The Giver (2014)

2014’s The Giver is Phillip Noyce’s adaptation of Lois Lowry’s 1993 young adult novel of the same name, best known for being compulsory reading in many a high school. Jeff Bridges stars as the title character, and he’s apparently been wanting to make this film for so long that he originally envisioned his father Lloyd Bridges (who passed away in 1998) playing the role. Of course, it’s no surprise why this film is only finally being made now. With similar YA dystopian sagas like Hunger Games and Divergent making loads of money, The Giver arrives to capitalize on this hot, not-so-new trend.

But even though the book predates the teen dystopian sci-fi craze by a couple of decades, the adaptation unfortunately simplifies Lowry’s novel to better resemble the more recent, popular entries in the genre, in the process losing whatever made the source material special. And with a comparatively brief 90-minute runtime, the movie hurries through the story at a breakneck pace, never pausing long enough to explain key plot points or make us care in the slightest about the plight of its young, rebellious main character.

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An opening crawl describes how after “the ruin” (some vague catastrophe in the distant past), the human race divided itself into isolated, mountainous communities, where everyone lives highly controlled lives. Citizens are watched at all hours of the day and given daily injections to dull their emotions. There’s no suffering and no pain, but also no joy or love, and also no color—the first third of the film is almost entirely shot in black and white. And most importantly, no one is aware of anything that occurred prior to their current peaceful existence.

The Giver (2014)

Jonas (Brenton Thwaites), a teenager who apparently sees things differently (i.e, with a splash of color here and there), anxiously awaits his graduation date. Unlike his best friends Asher and Fiona (Cameron Monaghan and Odeya Rush), he has no idea what occupation he’ll be assigned by the Elder Council.

He attends his graduation ceremony while his parents (Alexander Skarsgard and Katie Holmes) look on from the audience. Also paying conspicuously close attention to Jonas is a man known as the Receiver of Memory (Bridges), an advisor to the Elder Council, and the only person with knowledge of humanity’s past.

The Chief Elder (Meryl Streep) appears via holographic transmission for the ceremony, assigning a job to each young person based on their unique skills. However, she completely skips over Jonas, much to his confusion. At the end of the ceremony, she announces that Jonas has been selected as the new Receiver of Memory, and the previous Receiver will now become the Giver, and pass along all his memories to Jonas.

The Giver (2014)

Jonas immediately begins training for his new role by traveling daily to the Giver’s house at the cloud-covered edge of the community. The Giver explains to Jonas that he can’t tell anyone about what he learns in training, and that thanks to his new position, he no longer has to follow the rules of the community, and can even lie if he wants to.

The Giver then grabs Jonas by the hands and pulls him close and transfers his first memory, which is a vision of a kid playing in the snow and then riding a sled down to a house in the woods. Jonas is caught off guard at first, but soon he can’t get enough of the vivid and happy memories that the Giver passes along to him. Jonas also stops taking his daily injections, for reasons not really explained in the movie, using an apple to trick the machine that administers the dosages. As the days pass, he begins to see everything in full color (the movie transitions to color as well) and feel new emotions he’s never known.

The Giver (2014)

At home, Jonas’ father, who works at the “Nurturing Center”, brings home a baby boy because he’s having vague health issues. Although the father is not supposed to give him a name, he decides to call him Gabriel. Jonas immediately has a connection with the baby and even discovers that the two have the same birthmark on their wrists.

Convinced the baby is destined to follow in his footsteps as the next Receiver, Jonas begins to transfer some of his new memories to the infant. Jonas also begins to feel new things for his friend Fiona, and he defies the Giver’s rules and secretly shares things with her that he’s learned in training. Soon, she stops taking her injections as well.

The Giver (2014)

But then Jonas’ training takes a turn as the Giver begins to pass on memories of human tragedy and suffering. This primarily includes a wartime memory that frankly might just as easily be somebody’s memory of watching the Vietnam sequence in Forrest Gump. Jonas is horrified at what he sees, and considers giving up on his training, but eventually decides to stick with it.

The Giver (2014)

Later, the Giver shows him a holographic recording of the previous young person who was supposed to become the next Receiver: a girl named Rosemary, played in a totally gratuitous walk-on by Taylor Swift, who even gets to play the piano and sing here. Jonas learns Rosemary was also horrified by the memories of human tragedy, and apparently she quit or something, though we never find out what happened to her.

