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Review: The Giver

Hey, folks. Michael Cusumano here fresh from having Jeff Bridges impart the wonders of humanity directly into my brain.

It’s an amusing irony that Phillip Noyce’s film of Lois Lowry’s beloved middle-school staple The Giver feels like an afterthought following the recent glut of Young Adult adaptations. It was Lowry’s vision of dystopia which helped launch the army of teenage Chosen Ones currently clogging multiplexes nationwide. Now, not only is The Giver late to the party, but the richly imagined worlds of Lowry’s literary descendants have left her story feeling undercooked. I can’t imagine teenage audiences who have spent the past few years steeped in the sprawling, detailed insanity of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games books will be rapt with attention watching Jeff Bridges shambling around his library, triggering the occasional lame stock footage montage meant to portray humanity in all its myriad wonders.

Noyce’s film version might have had a fighting shot if it had tapped into the elemental power of the story’s spare allegory, but alas, even with a plotline of this simplicity, The Giver can’t make the pieces fit. The logic begins to fall apart right from the opening narration. We are told that this is a society where all the highs and lows of humanity have been wiped away and people live in a serene state of medicated blankness. Everyone strolls around grinning like they lost a fight with a body snatcher. We meet our hero Jonas (Brenton Thwaites, a monument to blandness) on the day of the great Ceremony where he and his two equally personality-free friends are to receive their lifetime job assignments. Yet no sooner does the narration tell us that this world is free from competition and envy than we hear the trio chatting about how they hope they get a great job, crossing their fingers that they don’t get put on the janitorial staff. Correct me if I’m wrong, but wouldn’t this indicate that they are A) competitive and B) envious.

Get used to this confusion...


It will become a running theme of the film with the screenplay continually contradicting itself or fudging the rules when it reaches the belated conclusion that a film populated by emotionless automatons would be boring.

What, for example, am I to make of the character of The Giver played by Jeff Bridges. At The Ceremony, Jonas is shocked to be given the rare and important job of being the Receiver, meaning he will travel to a house overlooking a cliff on the edge of society and be trained by The Giver on how to be a receptacle for all the memories of past civilization. This means everything from the glories of music to the horrors of war. Naturally, such powerful concepts are a threat to orderly society, so the Receiver is to be the one-man quarantine for these dangerous ideas.

This is all well and good, except the film never explains why a society that worships orderly sameness would want to preserve all these dangerous memories in the first place. Just chuck the books over the edge of the cliff into the bottomless pit and it’s so long Mozart and Shakespeare and all the other rabble-rousers. It is suggested the reason for keeping the books is so The Receiver can provide wisdom and leadership, but come on. First off, the film never explores this idea and the Elders treat Bridges with undisguised contempt. Second, their answer to everything is the same: More order, more conformity. When exactly are they supposed to call on The Receiver to bust out some Thomas Aquinas and clear things up? By the time we learn there is a magical boundary, which if crossed by the Receiver will restore all the memories to society, one really has to questions the wisdom of isolating the two biggest free thinkers in the whole country in a cottage with a blueprint on how to bring down the government.

I’m being a nit-picky crank, I know. But my point isn’t to pick the movie apart; it’s to show how little heavy lifting the film has done to earn the ticket money of those who harbor affection for the source material. (I have not read the book and readily concede that this all probably hangs together much better on the page.)

That said, there are some things to admire here. 

The polished look of the movie is a step up from the indifferent visuals we usually get with the would-be YA franchises, and the concept of having the film progress Pleasantville-style from black and white to color is nicely executed. Bridges is well cast as the Giver, if anyone can embody the idea of irrepressible messy humanity it’s him. Meryl Streep tries to give the Chief Elder some depth and shading but her attempts are at odds with a character that is supposed to be the champion of boring sameness. It sorta defeats the point of the movie when the villain who represents oppressive conformity is so much more interesting than the protagonist, who supposedly represents untamed humanity, but remains an indistinct cipher right to the end.

The Giver has a promising future with kids with a test in the morning who didn’t read the book and as an innocuous option for teachers who want to show a DVD to the class while they take a nap. The actual young adults who are taken with Lowry’s vision might find some fleeting pleasure in the film, even as they wonder why the hero’s age jumped from 12 to 16 and where the hell that motorcycle chase came from. By the time they’ve moved on to the advanced dystopias of Orwell and Huxley, they will have a nice chuckle when they think back to the time they mistook this movie for deep stuff.

As for yours truly, a crabby, cynical adult with no nostalgic feelings for the film to exploit, I thought The Giver had a cheeseball sincerity which makes it difficult to get angry at. How does one get his blood up over a film where the hero wonders about this warm feeling he can't explain, to which Bridge beams. "Why that? That was love." It’s thinly imagined, logically challenged and devoid of suspense, but it's heart is in the right place and slamming it feels like trashing the diorama made in the book’s honor by an enthusiastic 7th grader. I don’t have the heart flunk it but I do have the strong urge to scribble on it red Sharpie: “Try harder next time! :(

Grade: C-


Study Questions

1. A holographic Meryl Streep pops into your living room at random times to monitor your every move and issue vague threats. This is…

A) Awesome
B) Creepy
C) Hilarious
D) All of the Above 

2. Lately Jeff Bridges’s voice sounds like that of a disheveled hobo who has misplaced his false teeth. My theory is that he won so much praise for playing back-to-back drunks in Crazy Heart and True Grit that he forgot how to turn it off and is now stuck with a permanent alcoholic slur. Am I right? Or what?

