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Review: The Giver (2014)

The Giver (2014)

Directed by: Phillip Noyce

Premise: An adaptation of the novel by Lois Lowry. Set in a future civilization where there is no crime or suffering, a teenager is chosen to be society’s new Receiver of Memory. The Receiver is the only member of the community with knowledge of the past and the teen finds the revelations of history too much to handle.

What Works: The filmmakers of The Giver make some interesting cinematic choices, in particular the use of color. The film begins in black and white, which appears grey on the screen, and it effectively conveys the blandness of the society in which these people live. As Jonas (Brenton Thwaits) undergoes his training to become the Receiver, he gradually begins to see in color. Early on in the picture this is used very effectively with color isolated to a particular person or object. The Giver also benefits from the casting of Jeff Bridges in the titular role. Aside from the Receiver, he is the only member of this society who experiences emotion or possesses a conscience but he is unable to reveal those experiences in public. That allows Bridges the opportunity to incorporate some subtle behavioral work into his performance.

What Doesn’t: The Giver is an extremely popular young adult novel but what is special about that book, and part of why it has gained such a strong following, it the subtly in Lois Lowry’s storytelling. The book leaves a lot about this fictional society understated but provides some provocative implications for readers to reflect upon. The room for reflection is what made the book compelling for many readers. In translating The Giver into a motion picture much of that subtlety is lost. Some of this is inherent to the nature of cinema; by visualizing the characters and locations, The Giver is concretized and thereby loses much of its mystery. But the filmmakers do themselves no favors by simplifying and overtly spelling out the ideas. It also suffers from the translation to cinema in that elements that worked on the page do not work on the screen. Repeated phrases like “precision of language” and the constant formal apologies often sound awkward and some of the novel’s fantastic ideas, like the transmission of memory through touch, come across silly when it’s presented visually. The film version is also a victim of the success of the book. The novel The Giver influenced the source material of many subsequent dystopian young adult stories such as The Hunger Games and Divergent. Like 2012’s John Carter, everything about this film adaptation is overly familiar because the tropes and ideas of the original text have been replicated so many times in other movies. That said, the film version of The Giver has a lot of problems all its own. The design of the story world lacks ingenuity. There is nothing distinctive about it and The Giver looks like a stock futuristic world of many sci-fi television shows. The movie also suffers from its casting. In the novel the young characters are twelve years old but for the movie their ages have been increased to sixteen. The age bump isn’t necessarily detrimental to the movie but the teenagers are played by actors who are very obviously in their mid-twenties. The illusion is never convincing and the preppy look of these actors combined with the black and white cinematography and the bland set design makes The Giver look like an Abercombie and Fitch catalogue. Also wasted in this movie is Meryl Streep, who plays the Chief Elder. Streep’s character is undefined and she has nothing to do; it is clear that Streep is only in this film to give it some marquee value. The greatest irony of The Giver is that this is a story about a young person discovering the passion of life but the movie is emotionally flat. The moments in which the character undergoes trauma don’t have any emotional impact, negating the thesis of the story.

Bottom Line: In an odd way, The Giver is an example of the very thing that the novel was railing against; this is a high profile feature film that attempts to commoditize and capitalize something ephemeral and emotional, forcing a complex text into the box of a mass market young adult movie adaptation. The result is cold, flat, and plastic.

Episode: #505 (August 24, 2014)