The Giver: Lois Lowry Discusses Her Classic Novel and the Film
The author of The Giver discusses seeing her classic children’s dystopian novel become a movie.
The Giver, which arrived in theaters this past Friday, is based on the 1993 book by Lois Lowry that has become one of the most debated, beloved and possibly influential novels of its type during the two decades since its publication. The novel won the Newbery Award — the highest honor possible for a work of children’s literature — and is a part of middle school reading lists to this day, yet it has also been one of the most challenged books of its time according to the American Library Association, meaning that numerous groups or people have tried to have it removed from libraries or school curriculums.
The book and film are set in a future, vaguely post-apocalyptic society in which all the members conform to a rigidly controlled lifestyle and all emotions and memories of the past have been eradicated to remove pain and suffering from everyday life. One member of the society, the Receiver, is a human repository of all those past memories. When a boy named Jonas (played by Brenton Thwaites in the film) is selected to be the next Receiver, his predecessor, now an elderly man known as the Giver (Jeff Bridges), is tasked with passing all those recollections along to Jonas. But as he receives them, Jonas begins to awaken to the sterility and stagnation of living in a world without emotions or memories. Meryl Streep plays the Chief Elder of the society, who sees the threat that Jonas represents and wants to stop him.
The movie takes what is essentially an allegorical novel and puts it into concrete visual terms, something that Bridges has been trying to do for more than 20 years (he wanted to direct it at one point). In the meantime, books like The Hunger Games and Divergent — all of which carry some of The Giver’s DNA — have been made into hit franchises. Lowry has been watching the process all along, until filming finally began last October in South Africa. Den of Geek got a chance to sit down and talk with Lowry during the recent Los Angeles press day for the film, where she spoke about seeing her novel come to life on the screen, getting emails at 3:00 am from director Phillip Noyce and the daily job of writing a book.
Den of Geek: How has this whole publicity experience been for you?
Lois Lowry: This is not bad at all. The experience of getting the movie made has been very long, many years. I’m accustomed as a writer to sitting alone in a room. I live alone with a dog and a cat. I sit in my room very quietly and do my work that I love. And then of course if you have any success as a writer, forget movies for a minute, you’re required to go out. And I think of it as being like an opera singer. I have to go out and sell me, me, me, me and talk about myself. And I hate it. I like the people and I love being with a group of people who love books or love movies as I do. I do not like talking about how great I am. That’s hard.
When you wrote the novel, did you ever envision it as a movie?
Well, two things as far as envisioning it as a movie. I used to be a photographer and I have a very visual mind. So when I’m writing a novel, whichever novel it is, I am seeing it in my mind but I have complete control over it. I do the casting, I design the set, I design the costumes, I write the dialogue and I choose the camera angle and that’s all my doing. So then to turn it over to real moviemakers is quite a leap. And to watch the collaborative process take hold has been fascinating for me because I do love movies.
I one time thought that if I weren’t a writer, if I were young and starting out I would love to be a filmmaker. And now I realize I wouldn’t. I went over to Cape Town and I watched them filming, and after a while it was a little boring. So I disabused myself of wanting to be the director or the cinematographer. But I loved the postproduction stuff. I was in the editing room and that’s what I would like to do. Of course I do that in writing a book as well, I change scenes around and put one here and choose a different camera angle here. So it’s all been fascinating to me.
How close is what they put on screen to what you saw on the screen in your head when you wrote it?
Everything was a little bit different but that’s understandable. The community where the boy lives, what I saw in my head I realize now I saw mistakenly because I grew up on an army post. My father was a military officer. So I was kind of seeing that kind of rigid orderly life where we lived by rules and every day at 5:00 we stood at attention while they lowered the flag. I did this because we did that in those days. So that’s what I was seeing. And then when I got over to Cape Town and saw the community that they had created for the set of where the boy lives and the dwelling places, I realized of course this is 50 years in the future. They wouldn’t be having the brick house that I lived in all set in a row, they would be contemporary dwellings. And so that was interesting to me.
Everything was a little bit different because we all see something in our mind which is just ours and created from our experience and our imagination. That’s interesting to me because a book, I’m aware that when it goes out there everybody who reads it reads a different book because they’re all bringing their own experience to it. But they go to a movie and they’re all seeing the same thing, which the filmmakers have created for them to see.
It makes it more concrete for people in one specific way.
Yeah. So it’s very interesting. Also, in my mind when I’m writing I see the characters that I’m writing about. Of course I was seeing a 12-year-old boy and they decided to make them older, for reasons that I wasn’t privy to; I don’t know why that decision was made. I was concerned about that when I found that they were going to do it. But my concern the lessened when I met Brenton, which I did before they ever started shooting the movie. And then when I saw him on the screen — the same opening scene that’s in the book when he’s riding the bike — and his face is so young and so vulnerable, I felt as though it was okay.
