Anyone familiar with Lois Lowry’s beloved children’s novel The Giver knows that one of its key tenets is precise language. So I’m going to phrase the next sentence as precisely as possible: This movie adaption does not live up to the book. In fact, this movie adaptation is so bland that it makes the chief inspiration for such young adult sci-fi dystopias as The Hunger Games and Divergent seem like a shoddy knockoff.
Part of the film’s problem may be timing. Jeff Bridges, who both stars as the eponymous Giver and is credited as a producer, began trying to adapt Lowry’s subtle, smart indictment of totalitarian societies (including, arguably, our own) almost as soon as it was published in 1993. But back then, everyone from possible financiers to Lowry herself resisted. In the intervening years, it influenced an entire industry of young adult books and subsequent movie franchises, which in turn boasted massive followings, Hollywood budgets, and, yes, talent – not to mention bad-ass female heroines, which The Giver itself sorely lacks. By the time Bridges finally managed to get this film project together, the ground beneath it had shifted seismically. And perhaps its foundation just wasn’t strong enough to withstand such changes.
The book The Giver itself is not perfect. A “tweener” that bridges the gap between Madeleine L’Engle’s 1962 sci-fi YA novel A Wrinkle in Time and all that new-millennium YA sci-fi, it is as much a pastiche as its descendants, borrowing liberally from the likes of Ray Bradbury, George Orwell, and Aldous Huxley. But The Giver is at least wonderful pastiche, the kind whose myriad influences and logical inconsistencies are all part of its big-brain, big-heart package. Herein lies a book that practices what it preaches: It reminds us in both content and form that people – including kids – should think and feel for themselves. Alas, this is less true of the film.
Again, context is everything. At the beginning of Lowry’s book, Jonas, 11, is assigned to be the new Giver. Trained by the old Giver, he will serve as the one person in his community who remembers the past that his society is engineered to otherwise erase. “Sameness” is a core value, and everyone takes a daily injection that erases their ability to register color, emotion, and stakes. “Difference” caused conflict and strife in the past – which this injection also somehow erases. (Don’t ask how.)
But “sameness” doesn’t just define this society. It also afflicts this adaptation, in which the story’s deficits are more glaring. With cheap sets and special effects, it looks like the tweener that it is: a movie with a limited budget that doesn’t live far enough outside the studio system to be truly innovative. Shot in a cruddy black-and-white digital, its visuals are flat rather than expressionistic and, while this lack of affect helps us discover the world as Jonas does, the “remembering” sequences are also disappointingly generic. Apparently, here memory works like a slick, oversaturated montage that wouldn’t be out of place in a Nike or Benetton commercial.
Speaking of commercials, the fact that Lowry’s tween protagonists are teens in this film feels like a cynical attempt to widen its appeal: Taylor Swift appears so briefly as a character fabricated for the screen (she plays the old Giver’s ill-fated daughter, Rosemary) that it seems she’s only been included to list her big name on the marquee. Fiona, Jonas’ love interest, is played with sympathetic appeal by newcomer Odeya Rush but, as Jonas, Brenton Thwaites seems less like an old soul bearing the burden of his people than like an Abercrombie & Fitch model who’s been separated from his catalog. Yep: more commercials.
A lot of the other casting is downright funny. Katie Holmes has never been much of an actress but seems suspiciously comfortable as Jonas’s mom, a Stepford-ish wife in this futuristic cult propelled by pseudo-science. (Hmmm.) As Jonas’s deeply clueless dad, Alexander Skarsgard’s “True Blood” fangs have been filed down far more than necessary. And with her aging hippie tresses and perpetual air of disappointment, Meryl Streep plays the community’s chief elder as a helicopter mom who seems to be monitoring everyone – and delivering her performance – via Skype. Wherefore art thou, o Meryl?
Only Bridges enlivens this joint. Sure, as the old Giver assigned to train Jonas, he is once again reprising his “Big Lebowski” stoner-savant shtick. But it’s a great shtick, and his investment in this material shows. These messages of love and free will are a natural for him.
Even the power of Bridges can’t save this film, though. Director Phillip Noyce seems in over his head, especially working from Michael Mitnick and Robert B. Weide lame-duck script. Jonas’s hero journey to wake up his society and save a baby scheduled for “release” (read: death) is a mess, especially a climactic scene that, admirably ambiguous in the book, is cookie-cutter here.
But could we expect Hollywood, that bastion of “sameness,” to produce anything else? Frankly, in light of such bona-fide YA sci-fi achievements as the big-studio “Hunger Games” films, I’m going to say yes. Which makes it all the more unforgiveable that this film only works as a treasure trove of unintentionally funny one-liners mined from its hyper-“precise” vernacular and institutionalized passive-aggression. I can just see how “The Giver” would be treated in the actual world that Lowry created:
Filmmakers: We apologize for betraying this beloved novel.
Audience: We do not accept your apology.
This review was originally published in Word and Film.