As the old saying goes, timing is everything and Philip Noyce’s adaptation of Lois Lowry’s novel The Giver is suffering from being a bit too late to the party where big screen versions of young adult literature is concerned. This is ironic and unfortunate as the novel, which has become a middle school staple since its publication in 1993, was far ahead of the curve of the recent and seemingly unstoppable wave of books aimed at ‘tweens who can’t get enough of stories involving young protagonists forced to make life-altering decisions often in a dystopian society. Because Noyce’s film is coming in the wake of The Hunger Games, Divergent and their ilk, it has the stink of “Been There, Done That” hanging over it which is too bad as it’s far better than those other productions, containing an emotional element the others sorely lack.
Yet again, the story is set in the near future, we’ve screwed up our planet and a massive social shakeup has occurred. The Community is an isolated city that’s set itself up on a bluff surrounded by an obscured wasteland that lies beyond The Boundary. Rigid structure is the backbone of this society as lies are prohibited, curfew is obeyed and differences are not permitted. Each citizen is required to take daily meds, which dulls feelings of fear, envy and hate, making them malleable to the doctrine of the Elders. Each person is given a job at a rite-of-passage ceremony when they’re teens and Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) is more than a bit nervous about what task he’ll be assigned. However, even he couldn’t anticipate being named the next Receiver of Memories. He’ll be required to house all the memories of the world that came before The Community as well as the feelings its citizens are prohibited from experiencing. He will receive all of this information from an elder he comes to call The Giver (Jeff Bridges) who’s weary of this process as it’s gone horribly awry before.
One of the biggest and most welcome differences between this and other similarly themed movies is that the story is told in a concise dynamic manner that doesn’t become bogged down in needless spectacle or become subservient to a director’s grandstanding style. Noyce knows he’s there to serve the story and does so very well, explaining the film’s premise, the setting and characters in an efficient, engaging manner, stressing relationships over action. There are no battle royales or extended initiation scenes; this film is far more concerned with its themes, namely the dangers of suppression, the importance of individuality and the value of human relationships.
This is hammered home in the scenes between Bridges and Thwaites who forge an emotional connection that keeps us engaged even when the film becomes familiar. The Giver’s hesitance to reveal all that he knows to his young charge sets the foundation for this as it runs counter to all The Community preaches and Thwaites’ reaction to it poignantly drives home the notion that Jonas has craved this sort of emotional bonding, sensing something’s been missing from his life, though he’s been unable to name it. This deepens as the young man’s education continues and he’s forced to experience love, hate, pain, fear and even colors for the first time. These moments of sharing are beautifully done as Noyce utilizes effective montages that show incredibly diverse cultures that have been forgotten, modes of forbidden emotional expression and a variety of artistic methods, all that he’s now responsible for preserving, while Marco Beltrami’s music effectively underscores the emotional gravity of this process.
The difference between The Giver and other entries in this genre is this - it reminded me of the importance of diversity despite its inherent complications, it engaged me on an intellectual level that prompted me to reflect on how precious life is, it made me feel something rather than leaving me numb or unengaged. In the end, it GAVE me something, hardly a common thing where today’s cinema is concerned.