September 20, 2014 Leave a comment
Following a catastrophic conflict, The Community has tried to eradicate discord by eliminating difference. Citizens are genetically engineered, allocated to carers and designated careers determined by disposition and ability. To ensure there is no discontent, citizens have no knowledge of life before or beyond The Community — that is, except for one: the Receiver of Memory. During his graduation ceremony, as his classmates are alphebatised to be assigned their adult positions, Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) is unexpectedly skipped and left until last. Rather than be employed as a Groundskeeper or a Nurturer, he is to become the new Receiver of Memory. Mentored by The Giver (Jeff Bridges, who also produced), he is exposed to archive memories of the past in order to advise the council — as ignorant of past events as its people — should any unprecedented issues arise. As he learns about colour and beauty and love Jonas becomes increasingly disillusioned with the status quo, finally resolving to rebel against the current system.
The Giver was always going to be a difficult sell. Lois Lowry’s film, though widely regarded as the basis for the Young Adult phenomenon currently dominating fiction, is a book that lacks supporting characters, a dramatic conflict and — despite its emphasis on the importance of emotion — a satisfying conclusion. Like Andrew Stanton’s recent flop John Carter, director Phillip Noyce risked producing a film that felt derivative and cliched despite the source novel actually predating the genre in question. The Giver is ideas-driven, a children’s story that nevertheless deals with very adult themes of totalitarianism and dystopia, something which back in 1993 might have seemed novel but which in 2014 seems utterly unremarkable. A lot has changed in the last twenty years and next to other adaptations such as The Hunger Games and (to an admittedly lesser extent) Divergent, The Giver seems crude, simplistic and unrefined.
Inevitably, Noyce has attempted to update Lowry’s story, to better appeal to a contemporary audience. He has aged the main character from twelve to eighteen, given supporting characters more important roles and manufactured drama where there perhaps wasn’t any before. The problem is that The Giver has a very silly premise, one that might have worked for tired children being read bedtime stories but doesn’t hold up to the scrutiny leveled at it by teenage (let alone adult) moviegoers. Even if more mature audiences can refrain from smirking at the endless discussion of Givers and Receivers, they’ll still likely balk at the idea of memories being passed from one individual to another — by hand. It doesn’t help that the dialogue remains largely unchanged, leaving adult actors to work with childish words. As Jonas, Thwaites does his best, but struggles to create a character of sufficient complexity, particularly in the early stages of the narrative where the character is supposed to be innocent but simply comes across as witless. Meanwhile, everyone else — Meryl Streep and Taylor Swift in particular — struggles with characters that were never intended for significant roles.
Strangely, despite Noyce’s attempts to appeal to a savvier audience, the film is considerably less provocative than the book. By dint of the main character being younger, Lowry’s discussion of adolescent stirrings, genetic engineering, euthanasia and infanticide were substantially more shocking — originally banned in her native America. It takes most of the first half of the book for Lowry to establish her setting — fantastical as it is — and yet even then there are glaring holes in her ideology. With Noyce attempting to cram his set-up into a minutes-long montage the audience isn’t given enough time to suspend their disbelief, and are left to spend the rest of the movie picking apart the plot when they should be chewing over the issues it raises. Why, for instance, is the first act presented in black and white? The question of why memories of the past might inhibit colour perception is never answered in the book, but it is raised so late in the game that it is easily overlooked, whereas in the film it is such a prominent feature that you simply cannot ignore it.
And yet, though supremely silly and often unintelligible, The Giver has its moments, and even if they aren’t as clear in the film as they were in the book its themes are as interesting as ever. What should be considered a reasonable price for peace and prosperity? Is kinship more important than family? Are sex, religion and politics justifiable when they so often result in distraction, dissatisfaction and disagreement? The story’s central theme is whether ignorance is indeed bliss, and while it might be difficult to connect with the characters it’s worth considering the questions they ask. Life is complicated, difficult and unpredictable, but it is also beautiful, and occasionally Noyce’s film is too. It features footage of births, deaths, love, hate, peace and war, using the memories being transferred between Giver and Receiver to show humanity at its best and worst, and it’s easy to get caught up in the experiences. If only the film had done the same — the human race is capable of great and terrible things, yet The Giver exposes Jonas and his audience to little more than sledge rides and bee stings.
Hardly a year goes by without Hollywood attempting to adapt at least one supposedly unfilmable book, and with results which include The Lord of the Rings, Life of Pie and Cloud Atlas hardly a year goes by without Hollywood proving the maxim to be baseless. With Lois Lowry’s The Giver, however, the film industry has finally met its match. As a thought exercise it is a noble failure, but as a film it is an terrible mess.