Movies based on young adult novels set in a dystopian future are really having their day in the sun lately. First, Jennifer Lawrence turned “The Hunger Games” into a household name and a certified blockbuster series. Then it was Shailene Woodley snagging the spotlight by starring in the similarly themed “Divergent.” Now it’s time for the book that began it all to get its turn on the silver screen.
The long-awaited adaptation of Lois Lowry’s 1993 classic, “The Giver,” came to theaters Aug. 15. People will always tell you, “You know, the book is much better than the movie.” It’s a shame how often that they are right. While the spirit of the Newbery Medal-winning novel is apparent throughout the movie, the film misses the mark by trying to turn a finely nuanced story of discovery into a summer blockbuster.
For those of you who didn’t have “The Giver” on your required school reading list back in the day, let me set the scene. In a seemingly utopian society, people live in Communities where there is no war, pain, colors or feelings; only Sameness. At age 16 (12 in the book), children are assigned jobs they will do for the rest of their lives at the Ceremony of Growth. Jonas, the main character, is assigned to be the Receiver of Memory, a position no one has held in over ten years.
Under the tutelage of the previous Receiver, now known as the Giver, Jonas receives old memories that include colors, music, war and pain. As Jonas begins to question the strict rules of the Community, he garners unwanted attention from the Elders, who lead the Community. Once the truth of being “released into Elsewhere” becomes known to Jonas, he and the Giver conspire to release all the memories back into the Community. Don’t worry if that sounds like a lot to follow, the film spoon feeds you everything quite slowly and clearly.
The characters are the most interesting and important parts of the book, and I think that the movie would have been better off focusing on them instead of the events unfolding onscreen. The book’s main focus is the relationship between Jonas and the Giver. With the movie, you are supposed to focus not only on that relationship, but also on that of the Giver and Chief Elder, Jonas and his parents, and Jonas and his romantic interest, Fiona. There’s a lot going on, and trying to invest in all of these bonds becomes tiring and unsatisfying.
Jeff Bridges in the titular role and Meryl Streep as the Chief Elder are the strongest performances in the film by far. It takes a while to get used to Bridges’ voice sounding like he gargles gravel every morning, but nevertheless he is a strong presence on camera. Streep is pitch-perfect as the Orwellian overseer of the Community, and she plays the story’s villain quite well.
It’s a shame that almost everyone else in the movie comes off as so forced. Jonas (Brenton Thwaites), Fiona (Odeya Rush) and Asher (Cameron Monaghen) all look older than I do, hardly like the 16-year-olds they are billed to be. Don’t even get me started on the brief Taylor Swift cameo as the Giver’s daughter. You’ll know she is trouble when she walks in.
The feel and atmosphere of the movie was top notch at the start. Everything was shot in black and white with the Community’s strictures and customs on full display. But after the Giver gives Jonas some memories of colors, the film abruptly shifts from the black and white to full color.
It signals that the movie is no longer worried about creating a proper atmosphere, instead it focusing on turning the movie in a young adult blockbuster hit like “The Hunger Games.” There are confrontations with police, multiple chase scenes and even a race-against-the-clock scenario brazenly used to incite added drama where none was needed. It’s a shame that such strong subject matter was turned into such popcorn fare.
After watching “The Giver,” I was left wondering what could have been. Where the book delved into thought-provoking areas of rebelling against authority, the death of childhood and the responsibility that comes with memories, the movie just focuses on creating a Hollywood-like story.
In more thoughtful, delicate and creative hands, this movie could have been near the top of the book-to-movie adaptation list; that would have been a film anyone would like to be on the receiving end of. Instead, all you’ll end up doing is giving away your money and time.