3. Everyone in the world of The Giver is repeatedly told to speak with “precision of language” which just so happens to sound exactly like the kind of crappy dialogue lazy screenwriters use to wedge in plot exposition. How convenient is that? Show your work. 

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Reader Comments (9)

Wurd. But I would add a few things... in the 'it's got its charms category,' Jonas is a rather lovely eyebrowed presence, you must admit... if indeed blandly conceded. That scene with the baby, he delivers the cute... and again, easy on the eyes. Fiona proves herself a suitably dewy 'Mila Kunis' type... and Sgaarsgard is always a beautiful thing to behold. But filmicly, yes, the absurdities abound (including most of all bewigged Meryl's 'subtleties') as well as the Coke-commercial nature-and-culture Memory Montages. But still, at 11:25 this morning while chomping a bagel in a near empty theater, this movie delivered the YA simpleton delights I came for... and surprised on the upside with the decidedly (but sweetly understated) homoerotic undertones between the Giver and the Receiver. Oh yes, and seeing the haggard and strange, post-Tom Katie... What more could you ask for in a C- derivative piece of... ersatz commodity chocolate? "When you give people the freedom to choose, they choose wrong."

August 15, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJeremy

Meryl needs to make better use of her time. I am longtime fan and a completist, but I really don't want to see this.

August 16, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne

Quite a lot villains of a movie are more interesting than the hero/ine.
I'm going to see this. Lucky for me I've never read the book, so I actually can see this with an open mind.
I've heard Jeff Bridges had somehow interest in this two years after the first publication and the author herself wondered why the film took so long. But it seemed she was quite contend with it. *shrug*

August 16, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSonja

That's it! Sorry Meryl, but NO, I'm not watching this.

August 16, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

Such an entertaining review. I've sworn off all dystopian teen adaptations. These movies leave little hope for humanity--or cinema.

August 16, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

The book is a childhood favorite of mine. This film looks like utter crap. Sorry Meryl! I'll catch ya in "Into the Woods" this December.

August 16, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterKylie

I read the book recently; it features a lot of sitting around, talking, and introspection--certainly nothing really cinematic. I thought it was just so-so but then again, I'm not a 12 year old, and I have read other, better YA dystopia stuff like The Maze Runner (movie comes out on September 19). Too bad Jeff Bridges couldn't get it made earlier when the plot might have been fresher. But, oh, Alexander Skarsgard. How much screen time does he actually get?

As for Streep, I'm most excited for her voice narration as Eleanor Roosevelt in Ken Burns' doc, The Roosevelts, which hits PBS stations this fall. I watched the featurette recently and quite frankly, she sounds freaking amazing. Sorry, Greer Garson and Jane Alexander, make room for Meryl's Eleanor.

August 16, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPam

It felt like a very special Twilight Zone afternoon special and I thought it needed a twist ending ( not not like "The Village" ) The relationship between Jonas and The Giver is clearly homoerotic . Streeps role could have been played by Glenn Close who wisely pick "Guardians of the Galaxy" yeah what this movie needed was for Chris Pratt to drop in- now he is my type of giver ; )

August 24, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJaragon

Decent review as a completely objectional moviegoer - I had wondered what the general public would think of this movie as the book has always been my #1 favorite (for 15 years since studying it in school that is) but I have never thought it could be made into a believable movie for several reasons.

1) The concept of color is revealed so slowly, stating only that things mysteriously "change" every so often, that I thought it would be impossible to replicate on the screen without immediately spoiling the effect. The movie's use of the Pleasantville color fade was so brilliantly used, however, that it only understated the point instead of detracted from it.

2) The plot of the book is more about the memories and their effect on Jonas and the debates about a perfect world that a movie would almost certainly fail to provide an experience exciting enough to keep the average viewer interested and would consist almost entirely of discussions between Jonas and the Giver. In the movie, the casting of The Giver was as perfect as could come and the memories of stock footage are short enough to get the point across without pulling from the flow of the movie. My favorite scene, the one of Bridges playing the piano before transitioning into the wedding was the best of the film and if one goes into the movie expecting to feel emotion instead of be entraced by well-staged action, the movie really hits the point of enjoying all life has to offer home.

To the reviewer: After seeing the movie I concluded that the experience is much-enhanced by having read the book beforehand as you know what tone to expect in opposition to the more recent dystopian films like the Hunger Games (The book's slow pace is probably what prevented it from having been made sooner but I suspect we can thank the recent cinema trend for finally allowing it to be made at even this time) and that terms like "precision of language" are more commonly used even in conjunction with other bland phrases to conform society. I would have given the book + movie experience a much higher grade than other film adaptations of novels as the duo fit very well together and build apon each other instead of contradicting and aggravating the long-term fan.

August 27, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterChace

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