The film adaptation of Lois Lowry's The Giver occupies a strange place in the YA landscape. In 1993, The Giver's dystopian narrative was far ahead of the curve, and its influence can be seen in several subsequent books, including Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games, Cassandra Clare's The Mortal Instruments, and Veronica Roth's Divergent. But each of those books beat The Giver to the big screen. And the delay has not done The Giver any favors.
The Giver is set in what seems to be a utopian society: no war, no hatred, no color. At age 16, each person is assigned a job tailored to their strengths. While Jonas' (Brenton Thwaites) friends end up in childcare or public safety, he is assigned the rarest job: The Receiver, who holds all the memories — good and bad — of the world as it used to exist. Jonas goes on to learn the inevitable tradeoff of a world without extremes: there may be no hate, but there's also no love.
In general, the movie sticks to Lowry's source material; when it does diverge, it's mainly as a concession to film audiences weaned on a long string of recent YA adaptations. The characters have been aged so that Jonas and Fiona (Odeya Rush) can have a swoony romance, complete with a first kiss behind a waterfall. (They were 12 in the book.) Taylor Swift is stunt-cast in an incredibly minor role that has, inevitably, been hyped up in the film's marketing campaign anyway. And the novel's ambiguous ending, which is notorious for blowing the minds of countless fifth-grade readers, has been clarified in a way that robs it of any dramatic power.
There are echoes of the novel's darker, more interesting themes — particularly a subplot about large-scale infanticide, which is tacitly carried out by unknowing members of the populace — but as a whole, The Giver is a frustratingly toothless piece of dystopian fiction. The Hunger Games is set in a far more compelling and fully realized universe, with a more complex and charismatic protagonist to match. Divergent, with its divided factions, is better tailored to an audience weaned on BuzzFeed personality quizzes. Even Twilight managed to muster up a few more transgressive thrills from its human-vampire romance. The Giver's primary virtues — an emphasis on thought and some very deft world-building — have been dumped in the book-to-film transition.
The key problem with The Giver is that setting a story in a world without emotion makes all the characters boring. Jonas' father (Alexander Skarsgard) is a naive dunce. His mother (Katie Holmes) is cold and fervently dedicated to the status quo. Meryl Streep, who has more range than any other actress working today, is wasted as the community's taciturn Chief Elder. Even Jonas and The Giver — two characters who are literally defined by their ability to feel more than anyone else — have nothing resembling depth; Jonas is unfailingly earnest, and The Giver is gruff but wise.
At the beginning of the movie, Jonas invites the audience to decide for itself whether he makes the right choice. Is it it worth giving up a world of peace for a world of freedom? It's a classically philosophical question, but the movie never even pretends that there's any room for debate: The Giver is good, the Village Elder is bad, and it's up to Jonas to single-handedly change the fate of every person he has ever met, via a convoluted deus ex machina that the film barely bothers to explain.
In the end, this film version of The Giver is like attaching a second set of training wheels to a bike that's already equipped with training wheels — an adaptation that removes even the limited nuances of the original novel's "Orwell for Kids" approach. The Giver's belated trip to the big screen was an opportunity to learn from the strengths and flaws of the many YA stories it helped to inspire and make a beloved story newly relevant. Unfortunately, it learned all the wrong lessons.
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