The Giver is a hard movie to take seriously. Based on the godmother of all dystopian teen fiction that so permeates the cinematic landscape, The Giver had yet to receive a big-screen adaptation, despite being an award-winning novel and a cornerstone to high school English curriculums. But that was probably a good thing, as the reason the book is so beloved is that it is largely a symbolic tale, not really concerned with the logistics of its failed utopia, but more so with using its setting to communicate a message about our own world. And yes, that message is little more than an overly-simplified analysis of how the pursuit of absolute equality can lead to the destruction of our individuality, but as teen fiction, it’s hard to fault the story for resonating with that demographic’s primary emotional concern. The Giver tends to be really thematically problematic when you really examine it, but for once, I’m not going to delve into that aspect of the film. There are plenty of places when you can read about the thematic issues of The Giver book, especially those concerning its heavy-handed allegories for euthanasia and abortion. Instead, I want to point out the specific reason why the film doesn’t work.
As I pointed out, The Giver is largely a symbolic story, revolving around a society that has removed all strife and conflict by sapping the world of anything resembling diversity, whether that be in thought, feeling, or even in the ability to see color. That’s fine on paper, but in order to translate that type of story to the big screen, there need to be some truly ambitious aspirations in order to make something entertaining to watch while still remaining true to the spirit of the novel. And the film seems to start off with that intention, keeping the world devoid of color until protagonist Jonas begins to unlock his potential as the Receiver of Memories. The teen actors are your standard stock wannabes hoping for a shot at the big time and think this film is it (spoiler: it isn’t), but Jeff Bridges (the eponymous Giver) and Meryl Streep (the evil Chief Elder) give performances that seem to demonstrate that they actually give a damn about the production’s success.
Unfortunately, this is also an attempt to be a summer blockbuster with a target audience of teenagers, so the film must obligatorily lean toward action-heavy by the third act. Jonas comes to a conclusion that he must abduct an infant about to be euthanized and take it with him outside the community in order to survive, and this leads to some half-assed chase scenes limited by the fact that nobody in this universe is supposed to understand violence. The film’s plot adds this strange condition that, once Jonas escapes his community and reaches a certain point beyond its borders, everyone will suddenly remember what it is like to have feelings again. Logistically, I have no idea how this works, and once that magical turning point is reached, the film sort of just ends with only a generic voiceover as an epilogue.
The main problem with The Giver as a movie is that it tries too hard to work the classic novel’s story into the same framework as modern dystopian teen fiction films, like The Hunger Games or Divergent. By forcing the film into having an action-oriented third act and a magic happy ending MacGuffin to drive the plot forward, the story has been robbed of its identity. If The Giver had been allowed to be its own thing, it probably would have been an alright movie, inherent thematic issues aside. As it stands, though, it’s hard to hate The Giver, but it’s hard to care much for it either.
How do you feel about the classic novel? Disagree with me on the quality of its thematic messages? Discuss in the comments below.