It may actually be a blessing to not read the source material sometimes. In the case of The Giver, it’s kind of a plus. Consider: over the last decade, we’ve seen dozens of young adult books be adapted to film. After Harry Potter came Twilight, and after that came the Hunger Games flicks now in progress. All of the aforementioned have been zanily lucrative, with built-in fanbases, and chapter after chapter to keep releasing in theaters. That’s always the appeal of YA book-to-screen prospects. Yet, the criticisms are always exactly the same. People gripe about how close or far a book is to its onscreen counterpart.
Not to sound like a philistine, but maybe not reading (or at least forgetting, in this writer’s case) the source material can be a benefit. It frees a viewer from the burden of expectations. Instead of looking at The Giver purely in terms of its fidelity to the original Newberry award-winning classic by Lois Lowry, you can appreciate it as an aesthetically pleasing series of dystopian concepts made edible for younger audiences…if you’re flimsy on the book, that is.
The Giver is about a blank, de-saturated future society and one boy’s dangerous tutelage and subsequent crusade to bring emotions and humanity back. In this world, there is no war, no violence, equality has finally been achieved through the most literal means. This community is all about matching clothing, direct language, sameness as a virtue, and other dead-eyed things. It’s all incredibly obtuse and on-the-nose, but the concepts are interestingly drawn nonetheless. Injections intended to dope out affect. Cities atop mountains in the sky. Surveillance paranoia and the end of privacy. The Giver’s ideas are dated, but they still intrigue.
Jonas (newcomer Brenton Thwaites, 25, playing a 16-year-old…who’s actually 12 in the book…okay, beats me), is selected to become the new receiver of memory. In other words, he’s going to be trained, by “The Giver” (a somber and soulful Jeff Bridges) to receive past memories, feelings, and notions of humanity. Why? Someone has to be the keeper of these things as people march toward emotional sterility…just in case, right? Back on point. Jonas stops seeing his world for what it is, but for what it has the capacity to be.
While it rides the line between science fiction and Baby Boomer Super Bowl commercial, The Giver more or less shines in presenting this concept. Jonas sees the joys and faults of people. He wants to dream, to express himself, to give all his love, to see life in colorful Koyaanisqatsi-esque montages. Yes, it’s corny, done from an over-emotional angle, but it’s still unconventionally moving. The Giver is okay with wearing its heart on its sleeve. It has easy ideas that percolate. This allows The Giver to be deep, breathless, disturbing, and altogether a thrilling mind-piece. Anyone over 13 will see it for its hokum and simple logic, but The Giver is not afraid to scream “feel something, you cyborgs!” Philip Noyce moves the film quickly, and makes fascinating choices. From Ed Verraux’s 1960s-chic design to Barry Alexander Brown’s confident, showy editing to Marco Beltrami’s attractively big score, The Giver has more than enough to keep you entertained, and just enough to maybe even engage you. Think about it any longer than that, and you’ll likely start bemoaning The Giver’s ideological vagary and dodgy use of Taylor Swift.
The Giver has been languishing in development hell practically since the book was published. Bridges, who bought the rights long ago, finally gets to see his passion project hit the screen, with Lois Lowry’s support. And yet, devotees of the book are reportedly dissatisfied with The Weinstein Company’s take. Alterations made included the aforementioned age differences of the children, altering the last act, and more. However, consider this – many of the book’s original themes are intact, like individuality, the links between pain and joy, and the importance of memory. Yes, there’s irony in dressing The Giver up to feel like every other young adult cash-grab on screen, complete with action scenes and chase modes. As an adaptation it probably falters. The Giver as a modest spectacle, on the other hand, is imperfect but potent stuff.