Film adaptations of dystopian young adult fiction are officially a “thing.” This year alone will see the release of at least four: the third Hunger Games, new blockbuster Divergent, Maze Runner, and finally The Giver, which opened last Friday.
Of those, The Giver has the most impressive pedigree. The Lois Lowry book became a best-seller after its publication in 1993, winning numerous awards including the prestigious Newbery Medal and becoming a staple on almost every American Millennial’s middle school reading list.
The story is sharp and powerful, and has earned its place among Huxley’s Brave New World, Orwell’s 1984, and Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, as a pillar of dystopian fiction that teens can digest and study. Elements of The Giver can be seen in many contemporary films, including Gattaca, Equilibrium, The Book of Eli, and the Matrix trilogy, among others, but the basic premise is that a 12-year-old boy named Jonas learns about the dark sides of the perfect, monotonous society in which he lives. In a culture without war or poverty, the lives of people are tightly controlled by a group of Elders and all decisions are handed down from above, with people accepting “Sameness” and dispensing of any “aberration.” Jonas is chosen to inherit an important position in society where he must receive and hold onto all the personal memories of the society before Sameness. He winds up dealing with the reality that his carefully controlled world is not perfect at all.
Personally, The Giver is one of my favorites in its genre, and I was eager to see if the adaptation would be as powerful as the book or just a stale, honorific ritual. Jeff Bridges saw the film potential for the book years ago, optioning the film rights to the novel way back in 1995. Now, after languishing for almost two decades, the adaptation is finished and supposedly has Lowry’s blessing. Bridges plays the title role of The Giver, the person tasked with passing memories onto Jonas, played by Brenton Thwaite (who seems to be 25-year-old playing a 12-year-old pretending to be a 16-year-old). Jeff Bridges was Jeff Bridges, but even mumblier than usual.
The good news is that the technical aspects of the film are solid. Ross Emery’s cinematography is beautiful, capturing Jonas navigating the South African landscape with magnificent wide-angle shots. Carefully considered near-future technology and compelling architecture combine with interiors furnished by a passionate Swedish fascist to make the communities of Sameness believable. If you could just shut your ears and watch the film’s visuals, it might be great. Sadly, you cannot.
Lowry’s writing in The Giver is plain but not simple, and efficient yet not sparse. Unfortunately, while the film was certainly trim at 94 minutes, Michael Mitnick and Robert Weide’s screenplay is overly simplistic. For example, in the opening sequence, Asher (Cameron Monaghan) is introduced as “the boy who makes everyone laugh,” and Fiona (Odeya Rush) as “the girl who makes everyone smile.” Film adaptations have to distill books down to their essences, sure, but using actual archetype titles to describe your main characters is just lazy. This unimaginative approach was evident throughout and, when combined with Phillip Noyce’s somewhat ponderous direction, it gave the film a heavy-handed feel. While the book has little physical violence outside of Jonas’ and the Giver’s memories, the screenplay also adds several violent scenes. There’s a completely tacked-on fight between Jonas and Asher. But, still, the violence level is way below that of other similar, recently released YA movies.
Some of the best writing from the book is left out. On paper, we read about Jonas’ deliberation over the proper word to describe his feelings about his upcoming job assignment. He considers “terrified” or "anxious," but settles on “apprehensive.” While the screenplay does refer to “precision of language” often, it skips this small moment and the viewer in turn misses an element of Jonas’ development. In this way the script was perfunctory—more like an adaptation of The Giver’s CliffsNotes than a movie that expands our understanding and appreciation of the book. Lowry’s writing is straightforward, not clumsy, and deserved a more faithful adaptation.
It makes some sense that in the film version, Asher, Fiona, and the Chief Elder (Meryl Streep) were given expanded roles and the children were going on 16 instead of twelve, as in the original. Meryl Streep was masterful, elevating her performance as the Chief Elder above her campy dialogue. Not that I’m a fascist or anything, but her performance was so good that I was kinda on #TeamChief. Streep started her arc strong as a creepy benevolent overlord and ended as a real leader with understandable motivations.
But the film also adds annoying changes that undermine the beautiful simplicity of the original work. Most frustrating is that the film adds a weak romance: Asher, Fiona, and Jonas are half-heartedly forced into a love triangle. Literally. They hang out in a concrete triangle.
Odeya Rush’s Fiona spends the first two acts as an object of Jonas’ and Asher’s stirrings (the camera’s gaze on her chest is obvious in several scenes, and her digitally-enhanced baby blues verge on the grotesque). In the final act—which deviates strongly from the book—her character does develop some quiet strength.
So, despite my derision, I have to admit that Mitnick and Weide’s screenplay did add something that was conspicuously absent from Lowry’s book: meaningful female characters that mostly avoided typical tropes. The only female character I felt was lacking is Jonas’ mother, played by Katie Holmes, who is a non-presence on screen. Still, something did occur to me while watching Jonas’ scenes of the countries’ memories, which are essentially one big, disorienting reel of National Geographic-style photographs of people of color: the entire top billed cast is white. While Bridges and company were re-imagining, why not take the opportunity to include a person of color as a main character? While dystopian stories have a chance to envision the future of society, far too often that society is almost all white.
Speaking of re-imagining, the film’s ending is far more conclusive than that of the book. This is unfortunate; the ending to Lowry’s The Giver is powerful because it is indeterminate. Lowry waited almost a decade to publish a sequel to The Giver, but we can probably expect a shorter wait for at least two more movies loosely paralleling the stories in Gathering Blue, Messenger, and Son. I hope the future films follow the lead of this adaptation in depicting meaningful female characters (how about Amandla Stenberg as Kira?), but make more effort to respect the nuances of Lowry’s work.
Andé Morgan is a writer living in Tucson, Arizona. Follow them on Twitter at @andemorgan.