Movie Review: The Giver


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the-giver-07I’ll just come right out and say it. I have mixed feelings about The Giver. Both the movie and the book. The book, published in 1993 (and won the Newberry award in 1994) came out when I had already entered high school, and so did not appear on my radar for a long time. But since Jeff Bridges was doing the movie I decided I had to read it, because if Jeff Bridges is involved, well, you know…  And I enjoyed the book to a degree, but as an adult avid reader of sci-fi there were no new ideas in it for me. As a young reader I probably would have gobbled it up. And that is who this book is for. Young readers. It’s a future dystopian primer for them, and in that realm I think it succeeds as a story and as an entertaining novel.

 

It’s pretty clear a number of screenwriters and filmmakers are aware of this book. A few films (and books) that were clearly influenced by this are likely Divergent, Pleasantville, and as the girl sitting next to me in the theater so astutely pointed out, Equilibrium (she called it Equilibrium Jr… touché my friend, touché). There are others, for certain, but these are the ones that stand out to me.  A few other film adaptations stand out to me in this regard as well. David Lynch’s Dune and last year’s Ender’s Game. I say Dune because David Lynch changed the story soooo much for his film that it hardly resembled the novel at all, though somehow managed to keep the spirit and tone (and don’t mistake me, I love that film, but not because it’s a good adaptation).  The Giver honored the tone of the book admirably. As for Ender’s Game, well, we all know what happened with that (at least I hope we do). The writers and filmmakers focused on all the wrong things, so in the end we had a film where things were happening without any reason being given for them to be happening. The emotional resonance of the story just wasn’t there. Without having read the book I imagine most people were just lost.

And so it goes with the first two acts of The Giver. Without having read the books all of the lines and situations that are meant to have some meaning, are meant to elucidate just what kind of society these characters occupy,  don’t do either. Which is a damn shame. At a 94 minute run time there was so much more that could have been said and done to increase the level of meaning for the audience.

THE GIVER

So, a quick synopsis. The society of The Giver at first appears as a utopia. Everyone is happy, healthy, content. It’s a society designed to not have war, pain, suffering or conflict. But we quickly learn that in order to achieve this peace almost all choice and complex emotion has been eliminated from people’s lives. Everything is extremely structured, from family life to schooling to careers. All choices from career to marriage are made by the elders of the community. And all memory of the history of mankind has been erased. All people exist only in the present. Death has come to be known as “releasing”, implying that people are just going to a better, far away place. And the time of one’s releasing is determined by the elders as well.

So, our main character, Jonas, is selected at his ceremony of adulthood (in the book he’s 12, in the movie he’s about 15) to be the community’s new “Receiver of Memory”. This is the only person in the entire community that holds memories of the past… that is, ALL of the past of the entire world. This person’s job is to know the past, know the suffering and pain (and joy) of it so that if a situation arises in which the elders are unsure what to do, The Receiver can advise them based on his knowledge. Jeff Bridges plays the former Receiver of Memory, who is now very old and must transfer all the memories to the new Receiver (thereby making him The Giver, get it?). But of course receiving memories of experiences he’s never had before, like joy, elation, serenity, and love, causes Jonas to question the very foundations his society exists on. However, the way it is presented in the film is so perfunctory that unless you knew it already, which I did, the series of events and the conversations that take place, primarily the ones with his parents, don’t really make much of an impact (particularly the constant usage of the phrase “precision of language” and the conversation about the term “love”).

Jeff-Bridges-The-Giver-586x320There are certain changes that are permissible to make in film adaptations. Like leaving out scenes, changing the career or gender of a character, or technological updates (in this case things like 3D in house projections, remote flying drones, the method of memory transmission, or automated daily drug injections vs pills). But, and I’ll warn you now I’m about to go on a spoiler spree, what really annoys me are when changes are made that are completely unnecessary. For example, in the book the pills the citizens take start at puberty when they start getting “The Stirrings”. This is clearly meant to suppress sexual feeling and the deeper complex feelings that go along with them. But in the film even Jonas’ nine year old sister is taking the drugs. Not only is this unnecessary, it takes away from the understanding of what the drug is really meant to do. It makes it seem like ALL emotion is suppressed, but that is clearly not the case as people are not walking around as stoic automatons. People are clearly experiencing a level of happiness as well as certain levels of frustration and other feelings. Also, the film gave each Receiver a birthmark on the wrist that was meant to indicate that they were born with the innate ability to be The Receiver. This was sort of done in the book (the unusual trait of people with light eyes seemed to indicate one had the propensity to be The Receiver) but in the film it was made overtly clear, if you had this birthmark that meant you would be The Receiver, and yet there was no reason to do this. It was kind of a weird idiosyncrasy that was noticed by Jonas and never brought up again.

o-ALEXANDER-SKARSGARD-THE-GIVER-900And finally, my biggest beef with the film is the map to the “border of memory”. It comes out of nowhere! I mean, it’s okay to add things like this that aren’t in the book, but you can’t throw this kind of thing in willy-nilly and THEN turn it into THE major plot point of act three. It wasn’t needed. The idea is that if The Receiver goes beyond this border (or dies, actually) his memories will disseminate among the population. People would remember what really being human meant, all the good and the bad. This would, of course, cause chaos since everyone has been raised to not feel those kinds of emotions and no one is equipped to properly handle them. In the book simply getting far enough away from the community caused his memories to disperse back to the people (a little at a time), he didn’t have to cross some imaginary techno-border. And, the whole allegory of death was a little heavy handed. It would have been much more effective if we had seen him actually die instead of just exist in his happy memory of snow and christmas carols. Ugh. To be fair, it’s the same in the book and I have the same problem with it, but I understand it’s for kids, so it’s kind of forgivable.

BRENTON-THWAITES_407x612Finally, to not make it feel like I’m being unfairly negative, I have to give props for casting and performances. Jeff Bridges was perfect. Meryl Streep was perfect. Katie Holmes, actually, was really great. Alexander Skarsgard was a great choice, but his character poorly written and he was completely underutilized. The kids, while too old in my opinion, were also not bad. The other thing the film got right was the transition from black and white to color. One of the effects of the drugs and the social conditioning is that no citizen sees color. As a result of Jonas gaining memories he begins to see color little by little. The film handled this is in a beautiful and elegant way, which is why the clumsiness of the rest of the script is so surprising (and a little disappointing).

Overall it’s not a bad film for the family. Older kids may enjoy it, but for us more sophisticated sci-fi watchers it’s a bit lacking.

I give this overall a 2.5 out of 5 Nerdskulls.

Check out the trailer below:

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Rainbolt

I grew up on Kung Fu theater movie weekends, a lot of Top Ramen Noodles, G.I. Joe's, Evil Knivels Stunt Cycle and Stretch Armstrong. My Movie reviews and Artist Interviews have been a regular around Nerdlocker.com. Follow me on Twitter @arainbolt. or email me aaron@nerdlocker.com

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