The haunting story of The Giver centers on Jonas (Brenton Thwaites), a young man who lives in a seemingly ideal, if colorless, world of conformity and contentment. Yet as he begins to spend time with The Giver (Jeff Bridges), who is the sole keeper of all the community’s memories, Jonas quickly begins to discover the dark and deadly truths of his community’s secret past. With this newfound power of knowledge, he realizes that the stakes are higher than imagined – a matter of life and death for himself and those he loves most. At extreme odds, Jonas knows that he must escape their world to protect them all – a challenge that no one has ever succeeded at before. The Giver is based on Lois Lowry’s beloved young adult novel of the same name, which was the winner the 1994 Newbery Medal and has sold over 10 million copies worldwide.
My Opinion: With the recent popularity of dystopian YA literature as fodder for film adaptations, it’s no surprise that The Giver finally found its way to theater screens over two decades after the book’s publication. What is surprising is how dull the resulting film turns out.
Some of the dullness is part of the source material. The whole concept of a world where “Sameness” is the guiding principle, where things are so bland that even colors aren’t a part of most peoples’ views, means that parts of the movie might need to be a little dull. No, it’s the fact that even as Jonas’ world expands in bursts, his responses don’t always seem to correspond with the various revelations.
One of the biggest changes the film makes from the book is aging the characters. In the book, Jonas is 12. In order to try and appeal to a slightly older audience, and to give the film a nominal love story, Jonas is aged up to 16 for the film, and is played by 25-year-old Brenton Thwaites (though to be fair, Thwaites does look significantly younger than his age). I think the change is significant to the film’s relative failure. A younger Jonas, I believe, would be able to better convey a sense of childlike wonder at many of the positive revelations he receives, though the character is sheltered enough to make his reactions still plausible.
Thwaites isn’t the problem, though. If anything, aside from a Stepford-like opening monologue, Thwaites is perfectly charming as Jonas. No, the problem is the story as a whole. The Giver, when published, offered something new to young adult audiences as far as literature was concerned. Now, audiences have a slew of other options, some of which have built upon the themes of The Giver and taken them in other directions (see: The Hunger Games). As a book, The Giver offers a simpler story, which has helped make it a literary classic – but it obviously left filmmakers with the desire to add some heft to try and attract audiences that don’t always show up for adaptations of literary fan favorites. The aforementioned love story is one example of the fleeting ways the film tries to add to the film’s plot. There’s the expansion of the Chief Elder’s role, apparently done to give Meryl Streep more to do. There’s the attempt to give the final act some suspense by making it more action-packed. And there’s the film’s ending, which eschews the more ambiguous ending of the book for something definitive.
None of this diminishes the power of The Giver – at least, as a novel. As a film, though, audiences are better off rewatching one of the Hunger Games movies, or reading the book.
Q&A Notes: The concept of streamlining society into “acceptable” forms of expression should resonate with LGBT audiences.