'Thank you for your childhood.'

The Giver
(USA, 90 min.)
Dir. Phillip Noyce, Writ. Michael Mitnick and Robert B. Weide
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep, Brenton Thwaites, Alexander Skarsgard, Katie Holmes, Odeya Rush, Cameron Monaghan, Taylor Swift.
Meryl Streep and Jeff Bridges star in The Giver.
Photo courtesy of The Weinstein Company.

Dystopian flicks are all the rage for the teen crowd nowadays. This business of art sees something viable in the franchises of futuristic young adult novels that offer readily cinematic adventures, so the rationale behind the recent surge of sameness becomes apparent no sooner than one can utter the word “Katniss.” Katniss has a predecessor, though, and his name is Jonas. Crowds  of complacent cogs of YA dystopia chant his name in Lois Lowry’s 1994 Newberry Medal winning novel The Giver and the success of Lowry’s novel exceeds all of the successors that follow in its wake—if not commercially then at least critically. It’s therefore only fitting for the novel that started the trend to receive its own big screen adaptation.

The Giver might feel a bit late to the party, especially when a trailer for Mockingjay: Part 1 precedes it, but this adaptation is nevertheless bound to please fans of Lowry’s book and non-readers alike. The Giver, the novel, passes on the lessons of its success to receivers like The Hunger Games, yet The Giver, the film, takes a cue from the formidable success of other YA adaptations to make a smart, resonant film that’s both accessible and entertaining.

This film by Phillip Noyce (Salt) also has both the benefit (and disadvantage) of adapting a book far superior to most entries in the YA page-to-screen field, since Lowry crafts sentences far more logical and nuanced than most of the poorly-written teen dystopian fiction. (Cough, cough, Divergent.) The Giver also benefits from the sparseness and openness of Lowry’s 170-page book, for virtually everything magical about the book makes its way to the screen. There’s no need to whittle away at The Giver and condense it for an adaption. This brisk film packs everything in and in a running time almost an hour shorter than that of its exposition-heavy peers. The Giver instead gets to open up Lowry’s book and expand upon it. The result is a film that remains true to the novel yet offers an original adventure in its own right.

Everything’s there from Lowry’s vision, including the greyscale palette with which the characters of The Community see the world. The futuristic setting envisions a world of sameness where everything exists in a convenient (and controllable) binary of blacks and whites. Leave it to a young rebel, in this case Jonas (Maleficent’s Brenton Thwaites) to see through the artifice of his comfortable society. Jonas actually has the power to “see beyond” he learns as The Chief Elder (a terrifically cold Meryl Streep, rocking the Jane Campion wig) assigns him the role as Receiving of Memory during the annual ceremony in which teens graduate into the ranks selected for them by the community. “Thank you for your childhood,” the Chief Elder nods as Streep commands the show with playful sinisterness.

Jonas grows up and sees the blissful ignorance of his existence as he begins his training with the elder Receiver of Memory, now dubbed The Giver, who passes on the true history of the world of which the rest of the community is unaware. Jeff Bridges plays The Giver and he handily commands the film with a performance that carries The Giver’s weight of knowing both the terrible consequences of the past and the beautiful subjectivities that make life so unpredictable. Hunched over and tired, yet jovial with a voice like Santa Claus, The Giver helps Jonas see the full spectrum of the world. He also prompts Jonas to learn from the burden that inevitably befalls the Receiver of Memory—it’s a lot to carry the entire catalogue of history alone—and expose the artifice of society to the rest of The Community.

The relationship between Jonas and The Giver comprises the bulk of Lowry’s novel with the elder passing on his knowledge of, say, the beauty of the colour yellow or the pain of a broken arm. It’s all highly readable dialogue that’s perfect for kids to read and appreciate, but the conversations of The Giver, while essentially filmable as written, need something more to make the story appropriately cinematic. Enter The Chief Elder in a role that’s much expanded from the book—Streep’s holographic speech at the graduation ceremony comprises the whole of her character’s role in the book—and Jonas and The Giver have a worthy foil against whom they must fight to unleash the truth. (The novel essentially features Jonas and The Giver hatch a plan and fall through with it.) Lowry’s story therefore gets ample action, suspense, and romance to flesh out Jonas’s heroic task.

The Giver succeeds mostly because of the weight that Streep and especially Bridges bring to it. Noyce envisions a sleekly chilly image of The Community, but lesson of The Giver—the championing of diversity in the face of sameness—feels a bit familiar post Katniss Everdeen. Thwaites’s wide-eyed performance is also ironically one-note, although he certainly has the screen presence to evolve as an actor, so the Giver struggles to engage the viewer in Jonas’s quest since he lacks the fallibility to other YA-heroes like Katniss or Tris. Even the film’s play on the coldness of black-and-white imagery versus the warmth of a full palette even feels like a copycat of Pleasantville even if the source material technically beat all the aforementioned films to the punch. Luckily, though, much of the original material still lets Lowry’s work resonate as The Giver makes itself fresh.

Everything Noyce and screenwriters Michael Mitnick and Robert B. Weide add to The Giver only complements what is already present in the text. The love story between Jonas and Fiona (Odeya Rush) becomes a greater subplot that makes Jonas’s final run more urgent and compelling. The beefed-up part for Streep likewise adds some action and suspense as The Chief Elder watches the progress of Jonas’s studies with suspicion, whereas his budding skepticism goes undetected in the book. Streep is a terrific foe, cold and detached, and the perceptible absence of humanity makes The Chief Elder one of the better villains in YA film fare. (Although I might be bias on this point...)

Embellishing the plot only improves The Giver, too, when stars as strong as Streep and Bridges share the screen. The expansion of the novel really ties everything together as The Giver and The Chief Elder enjoy an original scene in which they debate the foundations of the Community while The Giver crosscuts Jonas’s trek into Elsewhere as a do-or-die moment for The Community to learn the true difference between right and wrong. The added scene even gives greater subtext to the characters, as Streep and Bridges give intriguing readings of the characters that suggests the coldness between the two Elders embodies the absence of love the cripples the community. There’s far more to the story, especially when actors this good further the material.

Thank you for your childhood, The Giver, and thank you for letting the elders carry honour your memory so well.

Rating: ★★★½ (out of ★★★★★)

The Giver is currently playing in wide release.

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