I, like so many out there, am a huge fan of Lois Lowry’s classic The Giver. Made to read it in school, I have since reread it and studied it multiple times. It is, for all intents and purposes, one of the first dystopias written for folks under the age of 13 (The Chrysalids (1952) was written for adults but children appropriated it, much to the chagrin of John Wyndham). I love it’s comments on choice, change and Sameness. Difference, in The Giver is something to desire, it is beautiful and something to fight for – it is, in essence, the meaning of life.
I have written about The Giver on a few occasions, feel free to check out my review and discussion of the actual book. For this post I’m going to focus on the film and it’s comparability to the books.
(Spoilers from here on out folks, apologies.)
I thought I’d start here by listing the significant changes that the film has made to the story of The Giver. I think, without first pointing out these changes my criticism of the film won’t be as coherent.
- Jonas and his classmates are now 18 years old and not 11. This is a HUGE difference that changes the whole arc of the film.
- The addition of the Chief Elder as a prominent character, portrayed by the magnificent Meryl Streep.
It’s from these two differences that, for me, the real flaws of the film arise.
1. The age difference.
Ageing Jonas and his classmates, from a Hollywood perspective, makes sense! I mean, how will adults be enticed to go and see a film starring an 11 year old? *cough* Harry Potter *cough* I get it, it won’t always work and the appropriate talent might not be there. Yet ageing Jonas and his classmates to 18 significantly alters their motivations and the way that they would interact with their world. First of all, by this point in their lives in the Community, and we are shifting the way that the Community works as well by ageing all the characters to 18 (which is when, in the books, one could apply for a child). Jonas, Asher and Fiona would be far more indoctrinated AND, as we see in the film that Jonas has been taking his inoculations since he was 11, they would have been taking their inoculations for 7 years, leaving all strong feelings far behind (as Jonas’s parents) as opposed to only starting to rid themselves of emotion. THIS has me questioning Jonas’s reactions, which don’t seem genuine for an inoculated 18 year-old, particularly to the memories given to him. Jonas doesn’t stop taking the inoculations until later in the film, and yet he is filled with wonder and astonishment as though he were 12. There aren’t enough questions coming from him, he isn’t as sophisticated as an 18 year-old would be.
Besides the iffy story inconsistencies, having 18 year-old protagonists makes way for romance – which I’m not complaining too much about. I kind of liked that Jonas’s relationship with Fiona was explored a little more in depth. First of all, it makes sense with 18 year olds, and second it helped to highlight just how invasive the Community’s control is – it was almost an explanation tool, which I rather liked. And I like Fiona’s acting and the way that her character acted (for the most part). What I didn’t like was the hint that Asher, their friend, might be jealous. Jealousy doesn’t exist in the Community. If anything, he would have been confused and perhaps would have wanted inclusion in their activities. Instead we get him skulking, following and watching Jonas and confronting him when Jonas begins his flight from the Community.
Indeed, the bond of the three friends is made much more important in the film. Perhaps as a way to endear the characters to their teen audience, but unfortunately it means that much of the action of the film pivots on their friendship rather than on the Community and the Giver himself. If you recall in the book the inciting incident is when a place flies overhead, terrifying the community. There is an announcement that the pilot will be released to avoid any other unwanted fly-bys. The significance of the pilot’s release is only realized much later in the book, when for a simply mistake you realize the pilot has been killed. There is something else too, there are no planes, no visible security in the Community. In the film however, Asher is appointed a pilot as opposed to Recreation Director, changing the entire feel of his character and the community. They train pilots. They have security. There are no roles like this in Lowry’s The Giver and the fact that the way of the community doesn’t need reinforcing, except for release of course, makes it an even more chilling reveal. Asher and the visible security undercut the totalitarian reveal in the film.
2. The Chief Elder
This of course bring me to the Chief Elder character (Streep). She is present in the book, but only for the scene where Jonas discovers that he is the new Receiver. For me, this is where the film really undermined the original story. Having a character like the Chief Elder be so aware and so clever, and essentially only there to explain the reasoning behind the Community (which is kind of obvious), again undercuts the insidiousness of a world without choice and difference. In The Giver we get a community that is totally unaware that they live in a dystopia (does that make is a utopia? In the very way we can ask that question, it just makes the story so much better and compelling. There are true virtues to both sides). In the film we get a full fledged advocate for the Community’s way of life – a villain, who alongside herself, also villifies, then, everything that the Community is. Which, is not all bad… but given the choice, not something I, or Jonas, would choose. I suppose the film needed a President Snow figure to directly oppose our protagonist, but having the Cheif Elder, for me, took away much of the spell that the Community of Lowry’s The Giver really casts.
It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. Despite rumours that the world would not be portrayed in mixture of black and white and colour, the cinematography was bang on. The discovery of colour is so essential to the story (slightly undercut by Jonas’s age and the inconsistencies of his character there). The addition of music and sound to the elements that Jonas discovers was a fascinating and wonderful addition for many reasons, and I think something that greatly adds to the original story (and particularly the sub-plot of the previous Receiver). I enjoyed that the red apple still played a role in the story as a symbol and a tool of discovery, I think this is important for the school kids who will be reading the book and watching the film. I think it’ll invite some nice comparisons and discussion points.
I quite liked Katie Holmes as the mother who incessantly demands, “Precision of language!” The Giver himself, portrayed by a cotton-mouthed Jeff Bridges, was spellbinding. He was crude and harsh, but gentle and loving as well (nothing like the Giver that I wrote about in my post “Why the Giver sent Jonas to his doom“), which of course is a good thing.
Honestly, if they’d kept the characters at a lower age I think it would have been much more similar to the book – but they didn’t, they Californified it, just as expected. They added clear storyline points (clarifying the “border of memory release”… ok, not necessary – can’t we just believe anything anymore? It’s a different world, we don’t need a map and an explanation. Come on!), they added a villain, they added drama, and they added romance.
The ending however, for me, was perfect. For those of you out there who found that the ending was a let down, go and read the book, it’s the exact same. Which is bang on.
Overall, I do recommend the film. The acting held up, even though at times the writing didn’t (mostly because they didn’t account for age change). I think that the film draws enough parallels to the book and that the changes incite enough questions to still make the study of the book and the film side-by-side effective. Together the story of The Giver still begs the question – what is more important? Safety and peace, or the freedom to choose? What is life really all about?