In the totalitarian, nightmarish future of 2014, a blasted stretch of land in California once known as Hollywoodland lies on the precipice of ruin. Warring studios of the hellscape -now called Hollywood- vie for control of the world’s young adult novel franchises, hoping that one will lead them to a promised land of perpetual twilight, where games of a hungered variety are played in an endless pool of box office receipts. Though the mighty Lionsgate tribe seemed to have once more won the year’s contest with an adaptation known as Divergent, The Weinstein faction has taken a risk, and placed their hope in an older young adult book called “The Giver.”
Quiet, short, and moderately attractive, The Giver is not like other young adult novel movie adaptations. “The Giver” has been around much longer (read: 1993) than the current rash of teen-targeted social sci-fi novels, and predates most of the tropes and popularity young adult fiction has become associated with. A social engineering parable about the dangers of universal equality, Lois Lowry’s novel has been a staple of many North American middle schools, whether it’s on the curriculum, or the list of teaching material that’s considered verboten. Lowry didn’t invent the YA genre, but it’s easy to see the ideologically dense “Giver” as being the malleable mannequin on which other authors dressed their particular vision of teenage dystopian fiction.
In a colourless, emotionless, and monitored society known as the Community (tell-tale sign of dystopia: capitalization of everyday words), 12 year-old Jonas is chosen to become the Community’s new Receiver of Memory. An experiential encyclopedia and cultural griot, the Receiver’s role in this strictly-controlled society is to maintain the memories of all the things his world has given up in order to achieve a sustainable existence. Memories of joy, music, pain, war and everything in-between are bestowed upon Jonas by the Community’s outgoing Receiver, who takes up the mantle of Giver.
Though last year’s Ender’s Game set a precedent for adaptation authenticity correlating with age of the source material, the movie version of “The Giver” released in 2014 has had to make concessions to modern audience tastes, in addition to contending with the usual crossover turbulence. Aged up from being on the cusp of puberty to a 16 year-old in its hunky throes, Jonas is played by Brenton Thwaites, a bland import from the CW actor spawning pool called Australia. Additionally, the Community’s symbol, a triangle, gets a romantic outlet in the form of Jonas’ childhood friends, Fiona (Odeya Rush) and Asher (Cameron Monaghan), a pair of side characters from the novel that see their roles beefed up to match the newly beefcake protagonist.
The YA-ification of The Giver doesn’t matter particularly much early one, with the film playing like an engaging blend of The Twilight Zone and Pleasantville. Lowry’s world, where personality is suppressed in the name of Sameness, has a surprising amount of personality all its own. Rapid-fire apologies make up half a citizen’s daily vocabulary, and the accepted means of expressing excitement is to slap your thigh with one hand. Katie Holmes plays Jonas’ domineering mother, a grammar and syntax Nazi whose job is to ensure that the language of citizens is precise and prosaic.The first major setpiece, a ceremony in which Jonas and his friends are assigned their careers, is a blatant world-building exposition dump, but The Giver‘s power lies in its lumbering metaphor, not subtlety.
Rather than resembling other YA fiction, the not bad first half of The Giver’s slight 90-minute runtime calls to mind 2014’s import-hit Snowpiercer, with The Giver being a kind of communist-fearing yin to Snowpiercer’s capitalism-run-amuck yang. And like the snow-pocalyptic train of Snowpiercer’s title, The Giver barrels forward at an alarming rate. At first, you won’t mind that director Philip Noyce makes a hash out of the film’s big moments by rushing passed them. The faster The Giver stacks Jonas’ discoveries about his world and the old one, the easier it is to ignore the film’s suspect internal logic, performances, and script.
When the time does come to lead the film towards major conflict, things quickly go off the rails. An objective is established by Jonas and The Giver (a sleepy Jeff Bridges) that leapfrogs dozens of plot points just to create a goal, resulting in the sort of chase-heavy final act you expect of other YA adaptations. Problem is, the structures of the film’s world and budget don’t support such pulse-pounding theatrics. The Giver tries to ape the blockbuster thrills of its competitors, but winds up bordering on B-movie camp, thanks to action scenes involving bicycle chases and characters running around carrying oversized crockpots.
Noyce, never a particularly inspired visualist, gets a lot of mileage out of The Giver’s early use of black and white photography, with stark contrasts making otherwise unremarkable sets pop. Ironically, as Jonas learns to see all the beautiful colours of the rainbow, he saps The Giver of its visual appeal; the film’s look evolves from clean black and white, to the washed out colours of a Clint Eastwood picture, before becoming entirely, generically modern. As the swelling score accompanies a full-colour memory montage of people laughing and smiling from all corners of the Earth, you’d be forgiven for thinking the projectionist has accidentally replaced The Giver’s final reel with an Apple ad.
As the Community’s villainous leader (a phoning-it-in Meryl Streep, who, let’s face it, has earned the right) thematically monologues about the perils of choice during the film’s climax, you’ll have time to reflect on the choices that squandered the goodwill of The Giver’s clumsy, but thought-provoking first half. It doesn’t have the characters for a romance, or the plot for an adventure story, yet tries to have both in order to conform the material to genre standards. Sameness, it seems, is just as much a threat to our movies as it is The Giver’s world.
The Giver lets you watch a novel bit of social sci-fi turn into another Hunger Games pretender before your very eyes.