Is It Cool?: Excellence in Filmmaking
The Giver, currently in theaters, is a film adaptation based on the Newberry Medal Award winning book of the same name by Lois Lowry. The book is great. The screenplay? Not so much.
In the story, the world has evolved into what they believe to be a Utopian society, though you and I would most likely call it a Dystopian society. There are no illnesses, no wars, and everything revolves around a very carefully selected and controlled community. The world is literally black and white. Sameness and conformity are the order of the day. Once children reach a certain age, they are assigned specific jobs which they will then train into and perform for the rest of their lives. This will determine their place in the community. No one lies. No one fights. Everyone takes a daily dose of morning drugs to keep them calm and numb to many emotions. Even romantic and sexual attraction is “treated” with drugs.
When the children turn 12, they are given their jobs. It’s an exciting day! Well, as exciting as it can be for drug-numbed people. So, it’s a moderately pleasant day. Anyway, Jonas is selected for an incredibly prestigious job: The Receiver of Memory. It is the duty of the Receiver to carry the collected memories of “the way things used to be.” The Receiver’s job is important to the society because sometimes when problems arise that cannot be easily solved, the Elders consult the Receiver to see if there might be something applicable from the old memories to help them through. It is a heavy weight to bear the memories of color, love, joy, snow, war, death, pain, and sorrow. It is the weight of what it feels like to be human along with the added bonus of knowing that you are completely alone in carrying that burden. As Jonas collects more and more memories, he gains understanding, knowledge, and most importantly he reclaims his own humanity and realizes that in seeking Utopia, the Community has sacrificed too much.
The book is a thought-provoking introspective master work.
The film adaptation? Meh.
It isn’t bad, exactly. But it’s definitely not good. Many of the things that work so well in the book (the sterility of the community juxtaposed against the vividness of what used to be, for example) are tedious on screen. The moments that should have grabbed our attention and floored us just… didn’t. The movie feels like one part The Host to one part Pleasantville. It’s like an electronic version of Beethoven’s Fifth. All of the notes are technically right, but it’s just not quite there.
Jeff Bridges plays the Giver (and has been sitting on the rights to this story for over 15 years just waiting for the opportunity to get it made). He is joined on screen by Brenton Thwaites as Jonas, the young man who is chosen to become the new Receiver of Memory. One of the biggest changes from the book to the screen adaptation is the age of Jonas. In the novel he is 11-12. Thwaite is 24 but plays a reasonably convincing 17ish year old. In my opinion, the age change was a flawed choice on the part of the producers and director Phillip Noyce. Yes, it’s much easier to film with adults. Yes, you sell more tickets if you cast swoon-worthy young men who can be made into locker posters. The tone of the story and the stakes of the story suffer a pretty big blow, though, with this significant change.
The movie also boasts talent like Katie Holmes and Alexander Skarsgard. They both turn in perfectly respectable performances as well, but again, there’s nothing particularly engaging or moving. Meryl Streep appears as the Chief Elder. The Giver has a major case of “When good actors happen to mediocre scripts.”
The costumes, sets, and technical elements are all slick and competent. The problem here again, though, is that the sterility and sameness in the books translates into a boring visual spectacle on the big screen.
What’s it Saying?: Message of the Movie
The gift of free will should never be taken for granted or underestimated. Being a human can be hard. It can be sad and messy and so often we get it wrong. Despite all of that, there is such beauty to be found in our unique hearts and even when life is messy it is still beautiful. There is not a single, attainable state of perfection on Earth. There can never be a legislated “perfect moral utopia.” There is no better race or perfect society. There’s only us—humans. Flawed and lovely. There are also very present pro-life themes.
The Good, The Bad, The Ugly: Morality in the Movie
There is very tame kissing at one point. There is brief discussion of feelings of romantic sexual attraction called “stirrings” but the Community has pills to “cure” their teens of those. There are plot points that allude to murder and suicide but aside from very brief historical clips of wars, there is no violence in the film.
That's Right. I Said It: Reviewer Comments
This movie is making me feel sad and tired. Also, complacent. Maybe it’s some kind of hypnotic suggestion because the Community is so sterile and they want to lull me in?
I love Meryl Streep. I will ALWAYS love her. She’s amazing. Even she cannot make me love this movie.
What is happening with Meryl’s wig? Seriously. What is that?!?
Uh…what? Why is Taylor Swift in this movie?
Jeff Bridges, I know that this movie is your baby. I know you care a lot about it. So why are you talking so funny?
The scene with Alexander Skarsgard and the baby was about as emotional as I got, and by “emotional” I mean I made a face for a second.
I want to love this movie. I think the book is SO important.
It actually is making me sad that Lois Lowry, who is owed a huge debt of gratitude for being one of the founders of the YA Dystopia Craze, will not get very much “street cred” from this movie. I’m afraid The Giver will now be synonymous with “That lame movie that’s kind of like Hunger Games or something.”
I honestly don’t know if it’s better to read the book before you see this movie or not. Maybe if I didn’t already know the story I would have felt very differently. I mean, it’s possible.