Film vs Novel: The Giver

Re-examining Lois Lowry’s classic young adult novel and the forgotten 2014 film remake

The film is set in a technologically advanced world similar to those in The Hunger Games or The Maze Runner, but in The Giver, it feels canned. The mechanism of government control in the book was never coercion through technology, but control through limiting information and controlling how citizens think. Technology is not necessary for a society to be controlled in this way, and Lowry indicates this partly by having her characters travel on bicycles (and old ones at that).

Because the scene is not so different from our world, in Lowry’s work, we are forced to reflect on the ways in which our own society controls us through information. Director Philip Noyce’s foreign, unrealistic and harder to relate to the world does not prompt comparisons to our own with the success of Lowry.

For example, instead of bicycles, Noyce’s film uses motorbikes and moveable monstrosities that are supposed to be futuristic. Yet, the future somehow forgets the use of spokes and instead opts for solid tires. Apparently, we are supposed to believe in a future that is able to monitor a citizen’s every action through omnipresent cameras and drones, and yet, forgot basic physics and had such an abundance of resources that they could use discs for wheels.

Despite the success of Lime, it’s still hard to relate to a universe where people travel around looking like fools who made some horrible miscalculation pedaling away during a spin class.

The Presentation:

Lowry writes with power and elegance in a way that is approachable and appropriate for younger readers and engaging for adults as well. Her prose is not overwrought but flows well and is touching at times.

The story hinges on the main character, Jonas and his enlightenment about the nature of the world – the suffering and joy that it contains which has been hidden from him until he becomes the receiver of memories. A novel benefits tremendously from telling a story of this nature because it can reveal the inner thoughts and experiences Jonas has as he gains this knowledge and decides whether or not to share it with his community.

The film, on the other hand, feels as stiff and awkward as a middle-school dance. Instead of experiencing Jonas’ transformation from his perspective, we have a few interpolations of soliloquy such as this: “I have felt things and they were warm, and they were nice and they were beautiful. I have felt things.”

One other cringeworthy moment will be relatable to us in the Midwest:

Jonas : I apologize?

The Giver : Don’t say that. “I apologize.” Don’t apologize to me ever again. Not here. We haven’t the time. “I apologize.” That’s an automatic pleasantry. It doesn’t mean anything.

Jonas : I apologize. I’m sorry. I mean…

Perhaps it’s not relatable outside of the Midwest, but in Dakota territory this interaction is realistic.

The love story between Jonas and Fiona (an aberration from the book) will also force viewers to remember awkward middle-school experiences. To the filmmakers’ credit, this probably was a necessary add-in to engage viewers since they failed to capture the crux and strength of the novel: we cannot protect ourselves from suffering without destroying joy.

The novel raises many interesting questions that are poignant now: how can you have any faith in a system after you learn it lies? Is it right to protect someone by keeping the truth from them? Is it better to suffer for love, or to live without both?

The Acting:

Still, there are moments in the film that do capture the force of the book. These mostly are during the excellent performances of Meryl Streep and Jeff Bridges. In their face-off during the climax of the film, they argue about whether people should be able to make choices after so many people have made decisions that cause needless suffering and sorrow:

The Giver [Bridges]: We could choose better.

The Chief Elder [Streep]: People are weak, people are selfish. When people have the freedom to choose, they choose wrong, every single time.

Of course, this great moment is a direct quote from the novel.

One success of the film is its use of color. The citizens of the community take medication to prevent them from feeling emotion. This is represented by a lack of color. To this end, much of the film is in black and white. With Noyce’s preponderance of terrible directorial choices, I’m tempted to credit the editing team with this decision, but if it was his then he did one thing right.

The color makes the memories much more powerful, and the gray and beige capture the emotionless drab existence that the community entails. Unfortunately, the futuristic setting does hamper the effect by creating a sense of excitement and wonder in a world that should be characterized by calm even-keeled-ness.

Jeff Bridges and Meryl Streep were great casting decisions (no matter what character they are cast for). Other performances, however, lacked their appeal.

Katie Holmes (known for her role as Rachel Dawes in Batman Begins) captured the inability to emote exceedingly well. To her credit, I’m not sure how to deliver a good performance for a character who has no emotions and only thinks what the state tells her to. Her solution was a constant deadpan.

Taylor Swift made her live-action debut (after some success with voice acting in the Lorax). As a viewer, it is easy to forget that her character receives memories and should have emotions. Despite her great performance in the music video for Love Story, her strength remains in music and voice acting.

The Takeaway:

Viewers of the film are left feeling like a film executive determined that they had to mimic Hunger Games to sell their product: it’s a cheap imitation that does not make sense in The Giver. Even Jeff Bridges and Meryl Streep are unable to rescue this film. 2.5/5 stars, 7 drinks.

The novel is a classic and remains so. In a head to head matchup, it wins hands down. 4.5 stars.

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