Here’s the deal: if you’re an extreme purist who will cry foul at the changes that were made to adapt Lois Lowry’s book, it’s probably best if you skip the film adaptation of The Giver, which is in theaters tomorrow. But if you’re willing to keep an open mind, this is a solidly entertaining film, and one that made some bold, and dare I say it, smart choices in translating story to screen.
The book is about a boy living in a dystopian society in which vocations are assigned, feelings are carefully controlled, and no one questions authority. Lowry’s middle grade novel is short but powerful, with a style that is impressively spare and unusually somber for this age group. The film made a number of significant changes, which may seem alarming if you haven’t seen the film yet, but for the most part I think they worked very well.
A few of the changes:(Possible minor spoilers if you haven’t read the book yet.)
- Jonas is eleven in the book, but he’s a young adult in the film. Aging the characters up works for a number of reasons: he’s a very mature, and later on takes on a huge responsibility that frankly stretches credulity even when you read about it in the book. He reasons calmly, uncovers a painful history in his Community, questions authority, and then he takes action even though he knows it is dangerous and will change his future forever. Seeing this done by a teenager is much more believable than seeing it done by a younger actor, no matter how gifted, even if you’re just thinking of logistics. View Spoiler » Come on, an 11-year-old walking off with a baby is a little goofy. Plus kids have way shorter arms than teenagers, so it’s harder to hold that baby. « Hide Spoiler Another important issue is that in this society, feelings and desires are repressed through mandatory drugs, and procreation is regulated–Jonas feels “stirrings” for Fiona in the book and has a dream about her, but it would be extremely difficult to portray sexual awakening with an eleven-year-old onscreen in a way that didn’t feel squicky. I don’t think changing Jonas’ age worked against the story in any way, and I actually think it improved upon it for a visual medium.
- The romance is built up between Jonas and Fiona, but it doesn’t overtake the plot. The script took its time with showing us their friendship and history, and the romance added sweetness and urgency to the story, particularly towards the end. There’s also a moment created for this film that’s really well done–Jonas tries to share the sensation of sledding with her, and the idea is filled with such joy and exhilaration that it isn’t any wonder that she’s later open to hearing what he has to say.
- The story’s also tweaked and modernized, which works for the most part. Asher now has a different calling, which conveniently adds a personal nature to conflict; there’s a real effort made to create dynamic action and movement; pills have turned into injections, which are a nice metaphor for the invasive nature of the drug; and best of all, Jonas’ relationships with the Giver, with his sister, with his friends, and with Gabriel have more warmth and poignancy than they do in the book. With the great Meryl Streep in your film, you’ve also got to make use of her time, and having an antagonist helped to drive the narrative.
- There were two changes that could have been handled better, however: the truth of Rosemary’s identity is related at an inopportune time so it felt much too rushed (I reread the book the night before I saw the film, and that moment when you find out who she really is still gets to me), and Jonas’ father is not as nurturing as he is in the book. I think the latter is a regrettable (if maybe understandable) thing to lose, as then you lost the contrast with Jonas’ utter shock and horror once he realized his father was not what he seemed. That’s a pivotal moment in any kid’s life, and it had a huge impact in the book.
- There are also scenes at the end which felt a little tacked on. I was on board with most of it (hey, you’ve got to add some action) even though it eventually got a little messy, but I am SERIOUSLY annoyed by one scene–you’ll know it as soon as you see it. View Spoiler » If you’re going to send a baby over a waterfall, could you at least let him stay in his sealed carrier? He probably still wouldn’t have made it, but this way you could try to pretend there was some logic to this. « Hide Spoiler Such an easy way to fix it, too.
However, the performances were very strong. Meryl Streep’s and Jeff Bridges’ and Odeya Rush’s roles were expanded from the book in a meaningful way, and the actors inhabited their roles comfortably. You could see the pain of the weight of knowledge in Jeff Bridges’ face, and I cannot say enough about how Brenton Thwaites is perfectly cast for Jonas’ role. His openness and sincerity was perfect for this character, and those tricky memory transfer scenes were infused with a sense of wonder, while they could have felt very forced.
Other notes: the directing was serviceable, but occasionally ham-handed (fast slow-mo, GO AWAY); the music was lovely; I liked the Twilight Zone-esque palette and feel of the Community, as well as the sets and skillful lighting (so important in black and white); and the script was quite good, particularly in the ways it expanded the story and in showing us character. However, Jonas’ voice over narration, while an understandable choice for a story with a great many details to explain, is a bit of an info-dump in the beginning. Before we’ve had a chance to even explore this world, we’re told everything about it, and the narration answers questions we haven’t even asked yet. Does this move the story along pacing-wise? Sure, and it’s a stylistic choice that was certainly successful in conveying information. But there is a loss of discovery and subtlety with that choice, and I think a few tweaks along with less gimmicky directing/editing could have made this film adhere a little more closely to the muted, compelling feeling invoked by the book.
Still, in some ways the film really took the time to deepen certain aspects of the book, and this was clearly a project made with a lot of thought and passion. At the screening event that I was invited to, the red carpet interviews and premiere introductions were live-streamed for audiences across the country, and the featurettes were surprisingly interesting. I loved Meryl Streep (of course) and Lois Lowry, who said she was inspired to write this story because her father was ill and beginning to forget who everyone was. She said that while that part of it was sad, she also saw a certain peace in him because of that, and started to wonder what it would be like if you could choose to forget. (Here she is discussing her feelings about the adaptation.) I was also moved when Jeff Bridges broke down when he talked about how difficult it was for him to be there, because he had just heard about his friend Robin Williams’ passing. He said that Robin would’ve been the first person who would want the party to go on, though, a sentiment that was echoed by Harvey Weinstein, who introduced the film.
I have to take a side note here and say that Taylor Swift was STUNNING on the red carpet in her beautiful dress and heels. After hearing her thoughtful answers to the themes in both the book and the film, I really wish we had seen more of her in the movie, too. It should be interesting to see if she pursues other acting jobs in the future, although what she’s helped do for The Giver is already a pretty big deal.
While I rather wish the film had attempted to stay a little truer to the tone of the book, I do agree with Lois Lowry’s statement that it stays true to its spirit. It doesn’t take the easy way out with the majority of the plot, and in many ways it expanded upon the themes and ideals present in the original story. The Giver came out in 1994, and Jeff Bridges first approached Lois Lowry about the possibility of a movie in 1996. It took 18 years to bring this project to the screen, and I have no doubt that the changes the filmmakers made to the story helped to make that possible. And as always, wouldn’t it be great if more kids and adults felt compelled to read the book because of the film?
Have you read the book, or are you planning on seeing the movie? It’s a pretty solid film, and if you’re curious, I’d certainly recommend it. Mr. Darling the YA Guinea Pig liked it a lot, and found that it was easy to follow and fun to watch.
My thanks to Walden Media and The Weinstein Company for the opportunity to see the film! Photographs are courtesy of the studio and The American Library Association.