Time has finally caught up with “The Giver.” When Lois Lowery’s novel was released in 1993, it was the first dystopian sci-fi story aimed at young adults.
By Noah Gittell
Time has finally caught up with “The Giver.” When Lois Lowery’s novel was released in 1993, it was the first dystopian sci-fi story aimed at young adults. These days, they are a dime a dozen, which is a mixed blessing for the film version. Without the success of “The Hunger Games” and “Divergent,” studios would have probably balked at financing “The Giver,” an esoteric story with little violence or romance and filmed partially in black and white. On the other hand, its anti-conformist message now feels stale, and its commercial aesthetic is befitting a quick cash-in on a well-worn Hollywood trend instead of the bold political statement it once was.
Instead of being slowly and carefully revealed, the set-up is completely explained in the opening monologue: After some undefined global breakdown, society’s leaders broke human civilization into a series of isolated communities. Jonas (Brenton Thwaites), our teenaged protagonist, was raised in a totalitarian community in which jobs are assigned to citizens by a council of elders, babies are manufactured and nurtured in a state-run facility, and, oh yes, colors and emotions have been forbidden. When Jonas gets selected to be the community’s next Receiver of Memory, he begins visiting with The Giver (Jeff Bridges), an elderly man who holds all memories of the old system in his body. As he transfers them, Jonas begins experiencing life before the fall – the pain, suffering, joy, and confusion that has been snuffed out – and finds that he prefers things the old way.
The weariness Bridges embodies in the titular character could easily be a result of the many years he spent trying to get the film made. He originally envisioned his father Lloyd as the Giver, but now, Jeff is old enough and a good fit for the role. With his soulful eyes and slow drawl of a voice, Bridges looks a man who bears the burden of an entire universe of suffering. It is a shame that the film reduces him to a supporting character in the hero’s journey of the world’s blandest teenager.
Thwaites was cast as the purposefully insipid Prince Philip in this summer’s “Maleficent,” and he carries the same qualities to his portrayal of Jonas. The character is described by many in the film as unique and special, with “the capacity to see beyond,” but there is no trace of individuality in Thwaites’ performance. It is understandable that he would start out this way; the citizens of this community take an injection every morning to deaden their emotions, but Thwaites is unable to adjust his performance to reflect the new experiences that he learns from the Giver. It’s not just a case of poor acting; the entire film rests on the premise that Jonas changes as a result of these experiences, and Thwaites is simply unable to show any of it onscreen.
Even if you can get past the poor acting of the lead character, other problems persist. In the book, Lowery was able to take her time revealing the full nature of Jonas’s existence. We didn’t realize for example that the citizens of his community don’t see in color until The Giver teaches him what color is. It’s a revelation that the filmmakers cannot replicate in their medium, at least not without straying significantly from the source material. Even so, they seem to think their audience can’t handle much mystery. They make a nasty habit of insulting the audience’s intelligence at every turn. Instead of slowly leaking the details of how Jonas’s community was set up, they explain it all during the opening monologue, leaving us with little mystery and even less to care about.
Of course, we are wading into dangerous waters here. It’s always tricky territory to compare a film like “The Giver” to the book it was adapted from, particularly one that grabs readers when they are young and impressionable. For example, I read “The Giver” in eighth grade at Rye Country Day, and I still keep it on my shelf of all-time favorite books. But, as time has repeatedly proven, a great book does not always translate into a great movie, particularly when the motivation for adaptation is simply to cash in on a recent and perhaps fleeting Hollywood trend. Perhaps if we could erase our memories and watch “The Giver” with fresh eyes it would be tolerable, but you will be better off keeping the memory and skipping the movie.
My Rating: Skip it Altogether