It is not writer Lois Lowry’s fault that it took 20 years for her acclaimed YA book The Giver to make it to the big screen. It’s not her fault that within this time, the teen dystopian trend makes The Giver looks like a rehash of many movies that have come before it in the last few years. And it is definitely not her fault that her engaging, thought provoking novel has been realized as a dull, surprisingly unemotional film.
In the world of The Giver, humans live in a controlled society with no distractions like racism, war, inequality, etc. In fact their world has been so smoothed out and harmonized that they literally see no color (and this part of the film is like a black-and-white Pleasantville), and have no extreme emotions. Infants are assigned to parents, and teens are assigned to careers. Jonas (Brenton Thwaites), however, has been singled out for a very special assignment. He is destined to be the receptacle for all of humanity’s memories, a responsibility so special that only one person, the Receiver of Memory, aka The Giver (Jeff Bridges), is tasked for such a burden.
As you could imagine, in a world of order that has no strife, receiving a mind-meld of all of humanity’s emotions, joys, triumphs, and horrific pains, would be very overwhelming. Others before Jonas have failed. But Jonas’ gift may stretch beyond that of just being able to handle all that life throws at a person… he thinks that others should be allowed to enjoy the same pleasure and pain (and color!) the life brings. But that, of course, is illegal. Enter the Chief Elder (Meryl Streep) to block Jonas on his quest to reveal all the things.
There are some things that just don’t work. When we see Jonas’ visions that he is receiving from The Giver, I couldn’t help but think it looked like a flashy multi-cultural Coke commercial–the equivalent of video clip-art of weddings, celebrations and war. And other than his initial jump-back-in-shock moments, I didn’t feel that such a wealth of information was every too overwhelming to Jonas, beyond his wide-eyed response. In the book, Jonas is 11 years old when he receives, whereas film Jonas is a mature teenager. The only reason I could see for that cinematic modification is to allow for the requisite teen-movie romance to be inserted. Having Jonas be older takes away some of the turmoil (his character is too young to handle some information) and just represents it as token teenage rebellion.
Jeff Bridges, who is fine in a relatively undeveloped role, obviously felt a passion for the source material, as he optioned it for film almost 20 years ago (with his father in mind for the role of The Giver). That fact, and the amount of talent involved in the film (as shown over and over in the repetitive Blu-ray special features), is the most interesting thing about the production. Unfortunately, less interesting is the film itself, which, at this point, seems like a bit of a retread of other, more impactful dystopian society movies. Just like in the society depicted, The Giver‘s edges seemed smoothed out and sanitized, taking away the edge of what was originally an interesting story.