I asked them please not to make it into a teenage romance. I knew that because the kids could be teenagers and not 12 there would be an element of attraction when the boy begins to have feelings for the girl. And I believe they handled that well. The feelings exist and their romantic feelings, but it never blossoms into a teenage romance movie, thank God.
There was once a quote I read from Stephen King, but I think he attributed it to James M. Cain, where somebody said to Cain, “Hollywood has ruined your books,” and he said, “No they haven’t, they’re all right there on the shelf.” You haven’t had that experience with this, it seems, but there’s always that concern…
I had a couple of early books made into very mediocre TV movies so I’m certainly aware, and we’ve all seen movies that disappointed us after we had read the books. But no, once I realized this was in good hands and people who kept going back to the book over and over again and who were committed to preserving the integrity of the spirit of the book, I didn’t worry about it.
Have you seen any of these other films like The Hunger Games and Divergent…
I haven’t seen them.
It seems that the DNA of The Giver is very much in those books and the films made from them.
I’ve heard it said that The Giver was the first dystopian novel for young people. I majored in English in college and graduate school, so I read the classic dystopian literature. And I don’t know if it’s true that this is the first for young people but it certainly spawned a large number. I mean the two that you mentioned are the ones that became so popular and were made very quickly into movies. And now I guess sequels have come out for both of them. I have not seen those movies.
[related article: The Giver’s Bleak Vision for the Future of YA Cinema]
There’s no way to know that, of course, without questioning individual authors. But it may be that it was just out there in the atmosphere waiting to happen. We live in uncertain times. People wonder about the future. Kids wonder about the future, why not postulate different kinds of futures?
I think the idea of retaining the society’s memories is relevant now because it seems as a culture our attention span is getting shorter and shorter.
You know, I began the book not by thinking science fiction or speculative fiction or dystopian, I began it by thinking about memory. My father was losing his memory. He was close to 90 at the time. And I began thinking, what if we could manipulate human memory and how would that affect us and what could we do with that for good or evil? And that’s what precipitated the beginning of the book. That of course threw it into the realm of the futuristic because at that time so far that hadn’t happened.
I recently have read some news reports about scientist who have found that they can manipulate the memory in mice. They can obliterate frightening memories in mice. So there we go. At any rate, that’s what started it. I wasn’t really thinking about writing science fiction. And I don’t know the definition — whether this qualifies as science fiction. Certainly I’ve avoided any mention of technology in it in terms of explaining anything. I have gotten many letters from kids saying, “How exactly did they control the weather?” And I write back and I explain the literary concept called suspension of disbelief. I said I don’t know how they did it; you just have to suspend your disbelief and know that they were able to do it. Kids want to know, “Did they live in a dome? Why do they not have rain?” Well, I don’t know. I’m not worried about it, don’t you worry about it either.
There are three other books that follow The Giver but they tell different stories. Are those part of the same film option as well?
No. They are not under option. I think perhaps that would happen if this movie proves successful. I just don’t know. You know the filmmakers would murmur about it from time to time but I don’t know.
Are you working on a new book now?
I will be when this movie stuff is finished. I will go back to my quiet hilltop, back to my old farmhouse and start a new book. But this past year has been quite taken up with this. Even if I haven’t been on the road with them or at the set with them, my mind has been there.
Phillip, the director, over the course of the making of this film, probably emailed me three times every day, sometimes late at night. Clearly he would be thinking about it every minute. He would just email me to ask for little details. For example, I remember once he asked, what should the boy’s bedroom look like? I would get up early in the morning and see he had written it at 3:00 in the morning. So at any rate that kept my mind from going elsewhere into another book. I needed to stay with this one and it’s been fun.
What’s your daily schedule like when you write?
Well, as I say I live alone with my dog and cat. So I go to my computer. It’s how I make my living so I go there every day the way everybody goes to their job. I’m fortunate that I love it -– that’s my place I’d rather be than any place else. If I’m in the middle of a book, that’s what I go to every day. I always have to set aside time for the endless emails. Kids have such access to anybody now so they email me all the time. More often when school is in session because sometimes they have an assignment. My most hated favorite email is “Please tell me all the similes and metaphors in The Giver. I need this information by Thursday.”
At any rate I have to answer all that stuff. I have to write speeches. Right now I have to write an article for somebody. So all of that is there waiting to be done, but then I’ll go back into the manuscript that I’m working on. I do it chronologically. I mean I start at the beginning of a book heading toward an end and I’ll have a vague idea of the end but I don’t know the plot. And so I’ll have to make that up as I go along, and as I do that new characters may appear that I hadn’t planned on. If they do then I may realize I have to introduce them sooner and that means going back and rewriting it.
In the old days I used to work on a typewriter and rolled the paper in and then type and then erase and then take it out and use carbon paper if you wanted to have a second copy because Xerox hadn’t been invented yet. So a computer has made that not only easier but so much more fun. I can go back and I’ll put this chapter back here and change this paragraph. So that’s an ongoing process.