book reviews / dystopia / movies

The Giver: Movie Review

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Jonas is old, to begin with.

We must begin by accepting Jonas is old, the same way we accept Jacob Marley is dead on page 1 of The Christmas Carol, or the rest of the discussion will jam up right there.

Once you accept that the screenwriters have added a hefty 6 years to our hero’s age, you can accept a lot of the other modifications the screenwriters made to the movie adaption of The Giver. Ok, 18 is not decrepit, but Lois Lowry made him 12 in her award-winning book. And there is a world of difference between 12 and 18. Half a lifetime.

In both versions, Jonas has reached a moment of graduation, when he and all others his age are given career assignments for the rest of their working lives. His best friend is still Asher, who loves to laugh, although Asher’s class clown reputation is more deserved in the book. And Fiona, Jonas’ “favorite female,” still enters a profession that requires a nurturing…uh…nature.

The friendship between the triad is fleshed out more in the movie. And now I hear people who love the book crying aloud, “There was no romantic element in the book! Why is it in the movie?” (That’s not a spoiler; you can figure it out in the movie preview.) Simple. Jonas is 18. And yes, it’s a logical extrapolation of things that play out in the book on a 12yo level.

If Jonas is more active and reckless than he is in the book, we can also blame age as much as Hollywood.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

When Jonas receives his job assignment, he’s the only one of his kind: a Receiver of Memory. Which makes the current Receiver of Memory, now an old man, into the Giver. He transfers the memories of hundreds of cultures, ages, and experiences to Jonas, so that one day Jonas, too, might become an advisor. But also so that no one else in society has to bear either the good or the bad memories that might bring down their carefully controlled society.

In this, the movie does honor the intentions of the book. It is an adaptation that is true in essence, if not detail. This is still a society that strives for Sameness, thrives on rules, shares feelings (that are not very deep). Jonas’ family unit is consistent to the book. Little sister Lily is a charming imp. Jeff Bridges seems to be competing with a tuba for lowest pitch, but his Giver is still the gruff but empathetic old man we grew to love in the book.

And even though Jonas is 18, the actor manages to capture a good degree of the innocence, earnestness, and genuine quality we saw in the 12yo version. This is a character with very little cynicism and a great deal of goodness to the point of almost purity. A far cry from Katniss or Tris, a couple of the other protagonists in teen dystopian movies this year. Jonas has moments of the childlike without being childish. As well as moments of wisdom in both version. It’s a hard balance to pull off in the world of teen dystopias these days. Characters with hard edges (and a few shiny weapons) are more the fashion. Jonas is a dystopian hero who makes silly faces at giggling babies. But he’s still a strong character, and not a goody-goody. You admire him in a way you might Cedric Diggory from Harry Potter.

The biggest character change? The role of the Chief Elder is greatly expanded, because hey, it’s Meryl Streep. It wasn’t needed in the book, but here in the movie, I understand why. It gives a voice to the system Jonas must confront. She and the Giver have a big debate at the end of the movie that is nowhere in the book. It’s like listening to two worldviews argue. As Streep plays the Chief Elder, she’s never evil. You understand her choices. But she’s not so much a complete character as a talking worldview. We can forgive that because, hey, it’s Meryl Streep. And as in The Devil Wears Prada, she proves people in true control don’t have to raise their voices. Unlike The Devil Wears Prada, she proves people in control do not necessarily have fashion sense or the ability to distinguish 5 shades of blue.

Cinematically, I enjoyed some of the unnecessary but theme-supporting changes to the setting. Let’s place the city on a plateau at the top of a cliff. Sure, makes it harder to escape, like Alcatraz. Let’s set the Giver’s dwelling on the edge. Not in the book, but yeah, it made the line about a life lived “on the edge” apropos. And the use of color—and more significantly, lack of color—also helped us see through Jonas’ eyes. It reminded me of Pleasantville. Not as shocking, but still a good reflection of a character’s growing awareness.

The major plot points stayed close to the book up until the last 25 minutes. We get some extra action sequences, but the story still ends with its classic ambiguous ending. I won’t describe it because it would truly be a spoiler. I went to see the movie with a friend who also read the book as a kid. She said the ending wasn’t quite as ambiguous as the book, so she preferred the book ending. I thought the movie left plenty to poetic imagination.

Overall, despite any differences, the movie still asks the same questions Lowry does in her book. What does it mean to be truly alive? Should we be allowed choices even if our choices may bring pain to ourselves or others? Should differences between people be celebrated or suppressed? Do pleasant emotions outweigh the bad ones?

In my ever-changing rankings system, I give the movie 3.25 out of 5 apples.

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And if you understand the reference, you’ve seen or read The Giver.

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