The Giver (2014)

The Giver follows this up with surveillance footage of what really goes down at the Nurturing Center. One infant is deemed too weak to be part of the community, and so Jonas’ father gives him an injection to “release” him. To Jonas’ horror, it’s actually a lethal injection, but no one realizes the baby is dead, because apparently only the Giver and Jonas (with their deep knowledge of suffering and violence and tragedy) understand what killing is.

The Giver (2014)

Naturally, little Gabriel is soon declared to also be unfit and scheduled for “release”. So Jonas starts to put a plan in motion to escape from the community into the surrounding wilderness, and cross something called the “Boundary of Memory”. He and the Giver decide that, somehow, once Jonas crosses this boundary, everyone in the community will receive all of the memories. Jonas enlists the help of Fiona to get Gabriel back, and soon takes off to find the boundary.

After he escapes, both Fiona and the Giver are arrested, and the Chief Elder condemns them both to be “released”. We watch as Fiona is prepared to receive that same injection from Jonas’ dad, which is none-too-subtly staged like a death row execution. This scene goes on and on while the film continually cuts to Jonas making his way across the desert carrying Gabriel.

At one point, Jonas is confronted by an aerial drone piloted by his friend Asher. He begs Asher not kill him, and Asher instead uses some sort of tractor beam to scoop them up and drop them in a river, in order to make it look like they were killed.

The Giver (2014)

Jonas keeps walking until the desert turns into snowy mountains, somehow, and he finds the sled that was featured in his first memory. He and Gabriel barrel down a snowy hill and across the barrier while Fiona is still [!] just about to be killed. He crosses the boundary, which sends a wave of force emanating across all the communities, causing the restoration of emotions and memories and full color.

The Giver (2014)

Jonas and the baby arrive at the house in the woods from Jonas’ first memory, and he hears people singing Christmas carols inside. He heads for the house, and that’s where the movie ends.

Dystopias are obviously the new big thing in movies, but these teen-friendly versions hardly seem interested in confronting the really grim, unfortunate implications of these kind of societies. Instead, we’re always given very mild dystopias, and there are times when it feels like the characters in The Giver are really just living in a slightly more authoritarian Disneyworld. And moments in the film that should be powerful and disturbing, like the flashback to Vietnam, or the baby getting euthanized, are presented with almost no dramatic weight behind them.

The Giver (2014)

If you’re really into movies like The Hunger Games, Divergent, or The Maze Runner, you might like this one (though I’m guessing fans of those movies would expect much more excitement and intensity and action than what this story offers), but the rest of us are likely better off reading the book. I realize this isn’t exactly a new or profound thing to say, but the book really is better. Lowry presented young readers with a story that was meant to inspire and teach, but the film adaptation leaves out a lot of things, which only changes the entire story for the worse.

For instance, the Giver reveals that Rosemary, the previous failed Receiver, was actually his daughter. This doesn’t flow with the movie, because as far as the audience knows, everyone is a test tube baby. And in the movie, the Giver can just pass off memories without any repercussions, but in the book, once a memory was passed on, the Giver no longer had it. They also make it seem as if emotion has been completely eliminated, but every time we see Jonas’ friend Asher, he’s strangely filled with hostility and/or jealousy over Jonas’ new role.

They also added quite a bit in for the sake of having action, like Jonas’ big escape from the Nurturing Center, or Asher coming after Jonas with a drone. But the worst change of all is the ending. In the book, the reader is left to decide what happens to Jonas, Gabriel, and the community, but the movie removes all traces of ambiguity, and doesn’t give you that choice. Wait, didn’t we just see a film about the terrible things that happen to a society when choice is taken away? Weird.

The Giver (2014)

The makers of The Giver have given us an adaptation that’s far too restrained and sanitized and clichéd, and even without the recent spate of YA dystopian films, we would still feel like we’ve already seen this story a hundred times before. Which is odd for a movie that’s supposedly about the dangers of sameness and conformity. In the end, the film is just as oppressively dull and gray as life inside the community. If you’re looking for something that will evoke the same passions as the book, you really should just reacquaint yourself with the original novel.

[—This review contains additional material by Dr. Winston O’Boogie.]

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  • chromesthesia

    I figured it would be like that.

  • KHarn

    If I were the producer or costumer for the movie, there would be one thing I would insist on: when color comes into the film, we discover that the characters have been wearing the most mismatched, UGLY colors imaginable!
    Why? For one thing, they couldn’t SEE the colors, so it could happen. Two, JUST BECAUSE!

