Lois Lowry’s award-winning and occasionally banned novel ‘The Giver’ has been rumored for film adaptation and in various states of development for almost twenty years. It became a Jeff Bridges passion project, but unfortunately by the time he finally got the story to screen, it was too little too late. The final movie doesn’t quite live up to expectations thanks to the recent explosion of YA adaptations that both knocked-off elements of Lowry’s story and provided a generic template for this surprisingly safe adaptation.
For those unfamiliar with the source material, ‘The Giver’ was one of the first dystopic sci-fi YA novels published back in the ancient days of 1993. It was a forbearer to books like ‘The Hunger Games’ and ‘Divergent’, though it reads as a far more delicate and subtle piece of work with dramatically less teenage slaughter. The tale takes place in a futuristic society in which everyone has been drugged to dull their emotions. The world population wear white, get assigned family units, and are even sent off to death when the time arrives. The whole Orwellian society is run through the smiling bureaucratic face of a Chief Elder (Meryl Streep) and everyone is assigned jobs when they come of age based on personality traits. The only person aware of the past is the Giver (Jeff Bridges). The story kicks off when our teenage protagonist Jonas (Brenton Thwaites, aged-up from 12 in the novel to 16 here and sexed-up for current YA film audiences) is unexpectedly chosen to be the next Giver at the employment selection ceremony.
Jonas visits the Giver every day and is psychically transmitted visions of the past. He learns of music, dance, love and emotions, which turn his world from black-and-white to color. He’s allowed to question the world and react irrationally, unlike everyone else in society. It’s a teenage fantasy, but one that becomes troubling once he learns of the dangers of emotions, like the war that led to the creation of this society. It also stirs up feelings of teenage rebellion, leading to a somewhat action-y climax.
So, this is not exactly the world’s subtlest sci-fi metaphor about the dangers of societal repression, but then YA novels aren’t exactly known for subtlety. What ‘The Giver’ does offer is an introduction to a certain strain of literature and certain ways of thinking for young minds. The book is a classic for a reason, and while the filmmakers in charge of this long overdue cinematic adaptation clearly tried their best to approach the source material with reverence, the movie is hurt by bad timing.
Good news first: Director Philip Noyce and his screenwriters do an admirable job condensing the novel down to 90 minutes without losing anything particularly important. Noyce has a tendency to beat audiences over the head with his directorial choices, but introduces some nice touches here like opening the film in black-and-white and introducing color slowly along with Jonas’ growth a la ‘Pleasantville’. (His decision to present the Giver’s visions through ‘Baraka’-style montages is less inspired, particularly since Luc Besson recently did the same thing in ‘Lucy’ and even used some of the same stock footage.)
The mood and message remain intact, yet the movie somehow feels out of date and derivative at the same time. This comes down almost entirely to the fact that it arrives on screen after ‘The Hunger Games’ and films of that ilk, which were inspired by ‘The Giver’ in the first place despite the unfortunate chronology of movie release. The bland world of white body suits and Ikea furniture that Noyce uses is clichéd at this point, and young audiences will likely be bored since they’re used to the message of this film being told in between death-defying action scenes. It’s bad timing for the movie to come out now, which will both harm the box office reception and make the flaws in the film adaptation all the more obvious.
What reads as profound on the page can often sound cheesy when spoken aloud, and that’s frequently a problem here. Noyce is so determined to get his message across that it can kill the subtle tone and gradual build of the narrative. The acting is also an unfortunate mixed bag. Thwaites is perfectly fine as Jonas, Meryl Streep is as dependable as always, and Jeff Bridges (who has been pushing the project along for so long that he once hoped to direct with his father as the Giver) is enjoyably cranky despite his increasingly frustrating decision to act every role through a scratchy voice. However, every sincere and pleasant performance is balanced by awkward stunt-casting like Katie Holmes and Taylor Swift that might have boosted box office on paper, but are deeply distracting and ineffective on-screen.
In the end, this film is a mediocre adaptation of a wonderful story. It works, yet is little more than an average entry in the current YA sci-fi wave. (‘Ender’s Game’ suffered a similar fate last year.) It’s a shame that the movie wasn’t made in the 1990s, because at least then the film would have felt unique even if the adaptation hadn’t been perfect. Instead, we’re stuck with a version of ‘The Giver’ that doesn’t embarrass the source, but is practically guaranteed to make very little impact. Ah well, at least it finally happened.