With dystopian science fiction films featuring teenaged protagonists becoming all the rage over the last several years in Hollywood, it really is a shame that one of the better adaptations to come out of the recent craze (as well as by far the finest example of this subgenre of literature) seems to be slipping under the radar and receiving a negative critical reception that puzzles me. The Giver is hitting theaters at an unfortunate time, overshadowed by Guardians of the Galaxy as well as lost within the clamor of far inferior teenaged angst (see Divergent) and even seems a victim of some of the better results of the craze (The Hunger Games). Despite the relative lack of buzz, however, director Phillip Noyce’s interpretation of the children’s novel by Lois Lowry is a successful, provocative and occasionally moving film and, while it may not reach the soaring heights of its source material, it remains a fitting celebration of both life itself and the act of living it.
For those unfamiliar with the plot of Lowry’s novel, in Noyce’s interpretation the main character Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) lives in a future utopia (run by elders, the chief of whom is played by Meryl Streep) in which the greater community has done away with colors, deep emotions and diversity, believing it to lead to jealousy, hate and violence. Climate control prevents the seasons from changing, birth is closely monitored, family “units” are assembled artificially as opposed to biologically, and sameness is prized, except for the unique and distinct jobs given to each member of the community by the elders. Jonas is chosen to be the next “Receiver of Memory” and will be trained for the position by the current Receiver (played in a now familiar mentor role by Jeff Bridges), who shares with Jonas his memories of all the colors, emotions, experiences and feelings that the community has done away with (this exception necessary for the Receiver to fulfill his role as a provider of wisdom) but as Jonas begins to experience both the joys and the pains of the old world, he begins to see his community in an entirely different light.
The Giver’s best selling point is its visual flare which, under the direction of Noyce and cinematographer Ross Emery, not only lends a fleshed out and believable futuristic setting (characteristics missing from many young-adult films) but intelligently incorporates color and memory into the very fabric of the story. Initially drenched in black and white, the film gradually allows colors to flow in and out of the story depending on the character’s perspectives and emotions. At times a girl’s hair may glimmer in its actual auburn hue, or a bee flash yellow amidst the dull and pervasive gray, but suddenly, during one of many of Jonas’s memory receiving sessions from “the giver” a sunset gloriously bursts forth on the ocean, and the audience basks at the glory and majesty of this natural world we call home and are blessed to be a part of. Moments like these (the joyous and thrilling experience of sledding, the tragic violence of war) all revealed through the naive eyes of Jonas, restore our sense of wonder and shock at the true power of life experiences we have perhaps grown too used to. The power of contrast is evident throughout these sequences, and glimpses of life as we know it, life as it should be, life as it should not be, strike with a potency lost on those who have grown too comfortable with the miracle that is life.
Credit must also be given to composer Marco Beltrami who weaves a beautiful tapestry of sound, including a haunting main theme and some excellent choral-work, which helps the audience to look at their changing perspectives along with Jonas in an emotionally complex and nuanced manner. The acting is solid around the board (Bridges is a standout, while Thwaites captures the innocent and ignorant nature of Jonas), and a romantic subplot between Jonas and Fiona (Odeya Rush) is a delight, as two young people literally discover love for the first time and we as the audience are welcomed to experience the wonder of love along with them. The Giver explores a myriad of social issues within the greater life that it celebrates, touching on individuality, the price of security, human greed and even euthanasia and abortion. It really is rare to find a film marketed for the entire family willing to tackle such hefty issues, and the filmmakers should be commended for not shying away from the themes Lowry wove so intimately into her work.
Alas, however, the film is not perfect. Readers of the book may be disappointed as to the rapidity with which certain pivotal events happen, robbing them of some emotional weight, even if they still service the plot. A brief appearance by Taylor Swift in a significant role proves a bit distracting, but that is a relatively minor quibble. The final act of the film does squander much of the momentum that had been built up before, lacking some of the revelatory tension that drives the film to its climax. But thematically the ending holds up, bringing the ideas and themes of the film full circle. The Giver is by no means a perfect adaptation, some may claim it is flawed, but it captures the beautiful essence of the story in a visual fashion so remarkably well, particularly in forcing the audience to re-learn life, that I would definitely recommend it to anyone who wants a meaningful, emotionally engaging and thought-provoking trip to the theater.