Last month, USA Today called Lois Lowry’s The Giver “[the] mother of all dystopian young-adult fiction titles.” With the exception of William Golding’s 1953 classic Lord of the Flies, this title is ironically (considering the family dynamic of Lowry’s tour-de-force) a fitting designation for the 1994 Newbery Medal-winning The Giver. The book is even now considered canonical for young readers and has sold over 12 million copies to date.
Thanks to the success of contemporary dystopian YA film adaptations—Divergent took in $275 million worldwide while the first two installments of the Hunger Games franchise amassed an eye-bursting $1.56 billion worldwide—The Giver finally gets its shot, in large part due to Jeff Bridges’ eighteen-year battle to bring the classic to the big screen. However, if you’re familiar with books like the Divergent trilogy, The Hunger Games trilogy, The Maze Runner trilogy, or most other dystopian YA released in the 21st century, you’ve essentially seen Lowry’s authoritarian dystopia before. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean that The Giver’soriginality in terms of plot and theme will be rewarded with a fruitful box office haul (or critical acclaim) for the film adaptation.
The Giver is one of the chief novels that has inspired most contemporary dystopian YA, and since those novels made it to the screen before their progenitor, it’s almost as if The Giver’s legacy has actually hurt the quality of the years-too-late film adaptation. It appears the creative team—director Phillip Noyce, screenwriters Michael Mitnick and Robert B. Weide—didn’t believe they could find a way to make The Giver interesting for an audience who may have come to the genre through the recent movies. As a result, the film version of The Giver barely resembles Lowry’s novel.
First and foremost, Brenton Thwaites’ (Maleficent) Jonas is 16-years-old in Noyce’s film; Lowry’s Jonas was 11-going-on-12. Changing Jonas’ age is permissible, but Thwaites is twenty-five and though he’s a baby-faced twenty-five, almost right away, the Jonas that readers fell in love with vanishes.
The film begins with a clichéd YA voiceover from Jonas that explains everything we need to know while also stating that “the community” became the way it is “after The Ruin.” The film doesn’t explain what The Ruin is, but we can extrapolate, although if Noyce and company are going to introduce something completely new to the story, they really should elaborate. Conversely, Lowry’s novel begins with a clean slate, no force-fed scene setting; the community just is and it’s more effective that way. A voiceover to start off a film is often a lazy way to provide exposition, and The Giver is no exception.
Only minutes into the movie, it becomes obvious that the role of Fiona, ably and wonderfully performed by Odeya Rush (The Odd Life of Timothy Green), has been majorly beefed up. While Rush’s acting is moving and impressive, Fiona has been re-shaped as a love interest for Jonas when she was anything but that in the novel. Jeff Bridges, producer and the Giver of the movie, has stated that the creative team decided to make the main characters older simply to add this romantic plotline. If Fiona had become a love interest in legitimate and insightful fashion, it would be okay, but the romance arises because it would be strange if a male lead of a YA book adaptation was not in love with someone. Worst of all, with the friend dynamic of Asher (Cameron Monaghan), Jonas, and Fiona, it feels as if The Giver has spun yet another YA love triangle—not that Asher ever shows interest in Fiona, but it certainly feels like he’s left out.
Speaking of Asher, here’s where it gets interesting. Noyce’s Asher is named a Drone Pilot while Lowry’s Asher is named the Director of Recreation at the Ceremony of Twelve. “Why would they make him a pilot?” you ask? Because Lowry’s The Giver ends on such an ambiguous note, with nearly no final resolution, that Noyce and company wrote their own ending. It was a great idea in theory, as Lowry’s ending is a riskless and bittersweet sign-off, but Noyce’s ending is high on ridiculous action and low on satisfaction—but we’ll get back to that.
One thing that has to be commended is Noyce’s use of color. As readers of Lowry’s book know, colors seep into Jonas’ world; they don’t flood in. Noyce paid proper attention to that, gradually expanding Jonas’ perception of color as his Receiver of Memory training progresses and intensifies. It was rightly poetic, as it is in Lowry’s novel, to see Jonas’ world ooze with color as he gains knowledge and acquires a world’s worth of memories.
