The recent spate of films adapted from young adult dystopian fiction created the economic conditions necessary for a movie based on Lois Lowry’s beloved 1993 book The Giver. That book, with its special teen receiving wisdom about the oppression underpinning the pristine homogonous future world in which he lives, laid the groundwork for future YA tentpoles like The Hunger Games and Divergent. But as is often the case, tracing the fad back to the source reveals a starker, stranger, and more ambivalent and ambiguous work than its imitators. And so, superficial similarities to those recent YA films aside, this film has more in common with small scale 70’s sci-fi or an extended Twilight Zone episode with its earnestly metaphorical nature and careful tone.
In this future, the entire known world is only a town full of modular buildings and imagineered flora. The people, dressed in the same drab pajama-like clothes, never leave because they have no reason to. They have no concept of geography or history or memory. They don’t perceive emotion and can’t see color. Their daily injections keep them anesthetized and compliant. Ignorance really is bliss. Even the leader (a frosty Meryl Streep) blindly follows their institutional memories of How Things Are Done. The rules allow one person access to memories of life before, understandings of human nature – love, hate, peace, war – and creation – art, music, philosophy – for which the general public simply has no need. Living alone on the edge of town in a small book-lined house, he (Jeff Bridges, looking like he’s carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders) is only called upon when the leader needs advice.
It’s a clearly metaphorical place, a cautionary tale about smoothing over humanity’s rough patches in the pursuit of a blind form of conflict-free sameness. It’s not Orwellian as much as it is right out of Huxley, who feared in his novel Brave New World that the future would find knowledge devalued and the populace passive through nothing more than a regular dose of happy ignorance. No one would question the system because no one would think to. You don’t need thought police once the people have forgotten how to have thoughts. Putting The Giver’s world on screen, director Phillip Noyce, finding a balance between his character-driven dramas like The Quiet American and rip-roaring actioners like Salt, shoots in black and white, representing the cognitive state of the people. It’s a grey world, seductively crisp and eerily blank.
When 18-year-old Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) is handpicked to be the new Receiver of Memory, he begins to get access to the history of human thought and experience. It’s dangerous. The former Receiver (Taylor Swift) mysteriously disappeared rather than keep receiving enlightenment. Bridges warns the boy about the dangers, and then grabs his forearms and beams psychic transmissions into his protégé’s brain. Rushes of knowledge are represented by colorful blasts of high-def nature photography, pixilated home video snippets, and grainy archival footage. As his understanding grows, Jonas sees color slowly seep into the frame. He stares at his best friend (Odeya Rush). Her hair is a soft red in an otherwise black and white frame (a la Pleasantville). Soon pale green grass and soft blue sky appear in the film’s imagery. Then, eventually, the film is in full color. It’s a nice visual representation of one of the book’s most interior concepts.
Jonas goes off his meds and discovers stirrings of romantic interest that set him apart even further. His parents (Katie Holmes and Alexander Skarsgård) look at him confused and worried. He’s moved beyond their unknowingly small perceptions of life. It’s a clever metaphor not only for oppression, but for growing up, moving out, and becoming your own person distinct and yet still a part of your family unit. Eventually, Jonas must decide what to do with all this newfound knowledge, and that’s where the movie begins to dumb itself down to get into the category the marketplace needs it to fit.
Screenwriters Michael Mitnick and Robert B. Weide ramp up some of the movie’s more contemporary YA adjacent ideas, creating a pro forma romantic triangle that’s admirably restrained given the characters’ flat affects, but distracting nonetheless. Then the climax gussies the small, allegorical plot up with a few chase scenes and a nonsense race-against-the-clock climactic save-the-future goal that runs counter to the material’s tantalizingly philosophical ambiguities. I could feel the movie straining against its commercial impulses as it tries to find a happy ending in what is a muted and ambiguous vision. It ends up feeling cheaper and more familiar than the intriguing opening suggests. But it retains enough of a glimmer of its source material’s introspective personality and distinctive mood to wish it was willing to be less derivative, instead of chasing the past success of the book’s successors.