The Giver is a failure. That may seem harsh, but try though I have to find a different description, “failure” is the one which seems most apt. Oh, it’s not one of the worst films of the year or any thing. The production is Hollywooded up enough to be innocuous. But that’s the problem. It’s innocuous. A story that criticizes the notion of a tepid, emotionless society where conformity is the highest ideal has been made into a movie that is itself tepid, emotionless, and lacking character.
One thing I should mention up front is that while I have read Lois Lowry’s book The Giver and have generally fond (if inspecific) memories of it, it was probably 14 years ago that I read it. So this review will not be a comparison between the book and the movie (perhaps we’ll save that for another time), but rather a critique of the movie itself.
What remains relevant is that The Giver (the book) was first published in 1993, more than a decade before franchises like The Hunger Games or Divergent, two (of many) pieces of YA/teen lit that take their cues from The Giver. Gender of the protagonist aside (The Giver’s is male), we have an insular postapocalyptic society governed firmly by the few for the supposed benefit of the many, to be challenged by a protagonist just coming of age who doesn’t seem to fit within the established order. None of that ought to matter, perhaps, but we’ve already had two Hunger Games films and Divergent, and in general, the false utopia trope is one with which we’re very familiar.
And again, maybe none of that ought to matter. No one’s going to confuse The Matrix with The Truman Show, for example. What it comes down to is executing on your unique characteristics and making the audience believe in the world you’re creating.
With that in mind, The Giver takes place in a utopian society that, in the wake of some apocalyptic event, resorted to careful controls over every member of its citizenry in order to ensure conformity and peace. Basically, imagine extreme totalitarian communism, but the citizenry has been so indoctrinated over time that to most it seems like a normal, happy existence. Included in this purging of personhood was the removal of all memories of the past, even the appearance of color and the sound of music, the purpose being to ensure docility and peace. Memories of war, for example, might lead to its reoccurrence. Emotions that stir the soul are unbalancing. Instead, the total memories of the entire society, going back to before whatever calamitous event took place, reside in the mind of one person – the Receiver. It is then his job to advise the society’s governing council.
Our protagonist, Jonas (Brenton Thwaites), is chosen to be the next Receiver, and begins to have the societal norms he always took for granted torn down around him as the former Receiver, now called the Giver (and played by Jeff Bridges), shares memories with him. And think about it, how powerful it would be to see color for the first time. Or to suddenly learn it was possible to disagree with another person so profoundly that you would try to kill one another. As Jonas receives new memories, he’s forced to radically reconsider the mechanics of the only society he’s ever known. That’s got some serious potential.
Potential which the film quickly and mercilessly murders, beginning with the acting. Odeya Rush and Cameron Monaghan don’t deliver what you’d call strong performances as Jonas’s friends Fiona and Asher, but it’s Thwaites in the leading role that comes out the worst for the wear. In short, Thwaites always feels like he’s acting. The performance is always manicured, and it’s particularly noticeable in the scenes which demand the most emotionally. One scene sees Jonas accidentally exposed to a memory of war, which is rightly called a traumatic experience by several of the characters. Yet as Jonas flees the Giver’s house vowing he’s done being the Receiver because he just can’t handle anything else like that, you might watch the scene muted and think the Giver didn’t invite Jonas to his birthday party, not that Jonas just had a genuinely traumatic experience. I probably shouldn’t be too hard on Thwaites, though – when you have Meryl Streep and Jeff Bridges in your cast and no one looks good, there are other problems at play.
Other problems, such as a world that’s never quite believable. With a story like The Giver, the film has the unenviable task of making the audience believe the people in its society would willingly live according to the rules laid out, yet also position the audience against the same society, all the while explaining why change is going to happen now and not twenty years ago. I can give the film something of a pass on the first two, although I’d argue it only fouled off the first pitch, but it’s with the question of, “Why now?” that the film never has a compelling answer.
First off, we see enough minor characters bend the supposedly hard and fast rules of the society that it’s hard to believe everyone’s as committed to the idea of conformity as we’re initially led to believe. But moreover, as soon as Jonas begins receiving memories, his impulse is to try to share them with others (which isn’t supposed to be allowed) and to question why the society needs a Receiver in the first place. Jonas’s story arc ought to be about his struggle between the familiarity of the society in front of him and the horror at seeing behind the curtain. We’re told there have been other Receivers before. Clearly they decided it was worth preserving the curtain for the rest of their society. Why does Jonas different? We never see him grapple with the question that seems most fundamental to his job. Which means we’re cheated out of what probably should have been the film’s central drama and something that would have made The Giver worth remembering.
The Verdict: 1 out of 5
The Giver fails not because it is categorically bad in many ways but because its larger failures of plot and characterization undercut the elements of the story which should be defining. The essence of the story is familiar, so what’s key are the particularities of the journey. The Giver needed to nail its world development and central narrative feature – the transference of memories. It doesn’t and what we’re left with is a film that seems like a bad imitation of others in its genre. The book The Giver may have inspired many of the series it now imitates, but the movie is just noise in a crowded genre.