Written in 1993 by Lois Lowry and read across classrooms all across North America, The Giver is a book that has become a mainstay in the school and something that almost all middle schoolers wind up reading at some point in their school career. And it makes sense that they do. Its themes resonate best at that age, it kind of prepares them to read heavier texts like 1984 when they reach high school, and it’s really just a good book, especially for that age group.
The film adaptation, directed by Phillip Noyce and written for the screen by Michael Mitnick and Robert B. Weide, gets most of the plot of the book, but it lacks any sort of passion and does very little to draw its audience into what it has to offer. For a production whose main theme is “well, maybe individuality and expression is a good thing,” it lacks all of that. There isn’t a scene or moment in this film that doesn’t feel lifted from any other young adult film adaptation, and very little of the magic from the book made the jump to film.
We’re narrated by our protagonist, Jonas (Brenton Thwaites), who delivers the backstory of our near-future world. They live in a place surrounded by fog, raised up from the Earth, where everything is identical, everything is controlled, and everything is in black and white. I don’t know how, but they’ve managed to remove the ability people have to see in color. The idea is that all fighting, war, and awful things come from people having differences. If everything is the same, there will be peace. And it’s worked.
But Jonas can sometimes see tinges of color. He and his best friends, Fiona (Odeya Rush) and Asher (Cameron Monaghan), have just graduated high school. At the job sorting ceremony (picture: the Sorting Hat), he is skipped. Then the Chief Elder (Meryl Streep), informs him that he will be the next Giver — the only person in the whole village who will be given memories of “the past.” The current Giver is played by Jeff Bridges. He has the power to transfer memories of the old world (the audience’s current one) to Jonas, so that he can retain them and then inform the Elders if they face a situation for which they need knowledge of the past.
The film’s conflict comes when — surprise, surprise — Jonas realizes that everyone should have access to these memories. Oh, and emotions. These people are all having their emotions repressed through daily injections. So, Jonas comes up with a plan to save the entire community, except it’s not really a plan and it wraps up too quickly and then the movie ends just like this sentence.
The Giver ends very quickly and doesn’t provide much of a wrap-up. The plot technically resolves but we don’t get to see any of the consequences of the choices certain characters made. Actually, the whole third act comes about really quickly, happens really quickly, and then finishes really quickly. It’s like the filmmakers noticed how much time they wasted in the first couple of acts on redundant scenes and realized they needed to finish the film around the 90-minute mark. There’s no gradual build to Jonas’ decision; he has like two things happen in consecutive order and comes to the conclusion that this is something that must be done.
With characters’ inability to see in color, much of the early portion of The Giver is in black and white. There are hints of color, all from Jonas’ perspective. Once he starts receiving memories from the Giver, the film more or less transitions into a color production — except in certain instances when Jonas isn’t in the area; in these cases, we go back to black and white. It’s an interesting way to show the differences in mindsets, and it’s about the smartest decision that Philip Noyce made in creating this film. It’s also about the only show of originality within the film.
The acting is up and down. Many of the actors are forced into completely monotone roles. Full-of-life actors like Alexander Skarsgård and Katie Holmes — playing Jonas’ “parents” — have to stare straight into space for the entirety of the film. The younger actors are little better. Brenton Thwaites is not an engaging lead, even after he’s made a “transition” from the monotone grays to the emotional colors. He and Odeya Rush have no chemistry. It’s only Meryl Streep — criminally underused — and Jeff Bridges — about the only one who seems to care about the production — that have any standout moments, and most of them come near the end when they debate the merits of humanity. Really. (Taylor Swift is in about two scenes and does not ruin or improve the film. She’s not even in the finished product more than three minutes. Just an FYI.)
The Giver probably could have been a good film. I don’t think it’s “unfilmable.” We got Cloud Atlas, which was supposed to unfilmable, and it was amazing. What we have here is a derivative young adult adaptation that preaches originality but contains very little itself. This isn’t a fun, inspiring, or even thought-provoking movie. It’s just more of the same blandness that can more often than not be expected from this sort of thing.