The Giver is based on what many consider to be the original Young Adult novel, but it’s more than that. Like the most successful YA adaptations of the last five years that are forced (at least for their first installment) to rely on a modest genre budget, The Giver is a throwback to those early pre-Star Wars sci-fi films of the 1970s; a time when big ideas and even bigger cynicism justified the wacky costumes and make-up, and a moment when dystopia meant that the elderly were “retired to the elsewhere” as if they’re senior citizens in a Chuck Heston movie. It’s all so extravagantly misanthropic in its fantasies that I can copy doped up protagonist Jonah and ignore this world’s many imperfections. At least for a time.
To be sure, The Giver is still an adaptation of Lois Lowry’s seminal piece of children’s literature that introduced the concepts of nihilistic collectivism to a young audience still unaware of Ray Bradbury or George Orwell. However, the movie is also very much a product of 2014 sensibilities, particularly within “YA” genre expectations, which The Giver has been retroactively adopted into. As a result, this is both the movie about a young boy, though now 16-years-old instead of 11-years-old, who is given the position of “Receiver of Memory” from a kindly old man, and it is a modern teenage love story complete with chase sequences and stolen kisses.
One of these two storylines is much stronger than the other, and you can probably deduce which.
Set in a distant future where society has been separated into various communities, the best word to describe young Jonah’s (Brenon Thwaites) childhood is sameness. It’s a smiling, well-meaning hellscape where even the weather is controlled by the omnipresent and watchful “elders;” there is no religion, no race, and no difference between people. There’s not even color, because the elders forbid it.
In this falsely idyllic world, the concepts of war, starvation, and death itself have been forgotten (those darn “retiring” seniors) by all except the “Receiver of Memory,” who supernaturally maintains the knowledge of humanity’s dark past. It is a powerful position held by an enigmatically benevolent Jeff Bridges, and it is the societal role for which Jonah is selected to continue in a new generation. While all the other 16-year-olds are assigned their lifelong careers by the most artful of beaming elders—a delicious Meryl Streep “thanking” them for their childhoods—Jonah is forced to become a receiver. Thus, Bridges takes on the mentoring role of “Giver” for the budding hero.
Through Bridges’ gifts, Jonah learns what snow and Christmas carols were, as well as how to see color where once there were only waxen shades of gray. He also discovers emotions, leading to a new sensation that he feels first for his family unit’s adopted baby brother (parents are assigned their children by elders from birth-givers) and then for his childhood best friend Fiona (Odeya Rush). Both affections put him in mortal danger, and one proves particularly virulent for the movie’s narrative.
The most striking and admirable aspect of Phillip Noyce’s film is the bold use of black-and-white photography for close to half of the picture’s running time. In a movie markedly aimed at an audience increasingly removed from the beauty of a restrained color palette, The Giver rather remarkably throws audiences into a desaturated world that is only color corrected one new emotion at a time. While the effect is not unlike YA cinematic pioneer Gary Ross’ Pleasantville, it nevertheless proves an effective tool in this film, giving a visceral immediacy to the concept of proletariat rule. This is doubly well used when Jonah first notices the red of an apple—which matches the color of Fiona’s hair.
Coupling this story of belated human experience with one of romance is a potentially intriguing proposition, however so much of Lowry’s original book is rooted in a pre-adolescent viewpoint that the story threads tend to segregate themselves instead of melding into a cohesive whole. Many of the early scenes between Jonah, Fiona, and fellow childhood friend Asher (Cameron Monaghan) take on an eerie stiltedness as they reflect Jonah’s literary childish concerns and pliable disposition, which seems far removed from scenes where two of the actors are in their 20s. It may only contort into this story because of nearly all the characters’ passivity.
Of such special note are Alexander Skarsgard and Katie Holmes as Jonah’s parents, played with all the warmth of the DMV. Skarsgard brings a curious amount of apprehension to a character that audiences will wish they spent more time with after the duties of his communal position become clear. Holmes, meanwhile, has never appeared more comfortable than in a role which requires no emotion or sincerity.
But the movie really belongs to Bridges and Streep. Despite being Jonah’s journey, which is affably realized by the charismatic Thwaites, the heavy-duty performing is managed by a pair of thespians having a blast. Streep plays an amalgamation of the novel’s collective elders, and has all too few scenes of saying what she really thinks. But Bridges elevates the film by offering both wisdom and the playful contumacy of Rooster Cogburn. Bridges has been trying to get a Giver movie made for close to 20 years, and while the final film might not be the classic he envisioned, he still realizes his own character perfectly—bringing a rawness even to scenes with a stunt-casting cameo of Taylor Swift to life with wounded authenticity and genuine sadness.
Regrettably, we are not allowed to linger on that sadness nor really any other emotion during The Giver’s surprisingly brisk running time of 94 minutes. In an age where every branded adaptation seems to require a bloated three-hour interpretation, The Giver does not just check off its narrative beats; it full-bore gallops through them. The result is so truncated in its canter that a film about exploring the depths of the human condition (at least from an adolescent’s point of view) instead feels akin to a slideshow montage of dystopia and the warm and fuzzies.
The film’s first act does a solid enough job of building this dystopic world that it remains a lasting frustration that so much of it is left unexplored or underdeveloped, especially the Receiver of Memory’s role in it. Neither the mechanics of how this memory is shared nor why such a society would want to remember the past is given more courtesy than a few dropped lines. And the core relationship that binds the movie together, Bridges and Thwaites, is judiciously abbreviated through too many montages and voiceovers, ultimately in favor of some fleeting lip service for its garden-variety romance over the qualities that make The Giver unique. As a result baby Gabriel and the horrific scene that crystallizes the child’s precipitous fate skirts too close to the boundary of relevancy and afterthought.
It is unclear why such decisions were made with a proven built-in audience brand like Lowry’s story, but the culmination feels closer to director Noyce’s TV output in recent years than the big-hearted (and big hammed) Tom Clancy adaptations he helmed with Harrison Ford 20 years ago.
And yet, The Giver is still worth the time of any audience that appreciates the genre or source material, but does is not married to it. The core literary concepts, as illogical as they might be, are too strong to let the flaws retire this film. Whether The Giver is technically YA or not, this movie far surpasses much of its progeny, including this year’s highly derivative (and highly awful) Divergent. The film’s wondrously downbeat cynicism, if even diluted, overcomes any limitations, none of which includes a truly giving performance from Jeff Bridges.