Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the latest edition of ‘Films Based on Books That Everyone Besides Michael Has Read.’ Yes, although it seemed as though everybody in my generation was at some point assigned this book, I found myself in just the right seventh grade class that managed to dodge it. I always looked at this as somewhat of a blessing. After all, from what I had heard of the concept, it sounded like a pretty drab, boring story. With that said, as the years passed and my maturity grew, I did find myself somewhat curious about what I had missed. Fortunately, this film adaptation has arrived to save me the effort of reading the novel. So how did this near legendary piece of required reading fare? Well…I’ll tell you.
The Giver takes place in a world who’s elders have decided to expel all emotional impulses, and the things that cause them from humanity. People are segregated into small, heavily structured communities high above the earth, and required to take daily injections that repel all deeper emotions, and drown out color. Our main character, Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) has just turned eighteen, and at a ceremony that will decide what he will do for the rest of his life, he is unexpectedly chosen to be the next receiver. This means that every day, he will meet with the previous receiver, a wise old mentor who calls himself the giver (Jeff Bridges), and he will impart upon him all of the emotions, actions, and objects of the world before all of this. When Jonas starts to become so inspired by these teachings, that he starts to rebel against the status quo, the Chief Elder (Meryl Streep) starts to suspect that he could be the one to undo everything this utopia is built on.
The Giver is both a very typical and unusual young adult adaptation. On one hand, the story does adhere to the dystopian, “rebel against an evil higher power” template we’ve seen in many of these films (although since this book was written in 1993, it can perhaps claim to being the original gangster of this type of story in teen fiction), but on the other, the storytelling employed is much more character driven, complex, and deliberate than normal. As a result, this actually comes out as one of the strongest films I’ve seen in this vain in quite a long time.
The world building here is stellar, completely selling the functionality of this muted society, even if it’s methods are maddening to Jonas and the audience. The production design is futuristic, but perfectly understated, and we get a sense of everything from the education of young children, to the different jobs that keep everything running. Also, much of the film is presented in black and white, slowly coming into color as Jonas becomes more aware of the world around him. This not only looks great (props to director Phillip Noyce for that), but also really allows us to be inside Jonas’ head as we’re taken through the story, and when he starts learning about and seeing things like music, and color for the first time, we feel the impact right along with him.
The performances across the board are great. I’m so glad to see Brenton Thwaites in a good movie after watching him be one of the only good things in that atrocity ‘The Signal’, and he’s a very solid leading man here. Even when he is on that draining drug, we see sparks of curiosity and love in him that only burst out more and more as the film goes on, and he sells it all with ease. Jeff Bridges could not have been better cast here. This is a role that he could have easily sleepwalked through, coasting on his appearing, but he gives it every ounce of heart and soul that he’s got. He’s not just a mentor, he’s a broken soul who wants Jonas to learn everything the right way so he dosen’t repeat a fatal mistake he made before, and we see the conflict within him in every scene. Meryl Streep and Katie Holmes also have nice turns here, especially Streep. It would have been easy to make her character into a one note bad guy, but early on it’s evident that she does what she does because she genuinely cares about her people, and strongly believes that this is the right path for them.
I also appreciated how deliberate the pacing was. Many films of this ilk quickly devolve into action set-pieces, making whatever philosophy the story is built on seem like boring exposition in between. Here, we really get to focus in on that philosophy, along with the motivations of the characters, so we really get to care when the action does start. As a matter of fact, if there was anything wrong with this film, it was that once the story moves into a more conventional direction in the third act, I found myself missing what I had before. The last act is by no means bad, but it definitely gets a tad laborious, and starts to feel like an excuse to show off visuals.
I was really surprised with how much I enjoyed this film. It’s not just another one of these silly young adult movies that just mine the ‘Hero’s Journey’ template and stick to that formula with very little flavor, but a genuine story about characters that you come to care about, with really prevalent themes and subtexts to mine. I can’t attest to how faithful it is to it’s source material, but I can certainly say that I am much more interested in reading it now.