Michael Mitnik, Robert B. Weide (Book: Lois Lowry)
Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep, Brenton Thwaites, Alexander Skarsgard, Katie Holmes, Odeya Rush, Cameron Monaghan, Taylor Swift, Emma Tremblay
PG-13 for a mature thematic image and some sci-fi action/violence.
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Modern audiences seem to have an insatiable desire to see dystopian worlds where society is on the brink of collapse and our heroes and heroines must persevere to preserve what is good about the world. The Giver, based on Newberry Medal-winning novel of the same name, turns the genre in different directions, but perhaps not enough to avoid accusations of sameness.
Based on Lois Lowry’s acclaimed novel about a utopian society where sameness, precision of language and a lack of emotional connection have protected the people from the villainy of hatred, war and death that plagued their ancestors. Young Australian actor Brenton Thwaites takes the role of Jonas, a young boy whose concept of the world is equal parts inquisitive, sensitive and studious. As he and his classmates move on to their new careers as adults, Jonas is selected as the Receiver, a rare honor bestowed on someone who sees the world differently than others (there’s also a birthmark, but that’s not in the book and it’s questionable whether anyone, including the Elders, realize it’s there).
From The Giver (Jeff Bridges), he is bestowed a range of emotions and sensations he has yet to experience with any magnitude. As he begins to uncover the beauty and savagery of the world long removed, he questions why the society is structured so as to give up all that was great just to avoid all that is bad. In doing so, he discovers that society’s dark secrets are kept hidden from the public at large and their failure to understand what their actions have wrought makes them almost as dangerous as those who they eliminated decades prior.
Influenced by the overflowing bounty of young adult fiction in the theatrical marketplace, screenwriters Michael Mitnik and Robert B. Weide have dug into the heart of Lowry’s novel and ripped out what they think makes the foundation of a good film, jettisoned that which does not and injected a series of highly questionable action elements to titillate a young audience that may not have read the book, but will certainly react to attractive twenty-somethings playing teenagers. In their defense, Odeya Rush, who plays Jonas’ potential love interest Fiona, is in her teens, but both Thwaites and Cameron Monaghan, who plays Jonas’ other best friend Asher, are both above the legal drinking age.
The Hunger Games wasn’t the first dystopian novel to find itself adapted for young audiences, but it is by far the most successful. All films that rise in its wake struggle to compare favorably with that titan and often forget the core readership when doing so. The Hunger Games isn’t a perfect adaptation, there are some fascinating elements left behind in the novel, but for the most part, the film is a very faithful retelling of the story. The Giver takes several liberties including placing Asher into the Drone Pilot program and shifting Fiona away from the house of the old to the children’s center. While these shifts might not mean much to those who haven’t read the book, Fiona’s transition robs the narrative of one of its key emotional connections.
The change does give the Asher character more importance, but it also sets up one of the more ludicrous segments in the film, pitting former pal Asher against rebel Jonas. It’s an unnecessary bit of dramatic tension that confirms why this even-tempered novel should have remained unadapted.
Thwaites has some potential. His scenes with Bridges sparkle even if Bridges can’t be bothered to generate a morsel of empathy to share with the audience. Bridges adopts the gruff, grizzled demeanor of many of his late-career characters. It makes The Giver less of a kindly, belabored old man imparting his most cherished memories and more of a miserable, depressed misanthrope intent on bringing down the council of elders for daring to subject his prior protégé to such an onerous task.
At the head of the council, Meryl Streep does what Meryl Streep does, but there’s so little life in the thinly-written character of Chief Elder that even her capabilities can’t salvage such a generic villain. The part seems directly written for her, beefed up well beyond what is presented in the novel, but in so doing is crafted into an entirely one-dimensional.
Rush and Monaghan are entirely forgettable, especially when put up against Thwaites who is given dry characterization, but does his best to infuse it with emotional resonance. Rush and Monaghan read the script, perform as directed, but never generate the level of depth one would need in order to care about why they are even included in the first place. Alexander Skarsgard and Katie Holmes, as Jonas’ parents, are given too little to do and, as a result, give too little of themselves. The lone periphery character with any measure of talent is young Emma Tremblay who plays Jonas’ young, excitable sister. It’s a small, thankless character, but she gets the audience to care about someone other than Jonas for a few moments.
