encouraged; the elimination of variables such as color, weather, and even race make life more stable. No one has any memory of life when it was “more,” except for the Receiver and the Giver, who hold the memories of the world and act as advisors when serious issues call for historical consultation. It’s a heavy job, and in the past it has pushed a young Receiver to ask to be killed, or, if you will, “released.”
The movie adaption of this book is a long time in the making. Jeff Bridges bought the book’s rights 18 years ago and Lowry was involved in both script approval and on-site shooting in South Africa. In addition to Bridges as the Giver, several big Hollywood names made appearances, including Meryl Streep as the Chief Elder, Katie Holmes as the mother, and Taylor Swift as the tragic Rosemary. So where did this movie go wrong?
It’s a dramatic film. Although not inherently bad, the exaggerated drama seen in the nursery break-in, airplane chase scenes, lover rendezvous, and heated arguments between Bridges and Streep leave little to the imagination and a lot to be desired. All were fabricated for the movie adaptation in an attempt to compete with the teen dystopian blockbusters of late, including “The Hunger Games” and “Divergent.” The scenes are emotionally charged, but in a cheapening way that discredits the quiet confusion and awakening described in the book.
“The Giver's" characters are also aged for the film adaption. This isn’t the first time Hollywood has made this kind of switch for a screenplay. Brad Pitt’s character “Paul” in “A River Runs Through It” is famously aged ten years older in the film than in the book to better explain his gambling debts. Likewise, Lowry’s 12-year-old Jonas is mysteriously transformed into a handsome, 25-year-old Australian heartthrob by the name of Brenton Thwaites. This move by scriptwriters allows them to dial up the romance and drive more teens into the seats. While this might bring newcomers to the film, it isn’t likely to impress Lowry’s fan base.
Other characters also have trouble finding their place on the big screen. Streep’s Chief Elder is a one-dimensional villain, which isn’t surprising, given that she was created for the film to be the voice of all the ambiguous elders. Holmes’ character also falls flat, with over-acted rule compliancy throughout. Taylor Swift’s role as Rosemary is fine, but forgettable, despite a piano playing and singing scene that is also noticeably absent from the book.
Not all things are bad in Bridge’s “The Giver.” His own portrayal of the emotionally and physically exhausted Giver is at times quite moving. The attachment he creates with Thwaites also translates well to screen.
While Thwaites doesn’t shine well alone, his scenes with baby Gabriel are what carry the film. The love he has for the child are poignant and powerful, and are only heightened when interlaced with the breathtaking flashbacks of the past. Their bond feels believable and makes the 94-minute movie worthwhile.
Ultimately, “The Giver” will not be the film of the year, or even the film of the summer; its few moments of brilliance are often outshined. Although hardcore fans of the book might be disappointed by the changes, the casual movie goer is likely be entertained, especially if he or she finds him or herself to be fifteen and with a group of friends.
Rachel Logan is an intern in the Spectrum office in Sacramento, California. She recently graduated from Walla Walla University where she studied creative writing and was a page editor for the campus newspaper, The Collegian.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/6193