Filmmakers adapting Lois Lowry’s The Giver to the silver screen — fitting to the monochromatic utopia she created — have a tall order. I attended a prescreening of the Weinstein and Walden Media film on Wednesday (signing in the process an embargo not to review the movie until next week), but I can probably say that the adaptation remains true to the themes highlighted in the well-loved novel.
The story’s protagonist, Jonas, is the new “Receiver of Memories,” a historian a la George Santayana in a history-less society. He who must dispense wisdom for the present based on memories of the past must grapple with the guilt of moral knowledge as a member of an amoral society.
The book, while disguised as young adult science fiction, is an exploration of love, the moral responsibility of the individual, language, and diversity. Like Thomas More’s original utopic vision, the community Lowry creates seems a good one, but is in fact too good to be true. It is peaceful, without pain, without conflict, without division, ordered. Those living in Lowry’s world have immanentized the eschaton not by fulfilling history, but by destroying and forgetting it. At what cost? There lies the question of the story: whether such a community, built upon an absence of choice, is any community at all, but is instead a dystopian society. They are heavy themes for a young adult novel, and Lowry hardly hides them behind pillars of young adult fiction like burgeoning sexuality, teenage rebellion, and emotional angst.
“When people have the freedom to choose, they choose wrong” is a precept uncomfortably familiar; does not government protect us from ourselves? It is the proposed formula for a painless, perfect, society. Live a quiet, egalitarian life and do as you’re told. Yet might genetic engineering, abortion, infanticide, medication overuse, and euthanasia all create a “perfect” society, necessarily without love? For love leads to passion, passion to temptation, temptation to murder and strife. In this world Lowry weaves, one built on “precision of language”—words like Truth are robbed of meaning—the political authority becomes the arbiter of moral authority. The state does not murder; it “releases” or “loses” you.
But echoing the Good Book, The Giver reminds us that love leads to faith and faith to hope, and scientific language reduces us to describing love, to our impoverishment, as a “warm” and “nice” feeling. An egalitarian society wants to stamp out individual differences, but love is what binds us together despite those differences. Love makes families, not centrally planned family units. There is no trumpeting of individualism in Lowry’s critique of the commune, but a celebration of the moral responsibility of the individual within the community.
The centrally controlled society in The Giver in many ways would fulfill the definition of “progress,” but it is also empty and sterile. The alternative of choice is messy and chaotic—but also, if we’re being honest, beautiful.