Phillip Noyce hasn’t had the most illustrious career as a director and this film clarifies why that might be. Borrowing heavily from Gary Ross’ Pleasantville, Noyce adopts a black-and-white construction for his film where Jonas’ slow emergence from the veil of sameness reveals a brilliant world of color and beauty. It worked well in Pleasantville and would have been missed had it not been employed here, but that doesn’t keep it from feeling undeveloped. You get the occasional sense of colorized development, but mostly it feels brief, unfocused and underutilized. It’s similar to the “precision of language” concept of the underlying story wherein only words approved and quantified by the elders are to be used. Informative or expressive language is expressly forbidden.
Another issue is the decision to periodically use a disjointed, halting camera technique that is reminiscent of shaky cam, but with the digitized choppiness one might expect from a student editor who doesn’t know how to streamline his transitions. The result is an often clunky design that distracts the eyes from the action on the screen.
Finding a way to make the film feel different from its subject is a challenge. The Giver suffers from the same problems that plague the society it depicts. It suffers from “sameness, precision of language and a lack of emotional connection.” The film has moments of enlightenment and if you have read the novel, it still has some dramatic heft, but ultimately it’s a film that would fit well in the Cliff Notes section of your local video store and should never be used as a substitute for reading the source.
The complexities of adapting a novel to the screen aren’t easily dismissed. Film is a natively visual form, but books have the ability to dig into the minds of their characters. In addition, they can exposit on backstories that films have limited time to explore. Yet, when adapting something with fairly confined scope like The Giver, exposition doesn’t have to be eradicated or altered.
One of my biggest complaints is that much of the world’s discussion of sameness and totalitarian control is limited in the film version. In The Giver, the Elders, as benevolent as they are thought of as being, literally control which children are given to which parental units (natural born mothers are used for a few years and then released when they are no longer of child-bearing capability), where you live, where you work, what you eat, what drugs you take to keep urges placated and any number of other micromanaged factors that society has learned to accept for peace, serenity and perceived happiness. Many of these details are only briefly discussed in the film.
Additionally, Chief Elder is made into a sort of megalomaniacal entity who doesn’t feel people have the ability to make choices that fit into the hegemony of the Community. Yet, the film has given the audience just enough to realize that peacefulness and security isn’t the same thing as being free. The film stops short of comparisons to religious domination, forcing a set of strictures on the public in the name of freedom, but the concept is one of many hidden within Lowry’s novel, so the avoidance in the film is not unexpected.
The film also limits the emotional connection between audience and film. Until Jonas discovers what “Release to Elsewhere” really means, the film paints the world as a safe, careful environment that has only a few minor inconveniences. Yet, even when the first release is handled, the audience is so unfamiliar with the term that it’s impact is somehow muted. The book discusses release in multiple situations, the careless way Jonas’ father discusses children being released, Fiona’s work at the retirement community where the elderly talk fondly of finally getting to the age where they can be released, and other references that set up a question of what is “release.”
It’s a euphemism that’s fairly easy to guess, but the novel treats it with such joy and reverence that the sudden revelation hits the reader like a ton of bricks. The handling of the scene in the film, one of the few scenes almost precisely carried over from the novel, doesn’t have quite the same impact since no one seems to discuss with any detail or importance the concept of release.
Another qualm I have with the film is its handling of the delivery of memories. While the elephant scenes were handled beautifully, the rest was only minimally effective. The novel paints some very distinct imagery as Jonas discovers the feel of cold, the thrill of speed and other emotions in his first few memory receipts. This is enhanced by The Giver’s revelation that as he passes the memories to Jonas, he loses them himself. It’s a bittersweet transfer that gives Jonas a keen insight into his host and the burden he has born in solitude for so long. In the film, The Giver just hands the memories over like they are trifles he has to hand over.
The novel also presents the scenes that reveal war to Jonas in a little more detail and puts the concept in an emotional state for the reader. The film instead employs a series of disjointed, familiar images that show the concept of war, famine, heartbreak and such in fleeting, fast-paced glimpses. Yet, it focuses on all the moments of joy as if they are more important to the story than anything. The choice Jonas makes becomes a given instead of a difficult one. Releasing the memories to everyone is not guaranteed, but suggested, in the novel, making his decision to escape more of an emotional, protective one. By that point, Jonas has bonded significantly more with the infant Gabriel than in the film and comes to see his impending release as a catalyst in the book.
His subsequent journey is left open-ended in the book, there’s every possibility that he dies at the end. Even though Lowry has indicated that Jonas doesn’t die at the end of the book, it’s crucial to have the potential there. It adds further emotional resonance to the story, which is absent from the film and the happy ending is preserved. The film’s ending doesn’t feel entirely happy, but that’s not because of the dangers, the uncertainties or any other qualms the viewer or Jonas might have, but because the film has kept its distance from the characters and their survival is expected rather than hoped for.
September 22, 2014