By Zac Baker
Books have been made into movies for decades, and big screen adaptations of teenage dystopian novels are particularly in vogue right now—just look at “The Hunger Games” trilogy, the “Divergent” trilogy and “The Maze Runner,” all of which were released or had one film of the series released this year.
It is hard to believe that Lois Lowry’s “The Giver” had not been made into a movie until 2014 considering its popularity. It was first published in 1993, and has been taught in schools and read in book groups for many years now. A film version is extremely late to the game.
But showing up later gives filmmakers the advantage of knowing what works and what audiences like, and “The Giver” does a respectable job of delivering visually compelling scenes, a good story and (mostly) strong acting.
The story takes place in the future, where all citizens are equal, a person’s career is chosen for them at a precise age based on their qualifications, and they all see in black and white to erase physical differentiation between each other. There are strict rules; even their “precision of language” is monitored closely.
The “elders” govern the town, and according to all the adults, “the elders are never wrong.”
Enter Jonas and his friends, Fiona and Asher (played by Brenton Thwaites, Odeya Rush and Cameron Monaghan, respectively). At the start of the film they have reached the age of career selection, and nervously await their assignments at a formal ceremony before all the townspeople. Fiona is assigned to care for newborns at the nurturing center; Asher is to become a pilot.
When it should be Jonas’s turn, he is skipped over entirely. Anxiety fills his eyes. His parents are confused.
At the end of the ceremony the Chief Elder (Meryl Streep) turns to Jonas and announces that he has been selected for a special assignment: to be the “receiver of memory.”
With time, Jonas is to receive all past memories from the Giver (Jeff Bridges), both good and bad. These memories from the past are meant for assisting the elders as they govern the citizens in perfect peace and ignorant bliss.
Jonas sees and feels the magic of a fresh snowfall. He watches a beautiful sunset on a ship at sea. Jonas revels in the color he can see for the first time, and the thrill of sledding and dancing that are absent in his society. But he also experiences the brutality of war and the anguish of having a newborn child taken from a parent.
The remainder of the film is a series of learning experiences for Jonas. He develops a crush for the first time, starts seeing the world in color, and beings to form opinions about the way things function in his world. Jonas has to reconcile his new perspective based on the memories he is receiving with the reality he lives in, and that becomes dicey when he realizes he is not sure that he likes what is happening in the colorless world he grew up in.
The moral of the film is thought provoking, and shockingly positive compared to most dystopian flicks: what makes life meaningful? Are safety precautions to minimize difficulties worth the dulling of our emotions and fulfillment in life? It is a nice departure from the violent, power-driven storylines of the other recent films of this genre.
With time, Jonas sees that what is available to him in the black and white world is not enough, and asks “if you can’t feel, then what’s the point?” He learns to love, and wants others to be able to feel that too.
But despite a compelling moral, the best part of the film is the way these principles have been deftly managed by its two most critical characters, Thwaite’s Jonas and Bridge’s Giver.
Thwaite, 25, a relatively unknown actor from Australia masterfully handles Jonas’s plight to make sense of life in the light of the juxtaposition between the two worlds he lives in. The enthusiasm for learning feels genuine, the anguish of oppression authentic.
Bridges also plays his most endearing character in years. The Giver is gruff enough on the outside to be quintessential Bridges, but has a tender heart that manifests much earlier than I anticipated.
The bond between the two looks and feels natural on screen.
The cinematography was also key in capturing these elements. There were a lot of nicely composed close shots of all of the characters that showcased the range of emotions everyone experienced.
“The Giver” is not perfect by any means. There are some jerky scenes, and not all of the characters are as dynamic and believable as others. But there is enough good, both in acting and moral, to make this film worth watching. It is a commendable adaptation, and a nice change from the carnage of the other teenage dystopian movies out there. ♦