When Lois Lowry’s book The Giver was released in 1993 it made an impression; the young adult book won the Newbery Medal in 1994 and is credited with helping kickstart the recent trend of dystopian novels in the genre. The Giver is not without controversy; though the book is taught in many middle schools, it was also one of the most challenged books of the 1990s. Though the book is popular, it took over twenty years for the film adaptation to be made and it turns out that first in, last out is not a great model. While The Giver (the book) must have felt fresh and innovative when it was written, The Giver (the movie) suffers in comparison to other recent film adaptions of the genre. The genre has advanced too much and now The Giver looks more to be the rough draft for films like The Hunger Games.
The Giver tells the story of a society in the not too distant future that’s guiding principle is “sameness”; the culture lives by a strict set of rules, with the primary objective being homogenization. To eradicate conflict, residents have no real emotions and see the world in black and white – literally. The first twenty minutes of the film are shot in black and white. This is a world where there is no music, no art, no love, no hate, no color and where children are assigned to be raised by a family and their careers are selected for them. Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) is selected to be one of the most important positions in the society – The Receiver, who is the reservoir of memories of how the world used to be. As Jonas receives his training from the current Receiver (Jeff Bridges) and experiences a brighter and more complicated world, he begins to question and challenge the purpose and validity of the colony’s governance, led by the Chief Elder (Meryl Streep).
The adaptation of The Giver has been something of a passion project for Bridges, who acquired the rights to the book in the 90s. He had hoped to direct the film, with his (now deceased) father Lloyd Bridges in the titular role, but the process took so long that he had to assume the mantle of the wise old sage. Jeff Bridges is clearly the best thing about this film and there is a quiet jolt of energy whenever he is on the screen. This movie was a labor of love for him and that comes through. Unfortunately, he should have taken seen it as a sign when the adaptation process took so long, because it turns out that a film about sameness is a pretty bland creation. There are some gorgeous moments visually, but The Giver is too boring and familiar. We’ve seen these concepts in plenty of other films, done better.
The Giver is mildly interesting as it goes about its world building and we get our first glimpses into how life operates in the colony. The film wastes no time in outlining the basic rules and regulations of life for Jonas and his friends and family; a series of ceremonies serves as shorthand as to the life cycle of the residents. In these types of movies and books, I’m always curious to learn about the society and its constraints and as dystopian stories go, the rules of the game (so to speak) were pretty pedestrian. In my opinion, the movie doesn’t go far enough in this world building; it gave us the basic sketch but I could have used more detail to fully understand what Jonas was ultimately rebelling against. Because only the most basic of outlines was provided, I actually had a lot more questions about how this whole society operated. There seemed to be some pretty big gaps in this well thought out and controlled world and that distracted me for the rest of the film.
I had time to contemplate the rules and regulations of the community because there wasn’t much else going on to hold my attention. Whenever Bridges wasn’t on screen, this entire affair fell pretty flat. Turns out that people who don’t have any depth of emotion are pretty freaking boring to watch. No one had any real personality and I don’t know if the performances were wooden on purpose (to illustrate the “sameness”) or the result of bad acting. I get that is the point of the society and maybe that worked better on the page, but watching a bunch of people that are boring doesn’t make for a very compelling movie. When I’m finding Alexander Skarsgard tedious, you have done something wrong.
Even Jonas, who is supposed to be experiencing this emotional awakening, is as dull as dishwater. You would think that someone experiencing love, hate, joy and fear for the first time would have a bigger reaction to it, but he doesn’t. There is no clear evolution to his behavior – he jettisons from one end of the spectrum to the other too quickly – and Thwaites isn’t a good enough actor to convey Jonas’ journey subtlety. The visual vehicle for showing how Jonas gathers memories from the past isn’t all that compelling either, as the movie goer is subjected to many montages of what appears to be stock video that are supposed to convey emotions. I’m not sure what skydiving has to do with strength, but the execution was so cheesy that I didn’t even care.
The final act of the film is so rushed that it feels unearned; this is supposed to be the culmination of the movie and is the only real action that occurs, but a lot of it makes little sense. Jonas’ plan hinges on a behavioral turning point of a minor character that seeming happens for no reason. I was happy that there was finally some sort of forward motion, but even the action sequences were mostly boring. Watching a dude walk does not make for compelling viewing and the inability of the Elders to take care of this situation made me question their ability to run things. You want to see a guy that knows how to run a dystopia, give President Snow a call.
Perhaps this movie would have seemed more innovative and challenging if it was not yet another young adult adaptation of a dystopian world, but in a post-Hunger Games and Divergent world the people who made this movie really had to up their game. We’ve seen these themes already and they were more fully realized and better executed in other films. The Hunger Games does a much better job at creating a detailed world with real stakes and interesting characters. The Giver suffers from its simplicity and vagueness; when it was the only book like it, it was a game changing but the landscape has radically changed since 1993 (don’t I know it). The book may have been trailblazing, but the movie lags behind.
I have not read The Giver and perhaps those who have will enjoy this film more simply for seeing the story come to life (though there were apparently many changes made in the transition). But I think non-book readers will find this film too simplistic and boring for today’s tastes. Once you have seen children forced to fight to the death, the world created in The Giver is just too watered down and boring. There may have been ways to make the adaptation more compelling, but I think that the source material was just too constraining. The Giver cannot keep up with the genre that it helped revitalized; it is a poor facsimile of recent movies that cover the same issues and terrain in a much more complex and thought-provoking way. The Giver feels regifted.