[SPOILER ALERT: This whole review pretty gives away every plot point in both the book and film versions of The Giver. Abandon ship all ye who wish to remain surprised.]
On Sunday night I had an extraordinary experience. I was sitting in a theater, just about to watch Guardians of the Galaxy, and seeing what had to be the lamest run of movie trailers I have ever experienced. I’m talking horrible stuff. The Annie trailer (which ends with a prostitute joke), the Alexander and the Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day trailer (which may rival the Paddington film for Worst Trailer of the Year), and others that made my brain shut down. However it was the last trailer that was particularly interesting to me. It was for the film adaptation of Lois Lowry’s The Giver. For the first time in my life, I was watching a trailer in a theater for a film I had already seen. Since Guardians of the Galaxy is a mighty popular film these days, you may find yourself seeing the same trailer. Don’t believe it, though. The movie, believe it or not, is MUCH better than its preview. Much.
Because I’m currently on maternity leave with a small baby boy I was fairly certain I wouldn’t be able to see an early screening of the film. Fortunately Walden Media was accommodating and so, a week or two ago, I sat down with two buddies and a 10-week old child to see the onscreen adaptation of Lois Lowry’s Newbery Award winning book. And let me tell you, if you had to pick a movie to watch while holding a baby, this probably wouldn’t be your first choice.
I had reason to be skeptical, by the way. When children’s novels make the transition to the big screen they have a tendency to go a bit wonky. Remember Madeleine L’Engle’s straight to DVD Wrinkle in Time (NOT to be confused with the recently announced version)? Or what happened to Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising? And yes, I knew that Ms. Lowry had not only put her stamp of approval on this film but had been actively promoting it, but what did that really mean? So when I sat down and watched it I noted that one of my compatriots had read the original book as an adult when it published and the other had never read the book at all. Their insights proved invaluable.
The thing to remember when you watch The Giver is how long this film has been in the making. Jeff Bridges wanted to do it so long ago that he cast his father, Lloyd Bridges, in the title role with Bud Cort on narration. With the book originally publishing in 1993, this was middle grade dystopian long before Hunger Games came around. As such, a lot of the tropes you’ll find in the film won’t remind you of the current wave of YA dystopias as much as it will dystopias of the past. I’m talkin’ Planet of the Apes / 1984 / Soylent Green / Zardoz stuff (well . . . maybe not Zardoz). The kind where people aren’t quite certain how to use conjunctions anymore. I suspect we may see some reviews of this film that say it’s derivative of the current dystopias, but can you really be derivative if you came first?
The film begins with what looks like a slightly cleaner gated community than you’d usually find. Perfect lawns. Lots of circles. The occasional drone. And zero sexy clothes. We meet Jonas, our hero, and his two bestest buddies Fiona (ten years ago she would have been played by Kristen Stewart) and Asher (one of my compatriots pointed out that he was essentially Rolfe from The Sound of Music). They’re all white. Heck, all the major characters in this film are white. You might chalk that up to flaws in the dystopia, but I dunno. Seems like they could have had Jonas’s mom or dad be of color (after all, they’re not his birth parents or anything).
As for the kids, they are all older teens, a fact that was lamented wildly when it was first announced. However, as much as I’m for films to stay strictly faithful to their books, this change makes a lot of sense. I never quite understood those books where kids find out their lifelong jobs when they’re 12. The age appears to be there solely to allow the book to be shelved in the children’s rather than the YA section. In life, teenagers are more often told to pick their career paths. Plus the themes of the film fit adolescence so well (example: the desire to be the same as everyone else, even if it removes you from your own identity). Plus, kids watching the film at this point will certainly be thinking that this is a pretty great place to live. Teens will be the ones who first see the cracks.
Of course there is no picking in this world. Jonas is on the cusp of finding out what his job for life will be. Played by Brenton Thwaites, it’s a thankless role. A whole lotta yearning, which would try any actor’s patience. Brenton does a good job of it, though, and there’s a faint creepiness to the sunny happy-go-lucky interactions between him and his friends. Very Disney Channel-esque, if less risqué (if such a thing were possible).
When Jonas returns home we meet his mother and father, played by Katie Holmes and Alexander Skarsgård. To have Katie playing a teenager’s mother is, sadly, par for the course with Hollywood. She’s over 30? Cast her as a mom. But in this society you get the distinct feeling that it makes a lot of sense. If she was handed a baby when she was 18 then sure, she could be Jonas’s mother. It makes sense within the context of the film. Holmes, however, is a bit overshadowed in her role by Skarsgård who ends up being one of the finest actors in the movie. He plays the part of a very earnest, nice guy who would seriously kill you without a second thought if told to do so. This disconnect could tap nicely into a teen’s hidden fears about their own parents. You trust them implicitly when you are a child, but as you grow older you begin to see some character defects (some MAJOR character defects in this case).
