Film Review – The Giver
Part of buying into a Science Fiction book or movie is the ability to accept the world building as reasonable. Some things – no matter how well written or shown – just make no sense to me. (What do you mean they divide society up by virtues and assign people to factions designated Candor, Abnegation, Dauntless, Amity, and Erudite? That sounds kind of dumb.) But other times, things just work. (They force kids to fight to the death to keep the populace under control? Awesome!) YA dystopian fiction has been popular for a while now, and filmmakers have been paying attention and adapting the hottest properties. These movies can be hit or miss for me, and some, like the new film The Giver directed by Phillip Noyce, reside somewhere in between. Considered a classic, Lois Lowry’s book The Giver was first published in 1993, and by the time my daughter was in middle school in the mid-2000s, it was being taught in class. Not quite a young adult book – the protagonist is twelve – it nonetheless manages to deal with some complex themes. I have read it, but it’s been so long ago I don’t remember much. Which is good, because when it came time to watch the film, I did not feel the urge to endlessly compare it to the original.
Aged up for the film, Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) has just turned 16, and is eagerly awaiting his job classification. He lives in a tightly controlled society where all differences have been erased in order to promote social harmony. Politeness, precision of language, and insistence on the truth are the orders of the day, but truth has a different meaning when emotions have been dampened and conformity is the highest good. Finally the day comes when Jonas and his friends are ready to leave their childhoods behind and assume their adult lives. The chief elder (Meryl Streep) assigns everyone but Jonas a job, leaving him to fear that he is unsuitable to move on. However, he is informed he has been chosen for a different type of career; he is now in training to become the new receiver of memories, although he has no idea what that means. He meets with the current receiver (Jeff Bridges), and learns that his society has blocked almost all ideas and memories from the past in order to preserve social order in the present. The receiver is the only one with access to this knowledge in order to better advise the council of elders on their actions. He or she is also allowed to ignore politeness rules and ask as many questions as they want, and they can lie at will. The more Jonas learns, the more he begins to question the foundations of his society.
Before I start in on my criticisms, I want to make it clear that I recommend this movie, mostly to young people. It didn’t totally work for me, but none of its failures are due to crassness or the desire to make a buck. It’s got its heart in the right place, and the filmmakers really strive to do justice to the source material. But sometimes what seems reasonable on the page, doesn’t translate that well to the screen. Suspension of disbelief is a big part of being able to enjoy sci fi and fantasy, and I was never quite able to buy into the set up here. I don’t remember having any such problem with the book, but I am often more easily able to enter the world of books. Maybe because they require the reader to fill in a lot of information regarding physical artifacts, where film does all the visual work for you. Also, this is a message film, and one in which I do not think the message is conveyed particularly subtly. It’s kind of ham fisted with all the emotional stuff, and I found myself whishing Noyes would just dial it back a bit. I like to discover my own emotions whilst watching a film, not have them manipulated by the filmmaker. But then again, I am almost 50, and perhaps not the target market here.
There is a lot to like here though. The performances are pretty good, and I like Meryl Streep when she plays the heavy. She has both gravitas and conviction when she’s being bad. I also like Katie Holmes and Alexander Skarsgård as Jonas’s parents, but when did Katie Holmes get old enough to play the parent? (I am getting old, I guess.) The younger actors all did fine, and if Jeff Bridges missed the mark for me a little, he was close enough. This is a decent film with a good cast that has managed to create more goodwill with me than perhaps it deserves. It’s not my movie, but it’s much better than most of the crap that gets made for kids right now.