Thursday, August 21, 2014

Movie Review: The Giver

The Giver
Directed by: Phillip Noyce.
Written by: Michael Mitnick and Robert B. Weide based on the book by Lois Lowry.
Starring: Jeff Bridges (The Giver), Meryl Streep (Chief Elder), Brenton Thwaites (Jonas), Alexander Skarsgård (Father), Katie Holmes (Mother), Odeya Rush (Fiona), Cameron Monaghan (Asher), Taylor Swift (Rosemary), Emma Tremblay (Lilly).

As a novel, Lois Lowry`s The Giver puts most of the dystopian young adult novels that have followed in its wake to shame. It is a well-written novel, that is beautiful and horrifying – its dystopia makes more sense than something like Divergent (which makes no sense), and the society it envisions is horrifyingly plausible. The ending is daringly ambiguous – it doesn’t wrap everything up in a neat little package. All of this makes it disappointing that the movie version of the novel isn’t any better than the movie version of all those Young Adult dystopias. This is a film that producer-star Jeff Bridges has been trying to get made for 2 decades now, and it seems to me that the reason why he finally succeeded is because the movie studio thought they could cash in on the current dystopian craze, and this was an easy way to do it. In adapting the novel to screen, the screenwriters – Michael Mitnick and Robert B. Weide – have stripped away much of what made the novel so memorable. They turn one character into a more of love interest for the main character than they were in the book – because teenagers need a romantic subplot, right. They give the film a human villain, in the form of the Chief Elder, instead of it being something more impersonal and systematic in the book. The juice up the action in the final act (the book really didn’t have any) so things won’t get too boring. And they strip away the ambiguity of the ending, so everything is wrapped up in a bright shiny package. The Giver isn’t any worse than a film like Divergent – but it isn’t much better either. And given just how great the book that, that makes The Giver far more disappointing.

The film begins in black and white – in a future society that looks like an island, surrounded by clouds and fog that separate the society from Elsewhere – where the older people, and other undesirables are Released when they are no longer needed for society. The Elders rule this society, and have all sorts of rules – everyone is the same, everyone wears the same clothes, marry who they are told to marry, have two children given to them – one boy, one girl – and all are assigned a job that they must perform. They have to take drugs every morning, are not allowed to lie, and must use direct language.

Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) is about the graduate – and be given the role he is to play for the rest of his life. He has two close friends, Asher (Cameron Monaghan) and Fiona (Odeya Rush) – who Jonas has strange feelings for that he cannot explain. Jonas has always felt different, but has hidden that fact from everyone else. No one is supposed to be different, and Jonas doesn’t want to be either. But then Jonas gets his job assignment – he will be the New Receiver of Memory. He will spend his training with The Giver (Jeff Bridges), the old receiver, who is the only one who has the memories of the time before this society was formed. The Giver will pass those memories to Jonas. And then, his eyes are opened.

The film was directed by Philip Noyce, who is a fine director, who makes an interesting choice in that for the first act of the film, everything is in black and white. That is the way everyone sees the world – but as Jonas starts receiving memories, the color comes back into the world – at least the way he sees it. He doesn’t understand why anyone would think what he is learning is dangerous. He wants to share it with everyone. The Chief Elder (Meryl Streep) doesn’t want this – and will do anything to protect the society they have formed.

You could make a great movie out of The Giver. It is a great book – and it is still read by teenagers decades after it was published (in some cases, it is required reading in schools). But it is a dark book – an ambiguous one. It presents a world that is perhaps too far gone to be saved – although Jonas wants to try. It challenges young adult readers, and doesn’t speak down to them.

The movie isn’t challenging, and does speak down to its audience. It doesn’t trust the audience enough to take them to those dark places. Anything that is challenging about the book has been softened for the movie. Even the visual look of the film seems to have been cribbed from those other young adult adaptations. It has the same gauzy, filtered look of those other films. Yes, it uses black and white in an interesting way, but that’s not nearly enough. The young actors are bland – but then there characters are bland on purpose as well. Worse though, the film makes Jeff Bridges and Meryl Streep bland as well.
 
There are lots of young adult dystopian novels out there – for whatever reason, they seem to speak to teenagers and have for years. I don’t see much of a point of taking one of the best that the genre has produced and homogenizing it so that’s it’s just like all the rest. If they were going to do that, they shouldn’t have made The Giver into a movie at all.

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