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Not Just Another Teen Dystopia: "The Giver" Film Reviewed

dystopian movie, the giver, teen movies

Art Credit: Walden Media

Go see The Giver. This is not the advice I thought I would be giving when the promotional train for the movie adaptation of Lois Lowry’s book came rolling into town.

The story of Jonas, who lives in a highly regimented but serene community of the future and slowly learns the history of the world through his new assigned job as Receiver of Memory, is one that is very dear to me. I remember three things from my seventh-grade education: the quality of mercy speech from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice that we were forced to memorize, the Mike and the Mechanics song In the Living Years that our homeroom teacher played for us when her father died, and The Giver.

I have always been a book lover, but The Giver was the first book that made me think about the world, human nature, and whether right and wrong was really black and white.

Perhaps the most striking feature of the future community in which the story takes place is that it is, in fact, black and white. For the sake of peace, security, and freedom from pain, the community has sacrificed music, emotions, and even color. In the community where each member is given a particular role by the Elders, one man, the Receiver, has responsibility for holding the memories of humanity. When Jonas is chosen to be the new Receiver, the current Receiver becomes the Giver. The story follows Jonas as he learns through received memories all the beauty and horror that marked fully human life—and the unique horror but alluring calm that characterizes the highly controlled environment of his community.

Now, as the post-apocalyptic dystopian YA novel has become trendy with the huge success of The Hunger Games and Divergent trilogies and their inevitable blockbuster movie adaptations, I came to appreciate The Giver even more for its subtler approach to the themes of individual choice, government intervention, community, and finding peace. Not that I didn’t thoroughly enjoy The Hunger Games and Divergent (I did, very much). But their flashier approaches to the material leave less room for debate among their readers. What is right and what is wrong is much more immediately apparent, and their endings are far from ambiguous.

So when I heard that The Giver was being adapted for the big screen—especially when the slick, action packed movie trailer took over the Internet and the foreboding movie posters were placed in every subway station on my commute—I got very nervous about how the movie would turn out. It seemed like a very obvious money-making ploy to dust off the book that arguably spawned the popular YA series of today and make it shiny and marketable. I was wrong—it was a great idea.

Jeff Bridges, who stars in the title role and also produces the film, has wanted to make this movie for almost twenty years, originally imagining it as a vehicle to direct his father in. The project did not move forward until recently, and Meryl Streep came on as the Chief Elder of the community. She was attracted to the project because it was one of the few “required reading” books that her children enjoyed during school.

These two powerhouses had the motivation to make the movie in a way that respected the book for the right reasons, not just for being a few degrees separated from the guaranteed money-maker that is Katniss Everdeen—and it shows. By anchoring the movie to such experienced performers, the subtlety of the book remains on-screen.

One of my original concerns was the choice to make Jonas and his friends older teenagers instead of the twelve-year-olds they are in the book. There is something beautiful and sad about a child having to come to grips with everything Jonas learns over the course of the story, and something heroic about his decision to rise up and try to make a difference. I didn’t want his courage in the face of lost innocence to get shoved aside to create a romantic relationship between Jonas and his friend Fiona. Thankfully, the choice to cast actual teenagers instead of actors in their mid- to late-twenties helps preserve that. Newcomers Brenton Thwaites (Jonas) and Odeya Rush (Fiona) beautifully capture the innocence of their characters—their initial unquestioning acceptance of their community, their friendship that neither one has the words to describe, and their nervous determination to do what’s right even when the definition of what is right shifts.

I was also concerned about the casting of Katie Holmes as Mother and Taylor Swift as Rosemary. I like both women (I feel a kinship with any lady 5’9” and over), but I worried that they were cast solely to attract a teen audience that would recognize their names from the tabloids. Thankfully, there was no need to be worried. Katie Holmes is not given much to do, but nonetheless manages to convey the repressed but content nature of her character, which gives Jonas’s restlessness a needed foil. Taylor Swift disappears into the wistful role of Rosemary—partly due to her brunette hair but mostly due to the trusting sweetness she is able to immediately establish with Jeff Bridges in her brief scene.

Another triumph of the movie is the subtle shifting from black and white to a filtered color palette once Jonas receives the memory of color. The only strong colors in the movie saturate the memories that the Giver shares with Jonas, allowing the audience to be startled and overwhelmed by their intensity along with Jonas. I won’t spoil it for you by saying too much, but the last set of memories given to Jonas brought tears to my eyes in their unrelenting portrayal of the human capability for wonder and courage.

So go see The Giver. I’d say they get it 90 percent right, which is a huge accomplishment. For whatever reason, the intention behind the marketing campaign for the movie seems to be to lump the movie in with every other action packed summer blockbuster out there, but the reality of the movie is so much better than that.

Just one word of advice: Do not reread the book right before you watch it. I learned this lesson when the Harry Potter movies were coming out, and I am glad I made this decision again with The Giver. There is rather large change to the character of Jonas’s friend Asher in the movie, which would have been a lot harder to swallow had I picked up the book again last week. But go see it. Go see it with a friend who knew you when you first read it. Go see it with your own kids. Go see it alone. But go and be reminded about the beauty of possibility and the potential of the human spirit. It’ll be worth it.