Imagine a world in which all human emotion has been muted through pharmaceutical interventions, where even family life gets dictated by the “community,” and where aspiration, hope, and faith have been replaced by elders who control not just who does what but who lives and dies. Would this be a utopia free of violence, disease, cruelty, and misery? Or would it produce a dystopia bereft of color, joy, and humanity?
The Giver, sourced from a popular series of young-adult novels, answers in the latter on all levels, especially in cinematography. Taking a cue from Pleasantville, a film which asked similar questions but wrapped them up in ultimately incoherent political and cultural arguments, the film starts off with no color at all, just a monochromatic testament to the operating ideology of Sameness — a system which insures from the top down that no deviation from the average will ever take place. Even the perception of color has become a lost memory, and daily injections for all citizens of this dystopia ensure that the communal memory of humanity will be forever suppressed.
That is true for all but the Receivers of Memory, who are needed to provide wisdom through their knowledge of the past. Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) has been chosen by the elders to perform that role, and has to endure an apprenticeship with the current Receiver (Jeff Bridges), who calls himself the Giver as he transmits these communal memories to Jonas. Along the way, Jonas will discover that his predecessor Rosemary (Taylor Swift) rebelled at her assignment, and will start to question the very assumptions on which his life and the community have been built.
** Mild spoilers may follow. **
I never read the book on which this film is based, so I cannot say how loyal The Giver is to its source material. However, as young-adult dystopian fiction in film, I found The Giver superior to The Hunger Games both in terms of execution and in original thought. The Giver puts less emphasis on action and cheesy costuming, and much more on philosophy and character interaction, albeit in the context of the teen-fiction genre. Some of the character development feels rushed, especially the relationship between Jonas and The Giver, and some character development never occurs at all, especially with Katie Holmes and Alexander Skarsgard as Jonas’ parents.
We see little hints from other dystopian tales, such as Logan’s Run with the deception of “Elsewhere” as a cover for disposal of the inconvenient, but presented in a different way. In Logan’s Run, the society worshiped youth and pleasure while creating an ultimately empty existence; in The Giver, the society worships Sameness, a state of imposed equality and etiquette that exists to the point of killing off everything that makes us human. We also see hints of Brave New World as well, as procreation has been taken over by the state with undesirable children taken to “Elsewhere,” but unlike with Brave New World, the lack of humanity in The Giver prevents anyone from comprehending the horror of what they do.
While those basic dystopian components exist in The Giver, the assembly does have a few surprises — chief among them an implicit embrace of faith, and the acknowledgment that we have to accept all of human nature in order to both value it and make wise decisions. The latter is explicitly understood in the structure of the society in The Giver; it’s why the Receivers of Memory exist in the community at all, and is the basic contradiction which unravels it. (Why it hasn’t unraveled before Jonas, especially given the attitude of The Giver himself, is a bit of a plot hole in the film, other than the injections required each day before leaving the “dwelling.”) During Jonas’ awakening, faith gets mentioned several times as a need that addresses the fullness of the human experience. It’s no accident that the first object Jonas sees in full color is an apple, and that the apple is the mechanism by which Jonas frees the girl whom he loves from her medically induced slavery to sameness. Jonas spends much of the film trying to escape the Boundary of Memory in order to free his community from its self-imposed slavery, an inversion of the Garden of Eden story. If the apple from the Tree of Knowledge corrupted Adam and Eve and made them slaves to death, Jonas tries to use the apple to free Fiona (Odeya Rush) from the slavery of ignorance and spiritual death.
** End of mild spoilers **
Could it have been done better? Sure, but it could have been a lot worse, and the film keeps the audience’s attention. While some of the events are predictable — this is a dystopian fantasy written for middle-school audiences, after all — The Giver is still worthy enough to go to the theater to see it, especially in this season of explosive special effects, comic-book characters, and general vapidity. Ironically, it’s this film that feels a lot like a departure from the Sameness of Hollywood summers. On the Hot Air scale, The Giver gets a four:
- 5 – Full price ticket
- 4 – Matinee only
- 3 – Wait for Blu-Ray/DVD/PPV rental or purchase
- 2 – Watch it when it hits Netflix/cable
- 1 – Avoid at all costs
The Giver is rated PG-13 for its “mature thematic image” and a bit of sci-fi violence, but I wouldn’t be uncomfortable taking my twelve-year-old granddaughter to see it.