Trends come and go in Hollywood with varying degrees of success, and one of the genres that appears to be “in” at the moment is the YA adaptation—specifically films with a dystopian bent. The Hunger Games and Divergent both dealt with young protagonists rebelling against oppressive, authoritarian governments, and while at first glance The Giver may look like a simple cash-in on the trend, the source material predates the current dystopian craze by over a decade. The road to a feature film adaptation of Lois Lowry’s novel has been long, but it now finally makes it to the screen with producer Jeff Bridges taking on the titular role. However, though the film is surprisingly deft at handling some of the deeper questions raised by the book and boasts a pair of strong lead performances, the adaptation fails to flesh out other aspects of the story, resulting in a rather mixed bag.
The world of The Giver takes place in a society in which all emotions—and, by extension, choice—have been banished. This manifests itself visually in the fact that the entire world is devoid of color, and everyone sees only in black and white. Citizens live in “units” instead of homes, they’ve never heard or understood the word “love”, and at the age of 18, they graduate school and are placed in a profession that best suits their prevailing attributes. The film begins at one such graduation ceremony, as one by one our protagonist Jonas’ (Brenton Thwaties) schoolmates are selected by the Chief Elder (Meryl Streep) to be nurturers or drone pilots or teachers. But Jonas is skipped over.
Finally, the Chief Elder’s attention turns to Jonas, who lastly has been selected as the Receiver of Memory. This is a unique job and one that comes with much uncertainty, as the specifics regarding the profession are unknown to the community at large. All Jonas knows is that the Receiver holds all memories of human history and acts as an advisor to the chief council. After being given instructions regarding his new profession that defy the way everyone else in the community acts (he is now allowed to lie, for example), Jonas makes his way to the home of the previous Receiver of Memory, who lives at the very edge of their community, isolated from everyone else.
The previous Receiver (Bridges), now called The Giver, is a somewhat jaded individual, and once he starts transferring memories to Jonas, we begin to see why. The memories he holds are of a civilization full of emotions and color, as he introduces Jonas to snow, joy, sadness, loss, war, grief, and so much more. By design, these concepts are alien to the community at large. By removing choice, the elders have created—in their eyes at least—a utopian society without war, famine, or pain. Never knowing what they’ve lost, the citizens go about their daily lives oblivious to how society used to run. As Jonas’ world is upended, he begins to question the restrictive nature of his community and the strict way in which the Chief Elder managers her peoples. Jonas’ eyes are opened to a world full of life, and he begins to take steps towards changing his community forever.
Director Philip Noyce’s adaptation of Lowry’s novel actually starts out quite strong, as the entire world is drained of color and we see things through Jonas’ eyes. Noyce introduces a compelling narrative and relative newcomer Thwaites holds his own opposite Streep with a quiet, inquisitive confidence, and he surprises by never composing himself as a hero. Jonas is simply following his emotions, doing what he feels is right. The scenes between Thwaites and Bridges in particular are excellent, as there’s a compassion and cautious reluctance behind Bridges’ mentoring that is at odds with Jonas’ thirst for knowledge. These are the scenes in which Noyce delves deep into the central themes of the book, questioning whether the ability to feel joy and love is worth the tradeoff of also experiencing pain and loss.
However, as the plot thickens and the supporting characters are used to motivate Jonas into action, their underdevelopment renders much of his drive implausible. Jonas becomes infatuated with his friend Fiona (Odeya Rush), but the character barely registers as memorable so it’s tough to see how Jonas could be so attached, therefore making it difficult to relate to his decision-making. Additionally, the close bond between Jonas and his other friend, Asher (Cameron Monaghan), is a necessary drive for another key plot point, but again Asher is too underdeveloped to make the motivation work. The community’s inhabitants are supposed to be devoid of emotion, so it’s a tough task for any actor to accurately portray, but Thwaites manages to be both charming and compelling while Rush and Monaghan come off more as robots than human beings.
As the plot becomes more complicated and the supporting characters become more integral, the film starts to falter. I found myself longing for more scenes between Bridges and Thwaites as the obligatory set pieces started kicking into gear, and the final act comes to a rather unsatisfying and frustratingly simple conclusion. There are a few bright spots in the subplots, such as Alexander Skarsgard’s portrayal as Jonas’ oblivious yet ever-so-slightly rebellious father, but on the whole the relationship between Jonas and The Giver remains the most compelling part of the film by a wide margin.
Despite the complicated plot and fumbling of the supporting characters, the central dynamic between Bridges and Thwaites as well as Noyce’s handling of the themes are mostly enough to make the film a somewhat enjoyable experience, if not ultimately satisfying. One imagines a lower-budgeted, more introspective film that wasn’t as concerned with competing with other YA franchises might have made for a more engaging story, but such is the necessity in bringing such a property to life in the current moviemaking landscape. To take a note from the story itself, would it be better to not have The Giver at all than to end up with such a mixed bag? I’d like to think the value of Bridges’ performance and the central relationship is worth the tradeoff of the more disappointing aspects of the film. By a hair.