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THE GIVER – Review
September 20, 2014
The thing that struck me the most during press screening of The Giver was the unfair conundrum the source material got itself stuck into by making it to the silver screen only now. Without Lois Lowry’s wonderful novel in fact there would be no Hunger Games, Divergent and other literary teen dystopias alike, yet those titles made their way to the Hollywood milking cows way earlier and are reaping the fruits. The Giver on the other hand, by remaining swamped in script development hell for more than a decade, falls in the trap of having to follow those acts and by trying to ride their wave not only fails at doing the novel justice but most importantly wastes a precious opportunity to distinguish itself from them as the superior story it actually is.
This cinematic adaptation directed by talented and often underrated Australian filmmaker Philip Noyce (Patriot Games, The Quiet American, Salt) starts off well introducing the unspecified future where after “The Ruin” part of mankind (we don’t know who or where, though we can guess) have gathered in what they call “The Community”. It’s a utopian enclosed society built on top of a mountain and organized around conformism and “sameness”. In order to avoid conflict that would lead to repeating the downfall that caused the Ruin, the Community’s inhabitants take daily injections that help them forget about the past hence distance them from the notions of violence, hunger and suffering. This obviously entails losing touch with any emotion that also prevents them from seeing colors. The film starts in black and white and gradually earns color in relation to the protagonist’s arc. Not an original trope that for instance a film like Pleasantville executes more effectively.
In this (literally) grey world of identical clothes, identical homes and identical family structure where the Council of Elders assigns roles with “parents” picked and paired to raise children who are born only out of genetic manipulation, it’s easy to imagine how the apparent sense of happiness and harmony is rather phony. Not only these people have no idea what fun (aka sex) is, they are practically deprived of any individuality and identity hence of an authentic life that’s worthy of being lived. The film does a decent job at setting all this up and painting a clear picture to convey how bleak that scenario would be if it were true.
Teenager Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) is the one who guides us through this world as he and his best mates Fiona (Odeya Rush) and Asher (Cameron Monaghan) are graduating from school and transitioning into their assigned roles in the Community. At the Ceremony where the Council of Elders reveals what vocations they picked for each candidate, Jonas is stunned to learn that he’s been chosen to become the new Receiver Of Memories aka the only person in the Community who holds knowledge of humanity’s past in order to use it wisely and prevent history from repeating itself. Jonas starts meeting the current Receiver (Jeff Bridges) for training and the ongoing process of transferring his memories to Jonas now turns the man into the Giver.
As Jonas discovers what the world was like before the Ruin he also begins to experience emotions and he takes it to the next level by no longer getting his daily injections. Just as his curiosity leads him to pure blissful moments like falling in love with Fiona, the memories also provide him with the knowledge of humanity’s darkness and that inevitably overwhelms him. But what truly changes him forever is the realization that the Community is far from being the happy utopia it claims to be and it’s actually a dystopian prison where for instance newborn babies get “released” if they don’t meet certain criteria. When little Gabe, a baby that his “father” (Alexander Skarsgård) who works as caregiver has brought home in the hope of helping his development, doesn’t succeed at improving and is destined to be “released”, Jonas loses it and makes a plan to take Gabe and flee the Community.
With the help of Fiona who’s now a caregiver and has started to see the world through Jonas’ eyes after stopping her injections as well, Jonas launches himself into a desperate mission to sneak out of the Community’s boundaries in order to save Gabe and probably everyone else as well by seeing what’s beyond their glorified prison. But he’ll have to face the opposition of the Chief Elder (Meryl Streep) who even enlists Jonas’ childhood friend Asher (now a drone pilot) to chase Jonas down and “lose” him.
The Giver wastes a juicy chance at being a welcome alternative to the average young adult dystopias that currently saturate the film market, by trying so hard to conform to them. Despite solid performances across the board (although Katie Holmes’s turn as Jonas’ “mother” feels more like cinéma vérité) and more than competent tech values and even justifying the changes from the source material that adaptations inevitably require, the film remains on the surface and doesn’t dig deep into the most thought-provoking elements it teases. On the contrary the filmmakers worry about building up towards an action-ish third act that is not designed this way in the book. Although the move is partly understandable for its commercial appeal, it leads to overshadowing the thematic poignancy of the story.
What truly feels like a misstep though is the ending that alters the uncertainty of the novel’s one by adding elements that come across as the on-the-nose cherry on top of many other on-the-nose moments in the film. For a story about rebelling to conformism it’s kind of poetically funny how The Giver winds up conforming to the commercial demands of the film industry. If anything, the film introduces us to the breakthrough talent of Australian native Thwaites who proves to be much more than just pleasing to the eye. However if you haven’t read the novel I highly encourage you do to so since at least this flat adaptation will have served a purpose.
The Giver is out in UK cinemas on September 19th
Francesco Cerniglia – Film Editor