We get to know the world a bit better when we hear about people being “released”. That’s where the Soylent Green similarities start to crop up (and if you haven’t seen that film, I assure you that it is MUCH better than one would expect it to be). Then we witness the ceremony where the kids get assigned their jobs and as each one is named a little montage of them over the years plays on a kind of live feed. It becomes clear that these images are plucked from the constant surveillance technology that inundates the place, which gives a nice eerie vibe to what would otherwise feel a lot like those videos parents make for their kids’ graduation ceremonies.
When Meryl Streep arrives via hologram (there are a lot of Star Wars-esque holograms to be found here, partly because Streep’s schedule didn’t allow her to travel to Australia where much of the movie was filmed) she steps into the role of white-haired-woman-in-charge. This is a popular role for great, older film actresses. Heck, the aforementioned Guardians of the Galaxy even had one in the form of Glenn Close. In Streep’s case, her role is as the Chief Elder, an embodiment of the problematic leaders of this society. The nice thing about casting Streep is that she’s able to give a bit more nuance to what would otherwise be a two-dimensional part. The Chief Elder is honestly conflicted by the choices she has to make, but there’s an understanding that society itself wouldn’t have her any other way. Plus, only Streep could give the line “Thank you for your childhood” the right edge. Mind you, I would bet you really good money that as I write this Anthony Lane is wracking his brain to come up with an appropriately cutting line to use to describe her bangs. They didn’t bug me though.
Jonas is assigned to be The Receiver to Jeff Bridges, the titular Giver. Like Streep, Bridges is fantastic to watch. Of course, he has an advantage over her in that he’s the only real person in the whole film for quite some time. A guy who doesn’t waste his time with b.s. Half the time he’s talking you’re not certain if he believes what he says. He’s also the kind of guy willing to play with the whole “chosen one” trope for fun (a fact that I appreciated). He lives in a little house near “the edge” of society itself in a house that’s sort of Dr. Calgari meets M.C. Escher. As The Giver, Mr. Bridges hands Jonas memories of the past via a kind of Vulcan mind meld. The first memory is of a sled, effectively making this film Citizen Kane for kids.
At this point the Garden of Eden references start to crank up big time. Jonas peers into the mist at the edge where nothing is supposed to exist and sees a tree. The first thing he officially sees in color is an apple (Fiona’s pretty red hair notwithstanding – though I suppose you could argue that it had some Biblical significance as well). As Jonas starts to learn more he decides not to take his inoculations, so he puts a bit of blood on a red apple and bypasses the system that way. And, naturally, he uses this apple to try to convince his friend Fiona to do the same. One naturally wonders if sex is going to come up since these are teenagers we’re talking about, but the most you get is some very chaste kissing after the two have plunged into a man made waterfall (now entering metaphor city).
Now did I fail to mention that until this point the film has been in black and white? It has indeed, and that’s fine. It certainly gives the film a kind of Wizard of Oz feel when Jonas at long last begins to see colors.
I watched with great interest how the film handled the darker elements of this society. First off, it’s been a while since I read the book so I couldn’t remember what the first memory of cruelty The Giver would give. In this case it’s a mighty realistic elephant safari. Can you train an elephant to fall down like that? You must. And that was one well trained animal. As for the shockingly horrible memory Jonas accidentally taps into, they went with Vietnam. A clever choice since Vietnam is sort of the perfect American nightmare in and of itself. But as well all know, there is one particular element to the book that causes it to be banned with shocking regularity in schools nationwide. I wondered if the film would show it or skip it entirely, but it’s so essential to the plot that you really can’t take it out. I am referring of course to the murder of a baby.
These days you can’t really kill a dog onscreen anymore. They will never remake Old Yeller for this very reason. But a baby? James Kennedy, the man behind the 90-Second Newbery Film Festival, once told me that when he gets a submission for The Giver there is usually one thing he can count on. The film may skip one part of the book or another but kids ALWAYS include the dead baby scene. They will reenact it with teddy bears or baby dolls or what have you, but it’ll be there. And fair play to the filmmakers. There’s Alexander Skarsgård, all soft sweet talk and pretty eyes, and he friggin’ kills a baby onscreen. If you are in the audience holding a baby at this time it is all the more harrowing. People are going to freak out about this when they see it, but it is probably the #1 most effective method of showing that this world is awful. Even kids and teens will understand that much.
