Review of The Giver, Directed by Phillip Noyce
As a book, The Giver has been remarkably generous. A Newbery Medal winner that has sold 10 million copies, the book has given millions of children their first chance to interact with questions that have plagued human beings for centuries: Which is more valuable: freedom or security? Should human life ever be discarded? What is love?
Now, movie-goers will get to receive the magic of The Giver. Despite some changes, the movie is faithful to the heart of the book and the bulk of its storyline. And that means that viewers will get to experience all the story’s remarkable strengths, even if the movie itself has nothing really scintillating to add.
When the film opens, Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) is an 18-year-old graduate, ready to be assigned the career he will have for the rest of his life in his futuristic, colorless village in the clouds. At a special ceremony, all of the teens in his age group are called forward to receive their job, but he is inexplicably skipped. The community leader (Meryl Streep) tells the community gathered before her that Jonas has been assigned a special task: He will be the Receiver of Memory.
On his first day at the new job, Jonas learns that in order to for the community to achieve its simple, ordered way of life, it has erased the memories of the past and put them in the mind of one person, the Giver (Jeff Bridges). Jonas begins to receive the world’s memories from the Giver. At first they are happy ones: sledding, sailing, dancing at a wedding. Jonas discovers color, music, and race — “differences” that were eliminated in this perfect community in order to bring peace. The reluctant Giver also gives Jonas unhappy memories — a bee sting, war in the jungle. The pain is almost unbearable for Jonas, as it was for the previous Receiver of Memory, who asked to be “released to elsewhere.” Jonas considers this a viable option, until the Giver shows him what “released to elsewhere” really means: The elderly, unhealthy infants, and those who request release are injected with a fatal solution and die. Jonas is horrified. The memories he’s received have taught him the value of life; in addition, his father has been taking care of an underweight baby, Gabriel, who will soon be up for “release.” Jonas decides his perfect community is not perfect, and, with the help of the Giver, scrapes together a last-minute plan to rescue Gabriel and leave the community to wrestle with the world’s memories themselves.
As a film, The Giver has nothing revolutionary to offer — which is perhaps on purpose. Walden Media, which helped produce the film, aims to churn out movies that get kids more excited about books. As a result, The Giver is a fast-paced, faithful adaptation of the book, rendered fairly simply, so that kids can “get” it. Thus, it passes by several opportunities for greater suspense or subtlety. But in doing so it mimics the book—it is a powerful, poignant story, packaged for children.
And yet there is a feast of a story jammed into this children’s package. The questions it raises leave viewers slightly awe-struck, scrambling for answers, as all good dystopian fiction should do. Are happiness and pain inextricable? What is a world without color like? Is love more than animalistic passion? Are we better off without emotions? Should all lives be valued, or only the strong?
For the most part, the movie’s strengths are the book’s strengths; its lessons, the book’s lessons. The movie offers one slight advantage in that we can see the memories, almost in the same way Jonas saw them. The film strings together its crew’s footage with YouTube videos and famous historical reels (such as Tiananmen Square) to convey happiness, courage, worship, strength. That has a powerful effect.
It’s also worth noting that the movie comes with a strong pro-life message. Jonas is horrified watching a baby be executed. The community’s entire system of “release”—essentially physician-assisted suicide—becomes Jonas’s motivation for fleeing.
For more than two decades, The Giver has been forcing young readers to think about questions they’ve never before considered about beauty and love and life, at the same time exposing the cruelties that accompany man’s attempt to play God and achieve perfection. The movie will do the same for many more, and for that it deserves hearty applause.