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The Giver (2014)

giverDIRECTOR: Philip Noyce

CAST: Brenton Thwaites, Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep, Odeya Rush, Alexander Skarsgard, Katie Holmes, Cameron Monaghan, Taylor Swift

REVIEW:

The Giver has taken a long, winding road to seeing the inside of a theater since Jeff Bridges (who serves here as both star and producer) bought the movie rights to Lois Lowry’s 1993 young adult novel (which won the 1994 Newberry Medal).  Bridges’ original casting for the title role (his father Lloyd Bridges) passed away in the meantime, and funding was difficult to find.  But, over twenty years later, Bridges’ determination to get the film adaptation made has paid off, and while sticklers for accuracy to the book, a staple of middle school literature classes (I have vague memories of being assigned to read it in school), may grumble at some changes, overall it was worth the effort.  The Giver, while with some narrative weaknesses, is a thought-provoking and visually striking motion picture that proves “young adult” doesn’t have to be synonymous with the vapidity of something like the Twilight series.  In fact, this is a thoughtful movie with well-developed themes and something meaningful to say.  While the film soups up the book’s thin narrative with some tacked-on action and suspense, with mixed results, it gives equally important focus to the book’s messages of the dangers of conformity, the importance of individuality, and the need for emotion, even with all the pain it can bring, to live a truly full life.

As the movie opens, we are introduced to three lifelong best friends, Jonas (Brenton Thwaites), Fiona (Odeya Rush), and Asher (Cameron Monaghan).  In an unspecified point in the future, after alluded to devastating wars (like the book, the movie leaves specifics vague and ambiguous), society has rebuilt itself as The Community, a Stepford-like “utopia” where all emotion has been weeded out beyond shallow pleasantries, differences have been genetically engineered out of existence, and people literally see in black-and-white.  The citizens of The Community, presided over by a council of Elders (led by Meryl Streep in ice queen mode), live in blissful ignorance of mankind’s past history, oblivious to even the existences of things like snow, sleds, or elephants.  Jonas, Fiona, and Asher are reaching 18, at which age they will be assigned their Position in The Community, in which they will serve for life.  Jonas is selected to be The Receiver, the repository of transferred historical memories forbidden to everyone except The Giver (Jeff Bridges), the guardian of vast knowledge kept from the rest of The Community.  Some of The Giver’s “lessons”, like feeling snow for the first time, or going sledding, are exhilarating, while others, like war, are terrifying to the severely sheltered Jonas.  But under The Giver’s guidance, Jonas learns more than practical information.  He comes to experience emotions—the exuberance of a dancing wedding party, the joy of holding a newborn baby, the horror of war, the passion of a kiss—and begins to understand the meanings of things like death and love, profundities beyond the rest of Community’s comprehension.  The exhilarated Jonas begins trying to share his discoveries with those around him, especially Fiona, in increasingly brazen and reckless ways, to the consternation of the Chief Elder and his parents (Alexander Skarsgard and Katie Holmes).  And when he stumbles across the horrifying secret of what really happens to those “released” into “Elsewhere”, he becomes galvanized to escape from The Community and hatch a plan to pull the veil out from everyone’s eyes and awaken them to the truth.

A major component of The Giver‘s power is its use of color.  Like The Wizard of Oz, it begins in black-and-white and color eventually seeps in, and like Pleasantville, black-and-white is associated with conformity, while more colors creeps in the more changes are made.  As Jonas takes his first steps into a greater awareness, the drab grayness of his world is highlighted with isolated splashes of color (the red of Fiona’s hair, or a rainbow in a waterfall), then warms into desaturated hues that gradually brighten into normal colors.  His visions while mentally connecting with The Giver—like a sunset onboard a boat in the ocean—are in bright, vivd, accentuated colors.  The striking transition from black-and-white “reality” to the glorious colors of his joyous dreams help convey how powerful a revelation it is for Jonas.  Like Lowry’s book, the movie hits hard on its central theme of the need for emotions to truly live your life fully, even with the terrible pain and loss opening one’s self up can bring.  By purging themselves of all deep emotion, the citizens of The Community believe they are safe from pain and conflict, but they’ve also relegated themselves to living a shallow, hollow, almost robotic existence.  Jonas’ parents are so oblivious to history that his father mistakenly calls a stuffed elephant toy a hippo and assumes its trunk is a fifth leg.  Their family dinner scenes are cold and sterile, pleasant to each other in shallow, formal ways but emotionally vacant.  The film tackles this thesis in ways that aren’t exactly subtle, but sometimes emotional and powerful.