I should note that there are the occasional lighter moments, though it would be a stretch to call this film comedic. You’re so desperate for some lightness, in fact, that the moment when Jonas’s father is telling his daughter that a stuffed elephant is a “mythical hippo”, it works. Plus Jeff Bridges is himself a great source of humor.
As we near the end we gear up for the big escape of Jonas and baby Gabriel. Now for the screenwriter there was a very big dramatic problem at the core of the original book. You want to have an exciting climax to the film where your hero is attempting to do something big. In this case, it isn’t enough for Jonas to be running to safety with Gabe. You can only take that so far. So they’ve added that he must also free everybody’s memories as well, something that can apparently be done by crossing some kind of border. It’s not really explained but since the whole transference of The Giver’s memories isn’t explained in the book either, you can’t really sweat it. Mind you, by crossing this border everyone in society will have as many memories of the past as The Giver himself. And on top of that they alternate Jonas’s flight with the upcoming execution of a friend, which also allows for a dramatic conversation between The Giver and The Elder about knowledge and choices.
Those of us familiar with the original book know that one of the great debates surrounding it for years was the ending. In fact, you could credit much of The Giver‘s success to the fact that the finish was open ended (sequels that settle the matter and Ms. Lowry’s own protests aside). Some people would interpret the end to mean that Jonas and Gabe died while others were convinced that they lived. The question in my mind, upon entering the theater, was whether or not the film would also be open to interpretation in this way. Final conclusion: Probably not. For one thing, Jonas is narrating the whole time and he’s speaking in the past tense. And sure, this might be Ghost Jonas talking, but from what he says you get the feeling that he’s defending himself from people who don’t like how he changed their society. The ending of the film isn’t really cut and dried, though. Jonas and Gabe hear the Christmas carols. They see the sled. They see the house where the songs are coming from. (Gabe also sports what may well be the most authentically runny nose in cinematic history.) They approach and the film ends. But what was the carol they were hearing? “Silent Night”. And what line in the song was clearer to the audience’s ear than any other? “Sleep in heavenly peace.” Hmmmm. I say, the jury is still out.
I mentioned before the whitey whiteness of the film, which really wasn’t necessary. The society itself isn’t all-white, just the major characters in this film. Then there are the women. Were it not for Fiona and Jonas’s rather charming little sister we’d be drowning in a sea of disapproving shrews (Katie Holmes, Meryl Streep, etc.). As it stands, it could be better (Fiona’s more a symbol than a person) but it’s not terrible by any means. As I said before, Streep’s a pro and gives her character a great deal of nuance. She’s not cackling with malicious glee or anything (ala Jodie Foster in Elysium). There are also the flashbacks into the past that Jonas witnesses through his sessions with The Giver. These are sometimes so well done that the last one in particular made me tear up a little. Sadly, while it shows families and protests and other meaningful elements (Nelson Mandela gets some serious screen time) there were no gay families or alternative families in the mix. A bit of a missed opportunity there, folks.
When we consider the pantheon of book to film adaptations, few are word-for-word carbon copies of the books. Even the faithful Harry Potter films had to make the occasional change. Much of what has been done to The Giver is entirely logical. In the end, the best way to judge a book-to-screen situation is to look at the book’s theme. Is this a case like The Lorax where the film upsets the very moral of the original source material? Or will it be more like The Fantastic Mr. Fox and preserve the beauty of the book’s thematic core while clearly establishing itself as its own beast? The Giver happily falls into the latter category. It is most faithful to the book in terms of the themes, the morals, and way in which it confronts the problems with conformity. Over the next few decades millions of children will be shown this Newbery Award adaptation in school. And I, for one, am grateful.
I considered closing this post by embedding a trailer for the film, then thought better of it. For the record, the trailers of The Giver are all universally awful. The initial one made it appear as if the film was in color. After public outcry the studio rushed to assure people that it had simply been cut to look that way. Then came the second trailer which acknowledged that parts were in black and white, but at the same time it contained about five different misleading moments. Rather than watching these trailers I suggest you see the film itself. Or, in lieu of that, this delightful 90-second version created for James Kennedy’s 90-Second Newbery Film Festival. Bonus: No dead babies.
Many thanks to Walden Media for allowing me my own little preview!