As we heard repeatedly in the interminable and awkward red-carpet simulcast leading up to the national premiere of The Giver, the filmmakers were most eager to please Lois Lowry, the author of the 1993 young adult novel that serves as the movie’s basis. If Lowry in fact gave her approval to the finished film, it must have been in part because she was sick of two decades’ worth of adolescents complaining about the novel’s famously ambiguous ending. The film ties that up in a neat bow, so if you’ve been wondering whether the story really has a happy ending…well, now you can finally find out.
The red-carpet interviews also involved a lot of discussion of the movie’s 18-year incubation period, and numerous questions as to why it took so long. We didn’t really get an answer, but one good answer would be that the producers—including Jeff Bridges, who stars as the eponymous Giver, a role he originally envisioned for his late father Lloyd—simply had to wait for a teen dystopia craze such as the one in which we now find ourselves. When The Hunger Games clicked, any remaining doubt as to the viability of The Giver must have quickly dissipated.
Director Phillip Noyce (Patriot Games, Rabbit-Proof Fence) and production designer Ed Verreaux (Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T.) nod towards classic 70s sci-fi dystopia with a set that looks like a THX-1138 theme park. In this tightly-ordered and gleaming white Community (pesky stains, like emotions, having been scientifically eliminated), suspended on a plateau above a sea of permanent and weirdly low-hanging clouds, Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) and his friends come of age and are assigned their adult roles. Jonas’s turns out to involve a lot of quality time with the Giver: the one Community member who’s allowed to live outside the norms, to remember how crappy things were before order was imposed and to pass that knowledge on to his young Receiver.
The Giver, though, remembers the good things as well as the bad things that those of us IRL 21st century dwellers get to (and have to) experience every day, setting up the poignant dilemma that’s at the heart of Lowry’s story: should Jonas try to bring the world back to the days of war and sex, or should he allow society to remain in a situation that’s safe but so unimaginative that it takes generations for someone to figure out that a giant cafeteria tray can be surfed down a giant slide that’s immediately adjacent to it and exactly the required width?
It’s a potent story that’s loaded with meaty metaphors (mountains, an apple, a water feature), and the screenplay by Michael Mitnick and Robert B. Weide seems to be based not so much on Lowry’s novel as on a really boring teacher’s classroom talking points about it. In the Giver’s memories, “good” looks like a cotton commercial and “bad (but important)” looks like Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” video. What might have been a distinctive look and identity for the film ultimately becomes something you might find framed at IKEA, and every time there’s a danger of an interesting thought being provoked, it’s quickly tamped down with dialogue or imagery that clarifies exactly what uninteresting thoughts we’re meant to be thinking.
(There’s also a racial theme that’s uncomfortable in the way that it tries to have its cake and eat it too. People of color, virtually absent from the Community, are omnipresent in the Giver’s memories, where they’re seen looking radiantly joyous in settings that highlight their ethnicity—and yet the bottom line is, we’re watching a movie where all the meaningful characters, heroes and villains, are white. What’s the message here? I mean, I know what the Cliffs Notes say—but what’s really the message?)
The fundamental flaw with this Giver is that it’s a tidy little film that’s ostensibly about embracing life’s messy reality. As it nears its climax, the music and the tempo tell us that Jonas is nearing a moment of great risk and profound insight, but we’re well aware that he really isn’t. Neither these characters nor the movie they’re in take any real chances, or leave us with any more knowledge about the nature of human experience than we could get by reading a randomly-chosen Hallmark greeting card.