The Giver is a new film based on the popular young adult novel by Lois Lowry (1993) about a community in which choice and individuality have been eliminated in an attempt to eradicate unhappiness. The community is characterized by sameness; houses are all the same, husbands and wives are assigned to each other, and one boy child and one girl child are assigned to each family unit. Occupations are assigned for life by the community elders when children turn 12, thus eliminating the “agony” of deciding for oneself what career or avocation to pursue. Lowry has written over 30 books for young adults and has reaped numerous awards for them. She has a gift for evocative language and for creating characters and settings that draw the reader into her worlds. The Giver addresses important issues about choice and accountability, joy and despair, family and friendship, community and individuality.
To demonstrate the Otherness of herseemingly familiar, yet imaginary community, Lowry creates Orwellian terms such as “newchildren” for babies and “groupmates” for friends. Children are grouped by their birth years as Fours or Eights or Tens. When Elevens become Twelves, they are assigned their occupations at a community celebration also characterized by the “Release to Elsewhere” of the older members of the community. This hint of a glorious retirement is actually a euphemism for euthanasia. As the film opens, Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) is explaining in a voiceover narration what his community is like. “Differences aren’t allowed,” he tells the audience. “No popularity, no fame, no losers.”
The story is reminiscent of Ayn Rand’s novella, Anthem(1938), in which the first-person singular pronoun has been outlawed, names have become numbers, children grow up in dormitories, and occupations are assigned for life. But The Giver immediately contradicts itself, because Jonas is riding bikes and joking happily with his two best friends, Fiona (Odeya Rush) and Asher (Cameron Monaghan) while other children can also be seen chatting happily in groups of twos or threes. Popularity might be frowned upon in this community, but unlike in Anthem, there doesn’t seem to be any tyrannical enforcement of the rules or atmosphere of oppression.
No history is taught in the community, and those in town know only the events they have experienced for themselves in their own generation.
In the next scene, Jonas and Fiona are visiting Jonas’s father (Alexander Skarsgard) in the birthing center where he has been assigned as a nurturer. They compete jovially as they weigh two newborns to see which one’s baby is larger.Fiona’s weighs an ounce more than Jonas’s. Father says, “Thank goodness they aren’t identical! That makes this much easier,” as he takes the newchild who is an ounce lighter to be “released to elsewhere.” Oops! Loser. Evidently it pays to be stronger and heavier in this society of sameness. Similarly, in the assignment ceremony that follows, the elders assign Jonas and his groupmates (who are 16 in the film, not 12, as in the novel) to their occupations by reference to thetalents and differences they have exhibited, not by random selection to confirm their sameness. Fiona and Asher are delighted with their assignments as nurturer and drone pilot, respectively. Jonas is honored to discover that he will be a Receiver of Memories, the first Receiver to be discovered in many years. This is very different from the assignment ceremony of Anthem’s Equality 7-2521, who longs to be a Scholar but is assigned instead to be a street cleaner. I understand the point the film is trying to make about lack of choice, but these contradictions so early in the film are jarring and reduce the sense of drama or conflict.
The purpose of a Receiver is to retain all the memories of the past, including the emotions that accompanied them. In a way the Receiver is a Christ figure, taking upon himself the pains, but also the joys, of the world. Jonas is assigned to learn his role from the current Receiver (Jeff Bridges) who will now be the Giver. He transfers his memories to Jonas telepathically, and Jonas experiences the joy, pain, and wonder of activities that happened in a life without sameness. Only the Receiver has this knowledge; no history is taught in the community, and those in town know only the events they have experienced for themselves in their own generation. Citizens are also given daily injections to prevent emotional highs or lows or any kind of passion. (One wonders why the elders would want a Receiver to remember the history that they deem dangerous, and I think it would have made more sense if The Giver had been an outcast hiding in the woods, waiting for someone with “the gift” to help him restore freedom and choice. But that’s where we simply need to suspend our disbelief and go with the story.)
Director Phillip Noyce has strong visual instincts and uses color to good advantage. Much of The Giver is filmed in black and white to indicate the sameness in the community, with splashes of impressionistic color to indicate freedom of thought and full color for the memories the Giver shares with Jonas. A few allusions give the film added gravitas as well; for example, Jonas tells us in the beginning that they are “protected by the border” from what they perceive as the evils of the outside world— a reminiscence of Plato’s Cave. At another point Jonas gives Fiona an apple and tells her that using it in a certain way will allow her to gain knowledge and feel forbidden passion. He places it in her hand with great ceremony, rather like Eve urging Adam to eat the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, in order to experience the new knowledge and passion that she has discovered.
Through techniques such as these, The Giver tries very hard to be a great film. Its themes about the importance of choice and individuality are themselvesprofoundly important. Jeff Bridges was so impressed by the book that he purchased the movie rights shortly after it was published, expecting to film it with his father (Lloyd Bridges) as the Giver. Rumor has it that he and his family (brother Beau is also an actor) filmed a home movie version of the book in their garage several years ago. Bridges waited 20 years to make the commercial production, and parts of it are quite effective and well done. I enjoyed the novel, and wanted very much to love this film. But like so many works that are philosophically important, The Giver doesn’t translate well to film. Some books just need to remain as books.