The Giver could easily be considered the grandfather of all modern YA adaptations as we know them. Based on the 1993 book written by Lois Lowry and set in a dystopian future, if it sounds like quite a few other recent films of this genre it’s because The Giver came first. But the film adaptation opts rather to become a deconstruction of emotion and free will rather than become an action set-piece, which results in a thought-provoking breath of fresh air in the genre that is just shy of being a great film.
While watching The Giver you can expect first love and rebellion much like The Hunger Games and you can expect a society of distinct classes like in Divergent, but The Giver is much more artistic than either of those films.
As I mentioned above, it’s set in the distant future in a dystopian society where through a daily injection, citizens are stripped of strong emotions in favor of eradicating the worst parts of humanity such as jealousy, hatred, racism and war. People aren’t mindless, they’re just without drive and highly susceptible to suggestion.
As all teenagers, when Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) turns 16 he is assigned his life-long specific task, but is chosen for the extremely rare honor of being The Receiver. He is to be given the last true memories of their world’s past (emotions included) from his teacher, dubbed The Giver (Jeff Bridges), only they are not to be shared with anyone, rather they are to be used for wisdom in counseling major societal decisions. Those who don’t remember the past are doomed to yadda yadda…
Obviously. the deeper down the rabbit hole Jonas goes, the more he starts to think the elders have made the wrong decision while coming to the conclusion that they have essentially taken away what makes us human. With The Giver’s help, Jonas is forced to make bold decisions in order to give back to his people the ability to feel and choose for themselves.
It’s a shame that most people will probably see this movie and think it’s a knock-off of the aforementioned YA film adaptations that were monster hits, because The Giver is quite a solid film. It’s easily the most intelligent and artistic YA novel adaptation of the modern bunch and actually takes the time to explore the themes and ideas presented. The action isn’t anywhere near The Hunger Games or Divergent levels and the romance is there (with Fiona, played by Odeya Rush) but it’s not a major aspect of the film.
The Giver starts out in a crisp, stark black-and-white and remains that way for admirably almost over 20 minutes. Director Phillip Noyce does a wonderful job directing the color transitions from the black-and-white sterile world the film introduces us to through the slow return of color as Jonas starts to experience emotions. The visuals are gorgeous and handled just the right way, with subtle tones that seep in and out and never get to be too much of a gimmick. The art design of the society is also fantastic and invokes a slick Apple-like quality, from their dwellings and bicycles all the way down to the food trays.
In an interesting side-note: getting this film made has been a passion project for Bridges for almost twenty years. At one point he was going to direct the film with his father, Lloyd Bridges, playing the role of The Giver.
Meryl Streep turns in an icy cool portrayal of The Chief Elder, the film’s main antagonist, that was brought to life through Streep’s body language and demeanor as she delivered her intentionally emotionless lines. Even though she is trying to keep Jonas from his goals, there’s always a sadness in her eyes – especially in her scenes with The Giver – that lead you to believe she was hurt at some point leading her to buying into this stale, sterilized world.
The supporting cast is anchored by Katie Holmes as Jonas’ mother and Alexander Skarsgård as Jonas’ father. Skarsgård is the true standout as extremely lovable, yet aloof, monster that is akin in some ways to Lennie from Of Mice and Men. His role is pivotal to the climax of the film and you pity, yet revile Skarsgård for his actions, because he brings a perfect balance of naiveté and intelligence to the role. Holmes just plays a cold, generally unlikable woman, who would tattle on her own family just to follow the rules and didn’t show anything new from the actress.
The Giver clocks in at a surprisingly short 100 minutes, but it can feel long at some points. The good news is that The Giver does explore ideas, rather than blowing stuff up. Another aspect that kept this from being a great film is the way it glosses over certain elements and technologies of the world and even the very ending itself. The film tells you something is out there and then never explains how it got there or why it exists, and the viewer is left scratching their head the more they ponder the film.
The Giver has the cerebral themes and ideas that normally are found in smaller indie films, which is a plus for me, but might turn off the YA audience wanting something more familiar. The film tugs at the heart strings and asks questions about the meaning of life while debating the rightful place humanity should take in this circle. The experience is a tremendously artistic shot-in-the arm to the usual dystopian YA novel adaptations of late, and while it misses some significant notes along the way, still manages to make the audience do something most major films do not: think.