  • mamba

    Between Equilibrium and this movie, I’m not sure that Hollywood truly understand what “no emotions” means. Both these movies have emotionless societies that clearly have jealousy, pettiness, some joy, etc. always with someone smiling, confusion (emotional response to it anyway), like the actors can’t turn that off, or the writers can’t possibly write a story without letting the “drama” leak in.

    These people should be Vulcans, but even Vulcans are shown to have some passions and even anger (or at least being annoyed) and smugness.

    You’d think they’d just give up by now if they have such a hard time with it.

    • A state of deadened emotions is also referred to as depression, so the people in these dystopias shouldn’t be able to motivate themselves to get out of bed in the morning, never mind run a brutally oppressive regime.

    • KHarn

      In TOS Spock made a couple of puns, and when his father was asked “why did you marry (An emotional human) he responds “At the time, it seemed the logical thing to do”. so Vulcans must have some form of humor. I imagine that they couldIn TOS Spock made a couple of puns, and when his father was asked “why did you marry (An emotional human) he responds “At the time, it seemed the logical thing to do”. so Vulcans must have some form of humor. I imagine that they c jokes with double meanings like “:Who’s On First?”.

    • James

      I don’t think it says in Equilibrium that there are no emotions, just that they are suppressed.

  • Joel Schlosberg

    Dystopias are obviously the new big thing in movies, but these teen-friendly versions hardly seem interested in confronting the really grim, unfortunate implications of these kind of societies. Instead, we’re always given very mild dystopias, and there are times when it feels like the characters in The Giver are really just living in a slightly more authoritarian Disneyworld.

    The Hunger Games world doesn’t strike me as a “very mild” place to be. And even something like Harry Potter has its share of “unfortunate implications” in the universe that aren’t merely implied. (Two words: elf slavery.) Kids have an interest in that sort of stuff which most of the works that kicked off the trend address, but most of the ones following the trend pull their punches with.

    • jbwarner86

      I feel like there’s probably some kind of connection between the immense popularity of dystopian YA novels chock full of oppressed minorities and corrupt political figures and the rapid rise of the extremely vocal community of socially aware and politically correct teens and young adults all over Tumblr. Seems like most of the people sharing news stories about racism or gender inequality are also humongous Harry Potter and Hunger Games fans.

      • Greenhornet

        Being “socially aware” goes back a LONG time. It matters not if you can or WILL do something about a problem, all that matters is that you are AWARE of the problem; you are one of the “enlightened” and part of the “in crowd”. You are BETTER than everyone else!
        I’ve known many such people since the sixties and they make me SICK!

        • Capt. Harlock

          “The Ethiopia Effect” which is now reduced to “Has-Tag Activism.” Those of us that actually knew that the cause of the Ethiopian “famine” was because of long-warring tribes and Poliical-Power dynamics cynically referred to “Live Aid” as “BandAid.”

    • “The Hunger Games world doesn’t strike me as a “very mild” place to be.” You mean, the movies where everyone’s supposed to be starving but they all look extremely well fed? I’m not so sure about that one.

      • Joel Schlosberg

        Well, except for that. Jennifer Lawrence is on record as saying that she deliberately avoided getting too skinny for the role because she didn’t want fans becoming anorexic to try to look like her, so at least there’s a good out-of-universe justification for fudging that particular aspect.

  • Cheshire Cat

    Also known as Pleasantville.

    • The Giver (the book) came out a few years before Pleasantville, so I would think Pleasantville was inspired by The Giver, not the other way around.

  • Jenny Mingus

    Yeah, saw the movie. Hated it. But more and more I can’t help but think turning that book into a movie was doomed to fail. So much of the book’s action takes place in the heads of the characters and that strategy works in a book, because books can play on all senses. The trouble is movies are a medium strictly of sight and sound, so therefore the movie is forced to have the characters constantly talk about what they’re experiencing which can in no way compare to the book where we see and feel things along with Jonas. Plus, while I understand why they aged up the character, it does rob the story of its emotional power.

  • Hylian Wizard

    I never read the book, so I can’t to compare the movie with it. The movie was alright I guess. I really enjoyed the transition from black and white to color. A little bit blah I guess compared to other movies I’ve seen? But nothing in particular I can really complain about.