While faithful to the central themes and overall narrative of Lowry’s book, The Giver makes some embellishments to make it more “cinematic”, to extents that may rankle some devotees.  The 12-year-olds from the book have been bumped up to 18-year-olds.  Jonas’ attraction to Fiona, a low-key undertone in the book, has been expanded into a teen romance subplot, complete with a couple kisses.  The character of The Giver is more developed than in the book, where he was basically a plot device, and while the Elders were a nameless, faceless monolith in the book, the movie gives us a central “villain” in the form of Meryl Streep’s Chief Elder.  The most significant deviations, however, take place in the souped-up climax, which is greatly expanded from the book’s low-key conclusion, including a trek through the desert and snowy mountains, a chase scene with Jonas chased by a drone shuttle, and a subplot to add more “suspense”.  Ironic for its attempt to give The Giver a more “exciting” climax, the third act is the weakest, and feels like what it is: rushed and tacked-on material to unnecessarily bump up the action quotient a little.  The Giver is more interesting when the emphasis is on philosophy rather than action; in fact, even in the comparatively action-packed climax, the most interesting scene is not Jonas getting sucked up, alien abduction-style, by a pursuing drone shuttle, but a well-acted philosophical argument between Jeff Bridges and Meryl Streep where the movie’s theme is given voice by an impassioned monologue by Bridges, countered by Streep’s cold logic (“when people are allowed to choose, they choose wrong”, she says). The ending retains a degree of the book’s ambiguity, but reportedly at the insistence of the studio, dials back the book’s uncertainty in favor of a more clear-cut “happy” ending that closes things with a note of hope that’s clearer than in the book (where the ending scene could be interpreted one of two sharply contrasting ways).  The special effects look a little cheap; fortunately, there’s not many of them, so somewhat fakey drone shuttles aren’t a significant distraction.

giver2While the cast is headlined by Oscar winners and acting luminaries Jeff Bridges and Meryl Streep, with younger recognizable faces like Katie Holmes and True Blood‘s Alexander Skarsgard onhand in supporting roles, the central teen characters are filled out by fresh faces.  Australian actor Brenton Thwaites (sporting a believable American accent), who had a smaller role in Maleficent earlier this year, has enough wide-eyed innocence to make Jonas a sympathetic protagonist.  Relative newcomer Odeya Rush starts out seeming to give a stiff, stilted performance (though that might be appropriate), then shows more emotion as the movie nears its climax.  Alexander Skarsgard and Katie Holmes are effectively creepy as Jonas’ Stepford parents who are oblivious to the wrongness of their world and capable of expressing no more than shallow, hollow shadows of parental emotion (they are dumbfounded when he asks if they “love” him, a word that they don’t understand the meaning of).  One could argue both Skarsgard and Holmes seem too young to be Brenton Thwaites’ parents, but I think the movie excuses that by alluding to children being genetically engineered and their “family units” not being their biological parents.  Meryl Streep makes the chilly Chief Elder a somewhat sinister figure who serves as a visible antagonist and plot obstacle without making her a flat-out villain.  Like Jonas’ parents and the rest of Community, she’s not evil, but terribly misguided.  But the best performance comes, perhaps unsurprisingly, by Jeff Bridges, who in his older age after over twenty years of trying to bring this story to the screen, is finally appropriate to cast himself as The Giver.  Bridges has been the driving force behind this film adaptation for decades, and his investment in the material is clear.  His portrayal of the title character is powerful and impassioned, radiating both “sage old man” wisdom and underlying heartfelt humanity.  The Giver was a plot device in the book, but here, partly through the script giving him more of a backstory and partly due to the depth and emotion in Bridges’ performance, he is a fuller character.  Sharp-eyed viewers may notice an almost unrecognizable Taylor Swift in role that’s small, screentime-wise, but important to The Giver’s backstory.

Some fans of the book have objected strongly to the movies’ cinematic embellishments, but to me that’s missing the point.  Books and films are different mediums, and being slavishly faithful to a book is not always the best approach for a film to work on its own terms onscreen.  The Giver is imperfect—the climax is rushed and underwhelming despite its attempts to up the ante to provide a stronger ending—but it’s thoughtful and heartfelt and visually dynamic, with scenes of stirring emotion, and compared to those strengths, its comparatively minor flaws fall by the wayside.  It made me both think and feel, and those are laudable qualities in any movie, no matter its literary origins.

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