Jan 16, 2020
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.]