Giver, The (United States, 2014)

August 15, 2014
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Giver, The Poster

Since Jeff Bridges optioned the rights to Lois Lowry's The Giver shortly after its 1993 publication, the tale has been on a slow track to production. Bridges, however, didn't give up and, although his original choice for the title character passed away (his father, Lloyd) and funding was difficult to come by, Bridges' intention to get The Giver made never evaporated. The rise in popularity of YA products like The Hunger Games and Divergent (both of which owe plot elements to The Giver) greatly improved the film's prospects of getting made. So, two decades after initially pitching the idea, Bridges' vision has reached the screen with several high-profile supporting performers in the cast.

Despite a number of changes necessary to make the story more cinematic, The Giver is largely faithful to its source material. The PG-13 rating, however, indicates that some aspects of the movie are deemed more mature than is the norm for a "children's book." (The Giver won the 1994 Newberry Medal.) The PG-13 is likely the result of one specific scene that is potentially more upsetting on screen than in writing due to the concrete nature of the visual representation. There's no mystery in the book about what's happening but seeing it is different from imagining it.

The allegorical and metaphorical aspects of various plot elements means there are "suspension of disbelief" hurdles to be cleared. A literal reading of the screenplay reveals logical issues that no amount of convoluted explaining can patch over. The film's strengths, however, more than compensate. This is a thoughtful motion picture with strong acting, a powerful visual approach, and well-developed themes. Like the book, it highlights the importance of emotions to a full, rich life. In the Captain Kirk vs. Mr. Spock debate, there's little doubt Lois Lowry would side with the Captain even though her text acknowledges the horrors and pain that accompany the embrace of deep feelings.

The dystopian future presented in The Giver will look familiar to those who have explored (either through reading or watching) recent futuristic YA stories. Because The Giver was published before them, any temptation to accuse this of "copying" should be struck down. If it was influenced by any previous material, a more likely staring point might be Fahrenheit 451, with which it shares certain narrative and thematic likenesses.

As the movie opens, we are introduced to a trio of best friends: Jonas (Brenton Thwaites), Fiona (Odeya Rush), and Asher (Cameron Monaghan). A voiceover provides us with details of their society and sets up the situation. Fort these childhood companions, adult life beckons. They are about to be assigned the functions that will define their adult lives. The ceremony is a grand occasion, presided over by a hologram of the Chief Elder (Meryl Streep). Jonas is selected to become the community's new "Receiver" - a position of great importance that will allow him to be the repository of all the historical memories forbidden to the average citizen. Ascension to this position requires him to learn under the stewardship of the "Giver" (Jeff Bridges), whose lessons are in part practical and in part philosophical. As Jonas' knowledge of the past blossoms, he comes to doubt the wisdom of the Elders and wants Fiona, his first love, to realize what he has uncovered about how emotions enrich life - a discovery rejected by the First Elder, his mother (Katie Holmes), and his father (Alexander Skarsgard).

The strength of the cast speaks volumes about the "prestige" aspect of the production. In addition to Bridges, Meryl Streep, Katie Holmes, and Alexander Skarsgard contribute. The leads, however, are left to younger, more fresh-faced performers. The 12-year olds from the book have been aged (as was the case in Ender's Game) to somewhere in the 16-to-18-year old range. This allows up-and-coming actor Brenton Thwaites (recently seen in a trio of films: The Signal, Oculus, and Maleficent) to essay Jonas. TV veteran Cameron Monaghan plays Asher and relative newcomer Odeya Rush gives Fiona spirit and appeal.

In many ways, the actors play second fiddle to The Giver's look. Color is the most important tool used by director Phillip Noyce and cinematographer Ross Emery. When depicting a world in which emotion has been banned, things are black-and-white. As Jonas begins to discover the past, desaturated hues creep in. When we see the memories through Jonas' eyes, the colors are hyper-realized: bright and unrealistically strong. Not since Pleasantville has color (and the lack thereof) been this important to a motion picture.

By retaining the ambiguity of the book's ending, Noyce opens a question about whether the resolution, which works effectively in print, is the best way to conclude a movie. There are certainly questions left unanswered or half-answered. The film as a whole, however, should satisfy those who have read the book (unless their expectations are for a slavishly accurate translation) and provide fodder for thought and rumination. In the ranks of dystopian YA-targeted motion pictures, this one can stand alongside its peers.

Giver, The (United States, 2014)

Run Time: 1:34
U.S. Release Date: 2014-08-15
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Mature Themes)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1