'The Giver' Manages to Feel Like a Dystopian Young-Adult Knock-Off Despite Inventing the Genre
The source material is its greatest strength, so why does this adaptation feel like a weak-sauce Hunger Games knock-off?
The Giver's greatest strength is Lois Lowry's wonderful 1993 book, a dystopian fable for children about everything a model community loses with suppression of emotion and pain. But it is also its greatest weakness. Lowry's The Giver presented the darkness behind utopian vision clearly and simply: its protagonist Jonas lives in a community that has eliminated violence and has a role for all of its members, but surveys them closely to make sure they obey "rules" governing rudeness and precision. Color, weather, topography, and most any kind of choice has been eliminated, along with emotion.
Lowry's world-building is wonderfully done, and she keeps things simple to best explore the complex ideas she's advancing. But now that The Giver has made it to the screen 21 years later, shepherded by producer/star Jeff Bridges (who originally imagined his dad Lloyd in the title role), the "young adult" scene has grown into a money-printing industry of much more intense, action-heavy dystopian tales marketed to teens with romantic subplots and (just occasionally) interesting subtext. Director Philip Noyce tries to thread the needle by hewing close to his source material while peppering in some grander-scale sci-fi business to keep things moving. It doesn't remotely work.
The "community" of The Giver is a bland, featureless society with boxy houses, lots of glass walls, and a few stadium-sized auditoriums where citizens gather to chant in emotionless unison. Kids are born and assigned to "family units" who reside in "dwellings" until they get jobs of their own and become cogs in their boring society. Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) gets a special assignment: to become the Receiver of Memory, tasked with the largely secret and barely understood job of holding all the happy and dark memories of the past in his head, for consultation. Bridges, speaking in his recently-favored exaggerated cotton-ball-mouth accent, plays the current occupant of the job, who will transfer the memories to Jonas and educate him on humanity's tortured history.
The dystopian community is rendered effectively, but without real teeth: they're just a bunch of robot people who smile blandly, with Meryl Streep failing to lend much gravitas as an icy leader, and Katie Holmes as Jonas' "mom," barking "precision of language!" every time he uses a "meaningless" word like "love." Noyce has built out Lowry's simple community to be technologically advanced, with drone machines flying around and some grand architecture, but The Giver can't shake the feeling that, especially from a design perspective, it's echoing other, better cinematic efforts.
The scenes with Jonas and The Giver should be the most powerful, but it ends up the most risible. The memories The Giver transmits are supposed to represent powerful human emotions and memories, but look like YouTube footage of a Benetton ad shot with GoPro cameras. The film quickly lurches from building up its creepy society to Jonas trying to tear it down without any real justification, except that it simply has to happen.
The Giver probably would have worked best presented on a smaller scale. There's no reason for Jonas' community to seem so advanced, or to look like a platter of towns on a disc of dirt in the sky surrounded by clouds. The Giver's lair, embedded into a cliffside, includes an impractical spiral staircase obviously included to draw the eye, which gets increasingly funny as all the characters run up and down it dramatically as emotions begin to spill out.
The younger cast, who are 13 in the novel, have been aged up to 18 here for no good reason. Jonas and his buddies Fiona (Odeya Rush) and Asher (Cameron Monaghan) live in a society without sexual chemistry, so any attempts at romance feel utterly abortive. Thwaites is a handsome fellow with a nice smile who cannot hold the screen's attention for more than a second. This is a film that requires him to process a lot of heavy emotion on-screen, entirely with his face; Thwaites is not up to the task. Even Taylor Swift, briefly glimpsed as The Giver's previous mentee who was overwhelmed by the task, does a better job in her five minutes of screen-time.
As things in the community get real and Jeff Bridges and Meryl Streep start squaring off, there are hints of the film this could have been. Neither is doing much more than phoning in their work, but even that's enough to lend some grit; everything else feels edited within an inch of its life to move through the story quickly and cleanly. All the inherent creepiness and foreboding atmosphere of Lowry's writing is lost as a result. When the harshest and most terrifying truths of the community are revealed, the punch can't land.