The Giver

By on August 27, 2014
The Giver

Well, another month has passed: it must be time for a young adult novel adaptation. On the plus side, this one’s a biggie. You’d be hard-pressed to meet anyone who attended an American high school that didn’t get assigned “The Giver,” or at the very least, didn’t have the option of reading it from a list of potential reading materials for English Literature class. Mind you, this isn’t some Johnny-Come-Lately addition to the Y/A brigade, either. It came out in 1993, and has been a perennial reading list favorite since, having won the Newberry Medal and sold some ten million copies.

So, given a lot of people’s love for this book, it’s safe to say an adaption was long overdue, and if it took the likes of “The Hunger Games” and “Divergent” to pave the way for that to happen, I say more power to the filmmakers for hanging in there and getting it done finally. Indeed, a key player in bringing the film to the big screen was star Jeff Bridges, who expressed interest in it for his father, who he thought would be perfect as the titular “Giver” character. Now, over twenty years have passed, and Bridges himself is old enough for the role, so he’s stepped up to the plate for this adaptation.

Jeff Bridges is "The Giver" and Brendon Twaites is the receiver. Courtesy of imdb.com

Jeff Bridges is “The Giver” and Brendon Twaites is the receiver.
Courtesy of imdb.com

As with a lot of Y/A adaptations as of late, he’s not the only big name here, as fellow Oscar winner Meryl Streep, Katie Holmes, “True Blood”-vet Alexander Skarsgård, and country pop sensation Taylor Swift are also onboard. The main cast, also in keeping with many of these types of films, is filled out by lesser-known up-and-comers, such as Odeya Rush (who once called Alabama her home, FYI), Cameron Monaghan (“Shameless”) and star Brenton Thwaites (“Maleficent”) as the iconic Jonas.

For those who never had to read the book, here’s a rundown of the basic plot. It’s 2048, and Jonas is living in a Utopian society known as the “Community.” There was a big war shortly before it was established, but everyone but one man has had all their memories from before the “Community” existed erased, willingly. That one man is known as “The Giver” (Bridges), and it is his job to fill in the new recruit for the next “Giver,” Jonas, on everything that happened pre-“Community.”

There are rules and regulations as to how Jonas is expected to deal with this information, chief amongst them not being able to tell anyone about it. Will he conform to the rules or will he take matters into his own hands and attempt to share what he’s learned with everyone else in the “Community”? There are some twists and turns along the way which I won’t spoil here, but that’s the main gist of things.

On the surface, this would seem to be a fairly straightforward adaptation to do. The book is short, clocking in at under two hundred pages, and the plot is pretty simplistic. However, in a book like “The Giver,” it’s all about the subtext and philosophical underpinnings, and that’s a whole lot trickier to communicate. To its eternal credit, the movie does a great job of encapsulating a lot of the book’s main themes via quick montages of imagery that do more to communicate world history than an endless monologue about it ever could.

The look of the film is also quite striking, adopting a mostly black and white palette before color begins to seep into Jonas’ world little by little and not just in a metaphorical sense. First, he sees friend Fiona’s (Rush) red hair, then other things and as he learns more and more, so does the film take on a much more expansive and colorful palette. It’s a pretty neat gambit, and it works like gangbusters in communicating the book’s main themes, which are mostly concerned with the problems of conformity and shutting off one’s emotions and the like.

Massive props to Ross Emery for his work as a cinematographer here. This is not his first futuristic rodeo, as he also did the honors for the likes of “Dark City” (a personal fave of mine) and “The Matrix.” Kudos are also due to director Phillip Noyce, of “Salt” and “Patriot Games” fame, for wrangling this somewhat difficult adaptation into shape. There’s certainly a lot to recommend here, across the board, from the acting to the directing to the cinematography.

Jeff Bridges lends Taylor Swift a hand at the piano, in "The Giver." Courtesy of imdb.com

Jeff Bridges lends Taylor Swift a hand at the piano, in “The Giver.”
Courtesy of imdb.com

However, on the whole, the biggest problem with the movie is that what works well in books doesn’t always translate as well to the movies, and that is readily apparent here. There’s a reason a lot of people have resisted bringing “The Giver” to the screen in the past, and let’s face it, the only reason it probably happened was that Y/A adaptations are all the rage right now. Just because a book can be adapted doesn’t mean it should, though.

I didn’t dislike “The Giver” by any means, and it was nice seeing a book that I loved as a kid adapted in a reasonably faithful manner like this, complete with a top-notch cast and a lovingly-rendered vision of the book’s setting and overall approach. It’s clear that everyone involved had their heart in the right place. But sadly, the film is a bit flat overall and nowhere near as engaging as it should have been, given the strength of the material at hand.

Maybe it’s the fact that Y/A burnout is setting in, but if “Divergent” and “The Fault in Our Stars” proved anything, it’s that there’s still gold in those Y/A hills to be mined, so it can just be that. I think it has more to do with the fact that “The Giver” is a thinker of a book, with some big ideas and the sort of plot that sticks with you long after you’ve read it. Those sorts of books don’t always lend themselves well to movies, and this is not an exception to that rule.

As such, I’m going to give it a B+ for having its heart in the right place, but to be honest, it’s probably closer to a C. It’s nothing if not competently made, it’s just not a grabber, and as such, maybe there was a good reason it hasn’t been adapted before now. That said, if you loved the book, it is worth seeing, just know that the movie may not live up to the one you had in your head while reading the book. Does it ever, really?

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About Mark Trammell

Mark Trammell is the resident entertainment critic at UAB, the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where he is also a Graduate Student and does a vid-cast movie review show. He is a life-long fan of films and has a pretty whacked-out, all-over-the-place movie collection that would give most sane people pause. He loves horror movies and Disney flicks and isn't entirely sure there is a difference. He one day hopes to put his money where his mouth is and inflict his own perverse vision on society, entirely so that he can tell people who ask: "If you think you can do better, why don't you make a movie yourself?" to shut up.
 
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