Tis Better to Giver Than to Receive...
Despite the great praise Lois Lowry's novel has received through the years, I have never taken the time to read The Giver. Apparently that mindset also went for the film adaptation, for The Giver all but bombed at the box office, just like another adaptation of a science-fiction classic (Ender's Game). Just like last year's Ender's Game, I fail to understand why The Giver failed, since the film is a strong and much more intelligent film than the recent glut of dystopian teen-centered films/novels. There is a bit of a love triangle, and some of the performances are weak (I'm looking at you, Kate and Taylor!) but the film also leaves us asking serious questions about what it means to achieve a 'perfect world' and at what cost to our own humanity.
The world has been devastated, but from the ashes a new society has emerged, one which contains peace, uniformity, and total happiness. In this world, there are family units, but they are not 'fathers, mothers, and children' in the traditional sense. Children are basically bred, where if they are found to be fit they are assigned to adults. In this utopia, there are certain important time frames, all celebrated in a special ceremony. Here, the Chief Elder (Meryl Streep) appears to this community via hologram and presents the various groups that are being commemorated. There is the Release to Elsewhere for the aged, where they would go into 'retirement'. There is the selection of Birth Mothers, a ceremony where nine-year-olds can get bicycles (and begin their journey to adulthood) and at last, the Ceremony of the Grown. Here, the eighteen-year-olds who now are given their jobs for life, be it gardeners, soldiers, and so forth.
We look at three youth. There is Asher (Cameron Monaghan), a jokester who is as rebellious as they come. There is Fiona (Odeya Rush), a pretty girl. Then there is Jonas (Brenton Thwaites), who is unsure of where he will go. Jonas is different from everyone in his community, for he on occasion sees things in color, while the world is in eternal greys. His gifts have been noted, and the Chief Elder announces that Jonas will be the Receiver of Memory, and will begin training with The Giver (Jeff Bridges).
His parental units Father and Mother (Alexander Skarsgard and Katie Holmes) are honored, but Jonas is still fearful. The Receiver of Memory holds all the past of what the world was like before the Ruin, when the world was torn asunder and they had created their peaceful world. The Giver soon presents Jonas with the memories of all that came before: things like 'snow' and 'music', cultural diversity where people were not all the same, the expressions of faith and joy and love.
However, the world before The Ruin had its dark side: violence and war, jealousy, racism, starvation, pollution, hunting to extinction. All these things have been wiped from the world Jonas lives in, all for the betterment of the community. Soon, however, Jonas struggles with what he sees: both the terror of the old world, and the loss of beauty from that same world in his own. Jonas' world is one where a 'kiss' is simply not known, where the word 'love' is such an archaic term people need to have it made specific with a request for "Precision of language".
It is also a world where a baby, if he or she does not meet a certain level of physical health, is to be 'released'. The Giver shows what 'releasing' means, and armed with his new knowledge, is horrified: the child is basically killed. Worse, Father is the one who releases children (and by extension, the retirees to Elsewhere), but because Father knows nothing of the world prior to the Ruin, he has no sense of whether this is an immoral act. Jonas has grown fond of the child Father brought home in hopes he would mature, who was named Gabriel. Jonas notices that Baby Gabriel has the same markings that he has, suggesting he too might be a Receiver. However, the decision has been made to 'release' Gabe.
From there, The Giver becomes a bit of a chase film, with Jonas rescuing Gabe and fleeing to beyond the Elsewhere, where if he manages to cross its boundaries all the memories will be released. The Chief Elder is determined to not have their world destroyed by the memories of the past which have kept the communities in peace and beauty, but now the race is on.
Michael Mitnick and Robert B. Weide's adaptation of Lowry's book creates a plausible world, one where Gabriel can be given a toy elephant that is called by Father a 'hippo', which he says is a mythological creature that could run really fast because he had five legs. Director Philip Noyce similarly made this world a believable one, though I imagine the fact that to emphasize the sameness of it, part of the movie is in black-and-white might either puzzle or frustrate audiences.
Curiously, the black-and-white cinematography reminded me of another film that touched on similar aspects: Pleasantville, where the innocence of its 1950s-era sitcom were undone once color (i.e. the world's dark side) entered the picture. The world of The Giver appears to be one where peace and harmony reign, everyone knows their place (which is the same) and there is total equality.
However, the film also shows that this world is quite frightening in its own way: no music, no love, no qualm about taking life that does not appear to be 'fit'. The Giver makes its case that life is one of great darkness but also great joy, that humanity cannot be placid because the richness and complexity of life cannot be secured within a narrow safety.
We see this particularly in Thwaites' performance, and one hopes that the failure of The Giver won't cut out his career. Jonas is someone who senses he is different, and as he learns both the joy of dancing at a wedding or the horrors of killing animal for sport or humans for war (he is able to see and experience these things via linking to the Giver's own memories, which are the collective memories pre-Ruin), Thwaites expresses the happiness and terror they evoke in him. We see the evolution of the character to understanding the world he lives in is not the utopia he always thought it was, but a dystopia built on a certain emptiness.
Similarly, Rush as the love interest expresses her own realization into perhaps wondering if there is more to the world than what she gladly and unquestionably accepts. Bridges' gruff Giver masks a man deeply haunted by how the world is and was, and Streep (though hampered by a bit of a fright wig) is the cool and rational Chief Elder. Even Skasgard (who is a bit of box office poison, many of the movies he's in bombing at the box office) is effective as the more compassionate Father.
About the only ones who didn't fare well were Holmes as Mother (who was more blank than brittle) and POP star Taylor Swift (who stopped being country several boyfriends ago). I'll say that Swift as Rosemary, the Giver's daughter and the one who would have been the Receiver if she hadn't been so horrified by the truth that she ends up killing herself, at least didn't embarrass herself in her 'blink and you'll miss it' performance, but an actress Swift ain't.
Granted, the last act where Jonas is fleeing with Gabriel at times is far-fetched (he manages to survive plunging off a waterfall after flying off a cliff on a bike), but one kind of rolls with it. There are also a few questions (like who is in the cabin past the borders and are they aware of the world beyond), but those aren't deal-breakers. Another dislike is Jonas' voice-over (and I'm never a fan of them), and that was a little harder for me to get into.
On the whole, The Giver is a much deeper and more intelligent film about those questions on the cost of the human experience than we've seen from other YA adaptations (think Twilight or even The Hunger Games). One leaves The Giver asking about whether a world of bliss is worth the cost of actually living life. I enjoyed this movie, and find it sad that it didn't do well. Hopefully, people will give The Giver a chance.