However, Noyce’s film turns the Chief Elder into a villain. The reasoning behind this makes sense: If you have Meryl Streep, one of the greatest actresses of all time, you can’t have her onscreen as rarely as the Chief Elder appears in the book (which is almost never). However, the filmmakers turn her into a ruthless dictator when Lowry’s “villains” were really the Elders as a whole, as well as the society and the rules of the community.
Lowry’s Jonas battling society and a way of life is much more frightening than Noyce’s Jonas fleeing the wrath of the Chief Elder’s iron fist. Noyce’s Chief Elder spies on Jonas, threatens Jonas’ mother (Katie Holmes), locks up Fiona and the Giver, and attempts to “release” Fiona—all of which are glaringly absent from the book. The Chief Elder also employs Asher to find Jonas with a drone (which seems the only reason they changed his occupation from book to movie) when he escapes the community. In trying to make Streep’s Chief Elder tyrannical, they actually squandered her presence. A villain without a face—i.e. Orwell’s Big Brother—is always more ominous than a corporeal menace.
There’s no arguing that Jeff Bridges is fitting as the Giver. His passion for the project comes through in his scenes, and he does feel like the Giver of Lowry’s book. But why the casting of Taylor Swift as Rosemary? She’s onscreen for less than a minute, which is a travesty, considering how impactful Rosemary is on the novel. It’s a head-scratcher of a move and an exploitative one at that. The perfunctory cynicism of Swift’s casting is on full display with the newly published movie tie-in edition of The Giver, which features a Q&A with Taylor Swift in lieu of the Newbery Award stamp originally found on the front cover.
In the movie, Jonas’ mother and father (Alexander Skarsgård) are more wary of Jonas and menacing than their literary counterparts. In the book, Jonas’ escape with the infant Gabe feels like it’s them against the community and the Elders. In the movie, with how aware Jonas’ parents are—and how they actually aid the Chief Elder’s malicious plans—it eliminates that theme of boy(s) vs. world. The audience doesn’t connect with the filmic Jonas as much as the literary one.
The last third of the movie is nearly unrecognizable. There is an outlandishly implausible chase sequence where Jonas, while clutching the infant Gabe and riding a motorcycle (in Evel Knievel fashion) launches himself off the cliff where the community ends—literally ends, and gives way to a huge gorge—and lands safely on the other side after a several story fall…no harm done. Jonas, again while holding an infant child, is dropped at least a hundred feet into a river, wanders through the ineffably scalding heat of a desert, and traverses a blizzard all while clutching a fragile newborn. Gabe, who is apparently not only a few months old but also immortal, survives the ordeal without a scratch. While the film’s ending attempts to answer questions that Lowry’s didn’t, the overwrought action renders the effort moot.
The reported budget of the film was $25 million, a relatively frugal price tag considering that the 2013 dud Ender’s Game was given $110 million. With a conservative amount of money—and therefore, far less of a risk—behind the film, wouldn’t it make sense to adhere more to the source material than less? Lowry’s The Giver is not only an insightful and genius dystopian YA novel, but it’s scary how plausible much of the plot is. Bridges, citing how technology has taken over our lives in the real world, fought for nearly two decades to get The Giver made and it seems that it will be forgotten by viewers who have, in 2014, seen it all before. Had they stayed closer to the source material, that might not be the case.
With Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Guardians of the Galaxy still dominating the box office, as well as the low-budget buddy cop comedy Let’s Be Cops poaching viewers, The Giver seems poised to fall into the abyss of YA bombs like Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, Beautiful Creatures, and Vampire Academy. The Giver premiered with $4.7 million on opening night, only the third-highest-grossing debut of the week, and has been critically panned to boot. It’s now projected for a meager $12.7 million opening weekend, but should make its budget back with overseas earnings.
Knowing how influential Lowry’s novel is, viewers will no doubt be alienated by the changes, which have, more or less, eliminated the novel’s soul. The question now becomes: What is next for dystopian YA? If the book that inspired the current wave of the genre’s success fails, is that a telling sign for the genre? The Hunger Games films are as bulletproof as conceivably possible, but knowing how saturated the dystopian genre has become in the publishing industry, could the other Divergent films, The Maze Runner, and future YA dystopian adaptations be doomed? It hasn’t been a great calendar year for YA novel adaptations period—outside of those starring Shailene Woodley or Jennifer Lawrence—although Chloe Grace Moretz’s August 22nd adaptation of Gayle Forman’s novel If I Stay looks promising.