REVIEW: The Giver

15 08 2014

The GiverIf there was any doubt that we’re reaching the point of supersaturation with dystopian YA adaptations, “The Giver” confirms that the tipping point has arrived.  I get that life in post-recessional America doesn’t exactly inspire hope, be you a teenager or an adult.  But I doubt real life could be any worse than escaping into this derivative and, often times, outright laughable film.

I first read the film’s source material, Lois Lowry’s Newberry-winning novel that is now a staple of middle school English curricula, as an impressionable 12-year-old in 2005.  At the time, the post-“Harry Potter” adolescent fiction boom had not begun to tarnish the newly bolstered reputation of writing aimed for emerging readers (not even the “Twilight” series had been published).  YA was neither a dirty word nor a marketing buzzword then; it was just my demographic.

Lowry’s book might have been relatively short, but it sure packed a punch.  “The Giver” can serve a crucial function in the escalation of material for language arts, providing a key stepping stone towards more weighty adult literature.  If you can place yourself in the position of a teenager, the dialectical push and pull between order and chaos as well as pain and pleasure are actually quite thought-provoking.

Yet no matter how deeply one might have regarded the thematic content of the novel, it’s entirely possible to discredit “The Giver” as little more than a compilation of shallow marketing hooks for a cookie-cutter dystopian YA film.  The very premise of the story loses sophistication and nuance as it’s forced to fit the mold made popular by “The Hunger Games.”  What made Lowry’s story special is largely discarded in favor the conventional, leaving behind a film that’s a shadow of its literary incarnation.


Rather than letting the audience discover the intricacies of this carefully created world through the characters, the details are spoon-fed as early as opening title cards.   Besides, it’s no longer really the same setting of the novel.  The same defining details and characters are there, sure, but “The Giver” has been reworked to take place in an environment that melds the black-and-white conformity of “Pleasantville” with the autocracy of Panem from “The Hunger Games.”

The script is melded together from two separate adaptations, one by neophyte scripter Michael Mitnick and another by industry veteran Robert B. Wiede, which might explain why the film often defaults to marveling at the strangeness of the world on screen.  The key ideas of Lowry remain, yet the film cycles through them so fast that there’s simply no time to let them digest or resonate.  Furthermore, the focus is rarely on the underlying humanity, a big loss for “The Giver” as the characters were powerful vessels for exploring thematic underpinnings in the novel.

Director Phillip Noyce does still manage to get a few good moments out of his actors, namely young Brenton Thwaites as Jonas and Jeff Bridges as his eponymous mentor.  As The Giver trains Jonas to be the new “Receiver of Memory” for his community, one that has sacrificed feeling and difference for a stable peace, the film often recalls the Pensieve scenes between Harry Potter and Dumbledore from “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.

Except in “The Giver,” memories don’t look like real film scenes; they look like a Visa commercial to honor Nelson Mandela.  And the rest of the film around these corny montages doesn’t feel much better.  Though much of the film takes place in black-and-white, the film hardly feels shot for the style like Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska” did.  Ross Emery’s cinematography recalls the kind of obvious, low-quality camerawork that might be on display in a short film produced to run on an endless loop at an amusement park.

Then again, I suppose the sort of cheap, mindless thrill is sort of what the brains behind “The Giver” were aiming for, anyways.  Why else would they throw out portions of the novel that worked marvelously only to insert a hokey teenage romance?  Or emphasize an authoritarian Big Brother government, headed up by Meryl Streep as the Chief Elder?  Or tack on two random, pointless scenes with Taylor Swift as the dearly departed daughter of Bridges’ character?  Or cue the credits with the tonally inconsistent tune of a OneRepublic song?

Never mind that the audience might want the book that taught them something about emotion and feeling, not just a succession of newly established sub-genre tropes.  Perhaps the old dog that is “The Giver” could have been taught new tricks to fit a little more neatly into the growing canon dystopian YA film adaptations.   The novel could have been given the freedom to transcend the clichés but instead has to limp its way onto the screen having succumbed to them.  C-1halfstars



One response

15 08 2014

The book deserved a film adaptation. However, it also deserved a better one than this. Good review Marshall.

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