The Giver by Lois Lowry isn't just a ground-breaking YA novel. It's a powerful fable about the relationship between an old man and a child, who struggle with the memories their "perfect" society has chosen to forget. And now it's been turned into an okay movie that's missing the magic of the book. What happened?
Warning: Answering that question is going to require delving into some spoilers for The Giver, both the book and the movie. (And if you haven't read The Giver yet, you really should go and do that right now.)
In The Giver, it's the future, and people are living in a seemingly perfect society, without war or conflict. Jonas (who in the film is eighteen) is chosen to be the new Receiver of Memory, a sort of receptacle for the memories of the past, when there was love and sexuality and passion. Jonas absorbs these memories from the previous Receiver, who now calls himself the Giver, and starts to question whether his society really is perfect after all.
And here's the problem: The Giver is a really simple story — deceptively simple, even. The whole thing revolves around the relationship between Jonas and the man he's been chosen to replace. You could almost adapt it into a stage play, with those two characters in a room together — except that the worldbuilding of the false utopia where they live is pretty important, and we need to see the memories they're sharing through some psychic process.
And at some point, the makers of the Giver movie appear not to have trusted that simplicity. They added layers of complexity and more of a conventional Hollywood structure, while obfuscating some key points from the book. The result is a movie that feels both too conventional to do justice to the book — and yet, still too weird to work as a standard-issue dystopian film.
Here's a quick summary of the major changes that weaken The Giver as a story:
1) They added a romance. (In the book, Jonas has "stirrings" and a sexy dream about Fiona, but it's never pursued.) Because Jonas is aged up in the movie, he's able to have a somewhat conventional love story with Fiona.
2) There is a lot more Plot. The book is notable for its lack of interest in plot, with the conflict being fully internal — but in the movie, there are a lot more McGuffins and chase scenes and the usual folderol. Stuff is Explained a lot more. By the time we get to the simple ending, it's been undercut by too much frenetic plotting. And some crucial elements make much less sense in the film than they do in the book, in part because of too many wheels spinning.
3) Everything escalates too quickly. Things that happen towards the end of the book seem to happen way too early in the movie. Jonas is appointed the new Receiver of Memory, and a short time later he's already openly rebelling against his society in ways that don't really happen in the book. Even given the need to compress a book to a two-hour movie, this film doesn't trust us to invest in the central relationship for a slow boil. And the relationship between the Giver and Jonas isn't given any room to breathe.
4) The movie has a capital-V Villain. The Elder, the society's leader, is barely seen in the book. She's a seemingly benign presence who pops up a couple times. But in the movie, she's nearly omnipresent, and is clearly Up To No Good from the beginning. Played by Meryl Streep, she's constantly beaming into Jonas' house and other places as a hologram, warning people against the dangers of allowing dissent. And she has an army of jackbooted thugs and robotic drones at her disposal.
Once again, The Giver is still an okay movie. Jeff Bridges pours his heart and soul into playing the Giver, and Streep is kind of unnerving as the evil Elder. Brenton Thwaite is a good wide-eyed, generous YA protagonist.
Director Philip Noyce, who helmed some of my all-time favorite movies (Rabbit-Proof Fence, The Quiet American) has a field day with the the black-and-white, sterile world that Jonas lives in, and the slow introduction of color. There are some great shots that slowly open out Jonas' world and show his emotional awakening.
This movie has plenty going for it — but it feels like nothing special, whereas the book really is something special. And given that we've already seen Hunger Games and Divergent and a ton of other adaptations of stories that borrowed from The Giver, this really has to feel more special than it does. Even though The Giver came first in book form, the film feels beholden to those imitators.
And like I said, Lowry's novel really is deceptively simple. The apparent simplicity hides a lot of complexity just below the surface, and when Lowry peels back the layers of truth about this false utopia, ever revelation has power. So when the movie adds lots of surface complexity, it actually has the perverse effect of oversimplifying Lowry's underlying story.
Take the Giver himself — he's played by Bridges, for whom this is a passion project. And in the book, he's a fascinating character. He has a lot of complicity in the problems with this society (like, we learn at one point in the book that he advocated for stricter population-control, because he alone has memories of famine.) The Giver's relationship with this society, in which he's an outsider but also a crucial part, is a fascinating tangle — but this gets lost in the movie's clutter. Plus the Giver has a much less interesting emotional arc in the film.
The other problem the movie runs into is in the world-building department. Lowry's false utopia feels lived-in — almost like an old pair of shoes. There are in-jokes and little friendly touches. You can see why people would actually want to live in this society. And yet there are little nasty touches, like the punishment wand and Jonas' friend Asher mistakenly requesting (and getting) a "smack" instead of a "snack." The worldbuilding is immersive in the book, in a way that it just isn't in the film.
In the movie, meanwhile, things are a lot more cut-and-dried — a lot more emphasis is placed on what a regimented nanny state this is, early on. (And the society wouldn't need Meryl Streep and her stormtroopers enforcing order, if it was genuinely a happy one.)
So yeah, The Giver is a watchable film, more or less — but it squanders the potential for a fully fleshed-out adaptation of Lowry's wonderful book. And almost all of the questionable decisions in this film adaptation seem to have been motivated by a desire to make it less distinctive and more like all the other dystopian teen movies — in effect, making The Giver feel derivative instead of honoring the fact that it's a groundbreaking original.
And these changes rob The Giver of its meaning — a good dystopian story holds up a mirror to our world, and shows why people let themselves become part of a broken system. The Giver, at its core, is a profound tale about how those who forget history can be doomed to something even worse than repetition: willful blindness. When you replace that message with something closer to "Don't let Meryl Streep boss you around," you're making a stand in favor of the very mindlessness The Giver is supposed to protest.