I’ll confess that I wasn’t at all sure what to expect when I went to watch The Giver at a screening last week. The movie, which opens in theaters Friday, is produced most notably by Walden Media, the company owned by conservative Philip Anschutz that intends to develop moral, life-affirming entertainment. That commitment shows. The film translated the thoughtful themes of Lois Lowry’s book well to screen. The movie worked on both counts, as an adaptation of a novel—at only 179 pages, novella might be more accurate—and as a family blockbuster. The script is true, the acting good, the design excellent.
Walden Media’s best film to date is without question Amazing Grace, the 2006 biopic, based on Eric Metaxas’s biography, of English abolitionist William Wilberforce. The company has found its niche, however, in adaptations of thoughtful children’s and young adult literature, with the odd purely popcorn and cheese summer family flick thrown in. The good end of that spectrum includes Holes in 2003 and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe in 2005. Walden’s The Giver, produced with The Weinstein Company among others, falls in that camp, as a generally faithful, thematically true, and well produced film.
The Giver book is packed with commentary on man as a political animal, on love, on the moral responsibility of the individual, on language, and diversity. Some have criticized the novel as being too much Idea hiding behind too little story—metaphors disguised as young adult science fiction. I wouldn’t go that far, having found the story compelling enough when I read it in middle school to suspend disbelief and grapple with the themes. The movie adaptation, directed by Phillip Noyce (of Patriot Games) and written by Michael Mitnick and Robert B. Weide, works perhaps even better than the book at providing a platform for those Big Ideas without crippling the storytelling.
The script gets off to a slow and stumbling start as it attempts to catch up the uninitiated with a voiceover from the protagonist, Jonas, but quickly picks up as it introduces viewers to the Community he inhabits, his family unit, friends, and the authorities in his life. This section of the film is shot in black and white as we learn about the colorless society in which Jonas lives, an ordered one without memory, pain, conflict, division. History is kept alive only by one man, the “Receiver of Memories.” Everything is politicized and described in scientific language, as illustrated in the stilted dialogue and occasional reprimands commonplace to society members’ mechanical existence. “Love” is meaningless, a “warm” and “nice” thing; “affection” is more precise. Music doesn’t exist.
Our drama unfolds once Jonas and his friends begin to learn with apprehension which cog exactly they’ll be in the clockwork of the community for the rest of their controlled, technocratically regulated lives. Jonas doesn’t really know his place. Until, that is, he is assigned by the chief elder (Meryl Streep) the duty of becoming the new “Receiver of Memories,” apprenticing under the eponymous Giver (Jeff Bridges). The Giver tries to foster a moral imagination in Jonas, showing him the beauty of love, of music, of color—which the film begins to take on as Jonas progresses—of all of creation, strengthening him for the tastes of pain and hatred he must also receive. As the teenagers are assigned their sole roles in society, Streep’s character says, “thank you for your childhood.” From there, it’s a simple matter of letting characters unpack the moral conundrums Lowry’s little book introduced to a generation of middle school students.
Brenton Thwaites, an Australian relatively unknown in America till now, plays Jonas with enthusiasm, a young man inspired and possessed by the richness of the world he is catching glimpses of as he receives the memories of the past so as to be able to guide the Community in the future. Jeff Bridges’s Giver is almost a more fragile and gentle version of Rooster Cogburn, whom Bridges was nominated for an Academy Award for playing in the 2010 remake of True Grit. Streep, as the Chief Elder of the Community, channels her line “When people have the freedom to choose, they choose wrong,” into a character of absolute and chilling moral certainty, Benthamite to the bone. You can’t escape that Bridges is Bridges or Streep, Streep, but they both deliver convincing performances, minimizing the distraction, and lend gravitas to the entire project. Alexander Skarsgård (of True Blood) is excellent as Jonas’ father, a conflicted, but dutifully clinical cooing doctor who obviously does far more killing, abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia, than healing—though he does so enjoy nurturing the babies who are allowed to live. Katie Holmes delivers a solid mother, and a Community law keeper absolutely dedicated to order. The cast has depth, and the movie benefits much from it, cool performances keeping the swift pacing of the script (the movie only clocks in at 94 minutes) from getting out of hand. Even Taylor Swift, playing a small role as Jonas’s predecessor in apprenticing to the Giver, is convincing enough that the words “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” only ran through my head once.
In terms of design, The Giver shines, not just because the Community is a sleek and sterile future dystopia née utopia, but also because the film is really well done. Ross Emery delivers crisp and clean cinematography, and the style changes, as well as color changes—indicating memories of the past, sometimes shown episodically, sometimes as a montage—are arresting rather than jarring. The montages are particularly well crafted, pulling clips from the news and from nature to create experiences that are both immediate and transcendent. The interplay between black and white and color camera work is smooth, an excellent representation of the awakening process described in the book. Costume and set design set the tone very well; especially notable is the house that is more library perched on the edge of a cliff that Bridges’s Giver calls home.
The Giver is a good movie. A nice surprise of a thoughtful family film, perhaps too heavy to be accessible to young kids, but on point for the novel’s target audience, with enough substance to keep mom and dad intrigued. It’s not quite Amazing Grace, but it’s a better adaptation of a well beloved children’s book than Walden’s Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. It’s divergences from the source text—for instance, in the novel, Jonas is a pubescent 12 year old; Noyce clearly, and correctly, decided that wouldn’t have worked well—all make sense and contribute to a more cohesive work. Its acting is consistently convincing. It’s visually and technically just right.
It might be driven by a message, but it also knows it’s a movie, and makes sure that it’s fun to watch too.