If Lois Lowry’s The Giver is the ur-text of dystopian teen fiction, responsible at least in part for the very existence of such series as The Hunger Games and Divergent, how does one retroactively translate it to the screen following the bombast and extreme financial success of its less elegant but infinitely more Hollywood-friendly “descendants”? Where those series are violent, romantic, and a bit overlong, both on page and screen, Lowry’s novel is spare, direct, unsentimental. It’s a delicate bomb of a book, gently but potently exposing its readers to proto-Orwellian (or even Socratic) themes. Despite the hyper-visual elements of its story, The Giver resists cinematic translation, or rather, it resists commercial cinematic translation. Not only does the book’s thematic spirit rally urgently against corporatized “sameness” that franchise cinema implicitly promotes, its hyper-allegorical and interior approach to narrative—in which the reader occupies the headspace of a brainwashed narrator slowly discovering the existence of feelings—resists sentimental or even emotional methods of storytelling. The challenge of The Giver is that, despite the story’s grand existential themes, it’s utterly devoid of bombast; for the filmmaker, the challenge isn’t translating the novel’s relatively straightforward plot, but the casually brutal style in which Lowry recounts it.
It isn’t a huge surprise then that Phillip Noyce’s screen adaptation, top-heavy with big stars and marketed with an emphasis on action sequences that aren’t present in the novel, errs on the side of flashiness. This is a handsome product, presenting the story’s utopian-like Communities in panoramic black and white (here, as in the book, the Communities’ emotionless residents cannot see color), with Le Corbusier-esque dwellings arranged in crop-circle formations atop a flat, remote aerie in an unknown corner of the globe. The Giver employs a digestible Chosen One trope in its protagonist, Jonas (Brenton Thwaites), whose mild-mannered disposition is shaken when he’s selected as the Communities’ next Receiver of Memory. His apprenticeship with the former Receiver, now self-proclaimed as the Giver (a leonine Jeff Bridges), consists merely of the transmission of memories, but with these memories come an awareness of the experiences—joy, suffering, color, sex, war, love—now eradicated from human life. The arc is one of a utopia crumbling into a dystopia, and this painful transition is felt most powerfully during the sessions themselves, in which Jonas’s wavering commitment to his position as recipient of all beauty-horror evolves, aided and abetted by his remorseful mentor, into moral outrage.
The Giver is clumsier in its depiction of the passionless larger civilization: In its desire to clarify the Communities’ emotional one-dimensionality, the film overstates its intentions early on, beginning with the otherwise-charming Thwaites’s cloying, Stepford-esque voiceover monologue and segueing almost immediately into the ominous proclamations of the villainous Chief Elder (Meryl Streep), who oversees the graduation ceremony in which Jonas receives his honorific career placement. Streep devilishly coos lines about “curb[ing] any impulse that would set you apart from others” in a manner more befitting Dolores Umbridge than an emotionless leader; she’s darkly charismatic in the role, which is exactly the problem, as this character above all others should be a paragon of non-charisma. Similarly, the impossibly written role of Jonas’s mother, a judiciary official with a love of rules that borders on mania, requires Katie Holmes to spit out lines like “The elders are never wrong” and—repeatedly, to the point of hilarity—“Precision of language!”; she less resembles a cog than one of the fear-mongering, backward-speaking denizens of The Village.
What makes The Giver as a text so powerful is the reader’s simpatico journey with Jonas in realizing the banalities and horrors of his community; when he wavers, and rues his loss of normalcy, the reader sympathizes with his self-preserving instincts. In Noyce’s film, however, sterility and evil are sterility and evil from the very beginning, and the internal crisis of its protagonist amounts to the flicking of an on/off switch rather than the ebb and flow of a consciousness being born.