Lois Lowry’s novel The Giver famously took 20 years to come to the big screen, and when I caught up to it a few months ago, I could see why there might be problems in adapting it to film. Today’s science-fiction young-adult novels are written cinematically, as authors create fight scenes, chase scenes, and other action set pieces to make their books attractive to movie studios. By contrast, not much happens in Lowry’s highly popular book. The movie version of The Giver opens this week, and not only have its adapters failed to translate the book successfully, but they have also exposed the thinness of their source.
The movie is set in a highly regimented future society in which the leaders administer drugs to the population to banish all negative emotions, resulting in a world without war, pain, disease, color, music, or love. A curious teen named Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) waits to be assigned a career when he turns 18 and is surprised to find that he’s designated to be the community’s receiver of memories, the only person with access to knowledge of what life was like when people felt all their feelings. He receives this knowledge from his predecessor, an old man known only as The Giver (Jeff Bridges).
Director Phillip Noyce has had a strange career, turning out superb thrillers (Dead Calm, Clear and Present Danger, The Quiet American) and a good deal of dross. He brings a sharp production design to this film, inspired by visions of the future from old films like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and William Cameron Menzies’ Things to Come. The movie starts out in black and white, since that’s how everyone in this society sees everything, but as Jonas starts to receive more memories, colors start to appear in the film. This is in keeping with the novel, but Gary Ross’ Pleasantville used the same visual strategy in 1998, and the metaphor was cheesy even back then.
Playing a kid who starts out feeling no emotions and then comes to feel all of them for the first time requires a particular kind of underplaying, and Australian newcomer Thwaites isn’t up to the challenge, overdoing things in the wrong places and seeming entirely too comfortable in his own skin. To be fair, the more seasoned actors aren’t much better; Meryl Streep (as the chief of the society) and Alexander Skarsgård and Katie Holmes (as Jonas’ parents) can’t find a way into their medicated characters.
Since we’re being fair, many of the movie’s issues can be traced back to Lowry’s novel, which is as preachy and didactic as the similarly overrated Fahrenheit 451 and 1984. Still, Noyce utterly fails to capture the horror of what happens to the members of society who are “released,” and he doesn’t find the tragedy in the story of the ill-fated previous receiver (Taylor Swift). The director’s montages of life before dystopia, with all the colors and emotions, play like credit-card commercials. He even botches the climactic action sequence when Jonas tries to escape beyond the community’s borders. The Giver is supposed to be a celebration of all the messy emotions that we humans are capable of, but it just feels like a drone.
Starring Brenton Thwaites and Jeff Bridges. Directed by Phillip Noyce. Written by Michael Mitnick and Robert B. Weide, based on Lois Lowry’s novel. Rated PG-13.