Long in gestation, the movie version of Lois Lowry’s trendsetting 1993 novel takes a thoughtful, but not a slavishly literal, approach to the multiplex. (Actor and producer Jeff Bridges bought the film rights in 1995.) By upping the ages of the 12-year-old protagonist Jonas and injecting a surge of hormones and romance that Lowry just hinted at, the movie stands apart from the book. Still, it’s one of the more successful adaptations of a popular book title, due in large part to the elegantly lean structure of the source material at barely 160 pages.
Not only does the screenplay tap into the essence of the futuristic tale, but it elaborates upon Lowry’s delicate and straight forward storyline—but this movie knows when to say when, running up to 97 minutes—short compared to The Hunger Games at 142 minutes, or Divergent’s 139, even with the addition of the obligatory chase scene, the second of the film’s two endings (the first one is Lowry’s). Even Lowry felt in a 2007 SLJ interview that the book’s ending was too fast-paced and ended abruptly.
“I always wish I had expanded that final section after Jonas leaves the community,” Lowry shared.
The advantage this film has over other movies like, say, The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, is that it’s not weighed down by a labyrinth of the plot—you won’t get lost or need a scorecard. The movie’s world-building proceeds at a clipped pace. Within 30 minutes, half of book’s events have whizzed by.
The film begins the day before Jonas graduates at the Ceremony, where he’ll be assigned a purpose. He and his peers have been brought up to behave, think, and dress alike—freedom of choice and individuality have been eradicated. However, this is the one time when differences are acknowledged and possibly rewarded and bestowed upon them by the Chief Elder (played by Meryl Streep, who has only one juicy scene).
Jonas is initially passed over while everyone else has been given a career. But the Chief Elder, appearing to the population as a hologram, has saved the most important selection for last: he’s proclaimed the Receiver of Memory. He has all of the necessary requirements, including the mysterious ability to “see beyond.” He will be privately mentored by the current gruff Receiver (the sagacious Bridges).
Face-to-face, with arms locked, the elder telepathically transmits his stored memories to Jonas, the pleasant and the painful, which have been contained in him to save the Community from emotions caused by these remembrances: envy, anger, hatred, and the like. During these mental trips down memory lane, the film plops Jonas in the thick of things—on a safari or at an Italian peasant wedding. Once all of the secrets are revealed to Jonas, he wants to be part of these lost worlds and to share them.
Having an older Jonas than in the book doesn’t dilute the character, though it may look odd that the teen says he wants his childhood back when he’s nearly six-feet-tall and already shaving. Yet Jonas appropriately remains a blank slate; he has been taking the mandatory mind-numbing medication, after all. He’s played by the affable Brenton Thwaites, who looks like a clean-cut 1950s teen idol. And more good news: pop star Taylor Swift’s appearance breaks free of stunt casting. Her brief scene with Bridges is sensitively directed, and the film actually leaves you wanting to see more of her as Rosemary, the previous—and ill-fated—Receiver.
To amp up the conflict, Jonas’s best friend sidekick, Asher (Cameron Monaghan), is no longer the class clown but an appointed drone pilot in Lowry’s world of ultra-surveillance—and the audience will catch the drift of where this friendship is heading. Instead of the fleeting figure in the book, Jonas’s other companion, Fiona (Odeya Rush), becomes integral to the action and his love interest. This young-love subplot may come across more as a teen-friendly audience ploy, but it’s also a counterbalance. The “stirrings” in the book come alive and are let loose, but don’t run wild; it’s rated PG-13 only for the violent images, though it plays down the brutality of Jonas’s torturous training.
On the other hand, the filmmakers take direct visual cues from the book, draining it of color to depict the monotone cookie-cutter suburban surroundings of the Community. The setting looks like it was designed by Stanley Kubrick: minimalist, futuristic, and spartan. The story also gives cinematographer Ross Emery the opportunity to throw splashes of color into an otherwise black-and-white world.
For the most part, director Phillip Noyce keeps the special effects in check and never loses sight of the plot. His direction is as muscular and stylish as in any of the two Hunger Games movie so far. The camera moves everywhere, from a skewed, to a high, or to a low angle.
For those coming to the film cold, The Giver may feel old hat, because so many recent book-based movies owe a huge debt to Lowry’s tale that foreshadowed the current YA dystopian craze. Through no fault of the film, some might unwittingly think it borrows from Divergent. For fans of The Giver, though, there will be more than enough here that is recognizable. Regarding its take on enforced suppression for societal stability, the movie has as much depth as the novel, which might be better be described as a novella, at least next to its doorstopper brethren which it influenced.
Watch the film’s trailer on YouTube here:
Directed by Phillip Noyce