Here it is: the latest movie that will serve as an opportunity for thousands of people to say that their childhood has been raped. I hate that phrase, not just because of its trivialization of actual rape (though, obviously), but because it reeks of hyperbole and the desire to “sound interesting” (an impulse I myself have to fight on a daily basis – I often lose). The adaptation of your favorite piece of media from childhood – whether it be a book, a comic, a toy – into a poor film should not detract from your enjoyment of those memories. If you let it alter your past experiences, well you are know worse than those in The Giver who choose to live in ignorance of the past. Memories are essential to the human condition, and that is just one of the ideas that screenwriters Michael Mitnick and Robert B. Weide carry over into their version of Lois Lowry’s hit young adult novel. The movie is a faithful transfer in general, actually, and that might be one of the reasons why it just isn’t a very good movie.
The plot is very much the same. On the day of his graduation-esque ceremony, young Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) learns that he has been selected to succeed the Giver (Jeff Bridges), the man whose responsibility it is to hold all of the memories from “before.” As the Giver bestows these memories upon Jonas, he learns that the collectivist society he resides in may be draining life of all the magical moments that make it worth living. Together, the two men must puzzle out whether there is anything they can do to correct this.
The movie gets many aspects of its source material right. Director Phillip Noyce and cinematographer Ross Emery have a good eye for the black-and-white scenes that open the film, before the Giver opens Jonas’s figurative eyes. It is handled well throughout the picture, with the color levels changing depending on how emotionally open the characters in a given scene are.
At first it seems as thigh Noyce also has a proper vision for the memory scenes. In the first moment of memory transfer, when the Giver shows Jonas snow, there is a surreal, almost-Malick-ian quality to the memory. However further memories seem to be composed mostly of stock footage (Noyce joins the ranks of Nymphomaniac‘s Lars von Trier and Lucy‘s Luc Besson in making 2014 the year of stock footage).
The changes that the filmmakers impose on Lowry’s book aren’t even that misguided. The characters are all aged up – save for Bridges’s Giver, who looks significantly younger than that book cover we all know so well – but that serves to make the film more accessible to a wider audience. The idea of a 12 year old protagonist just isn’t very appealing to older teens. The other major difference is the expansion of the roles played by Jonas’s friends. Asher (Cameron Monaghan) and Fiona (Odeya Rush) are very minor characters in the novel, but the movie develops them as a foil and a love interest for Jonas, respectively. This also serves the added function of injecting a little drama and suspense into the movie’s third act.
That infusion of interest is what the book desperately needed if it had any chance of succeeding as a film. As I stated in my review of the book, The Giver is kind of boring. It works as prose because everything that is happening is so important for Jonas psychologically, but that’s not the kind of thing that can be easily portrayed on film.
Unfortunately, Thwaites doesn’t make that task any easier. He is an incredibly forgettable lead actor; there was only one moment – when the Giver introduces Jonas to music – where I actually believed that Thwaites was discovering something for the first time. Bridges is fine in his role (this was something of a passion project for him), but I’m starting to lose patience with the actor’s current mumble phase. I swear there was a time when I could actually understand most of what Jeff Bridges was saying. What happened?
The rest of the cast is what it is. Meryl Streep is fine as the Chief Elder, but there is no dimension to the character. I guess that is kind of the point in a way, but that disaffectedness is really hard to play, and Katie Holmes and Alexander Skarsgård as Jonas’s parents are not nearly as successful at portraying it as Streep is. It doesn’t help that they are relegated to delivering lines straight from the book – most of which don’t sound very good as spoken dialogue. That’s a script problem, and it extends beyond the lines that are read aloud; character motivations are almost nonexistent, specifically for Asher, who undergoes a couple drastic mood swings during the feature, despite being one of the few characters with absolutely no reason to do so. This kind of sloppy writing also leads to Jonas and the Giver formulating a plan based on assumptions with no reasonable basis.
I applaud The Giver for not giving in to what must have been a lot of pressure. Pressure to build a franchse, pressure to add more action, pressure to make a good movie. It’s admirable – it really is – but perhaps The Giver is just one of those books that shouldn’t have been adapted. This probably isn’t the best movie that could have been made from Lowry’s book, but I doubt it is far off. When such an original work ends up feeling like a clone of Divergent – a member of the second-class of YA adaptions – you probably should have thought better of the whole endeavor. The good news is that the existence of this movie doesn’t unmake the book that influenced so many young people. Re-read the book instead of seeing this movie. Or better yet, finally go finish House of Leaves. It’s been wondering where you’ve been lately.