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Review: The Giver

August 18, 2014

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

The Giver Poster

It’s interesting that a story about memories evokes such clear ones within myself.  When I think about The Giver, Lois Lowry’s classic 1993 novel which has been a staple of young adult literature for about two decades now, I remember being 11 years old and getting up early on a Saturday morning in October, just so that I could finish reading the book.

I went outside where things were quiet and found myself completely captivated by the story, left fascinated with the implications of that perfect final chapter.  Reading The Giver again after all these years, the novel remains a haunting and beautifully written allegory of a seeming utopia that is quickly revealed to be shockingly dystopic.

My fond memories of reading the book are why I was trepidatious going into The Giver, the long gestating big screen adaptation that finally opened over the weekend, after twenty years of attempts to bring the story to the screen.  But that trepidation was washed away as I watched the film unfold, an adaptation that makes some changes from the source material, but also remains surprisingly faithful to the integrity and emotional weight of the novel.

Taking place in a world drained of memories and emotion where everyone is bound by the same rigid order, the story begins when Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) turns eighteen, the age when everyone in their community is assigned jobs by the Chief Elder (Meryl Streep).  Jonas is chosen as the new Receiver of Memory, being transferred memories from The Giver (Jeff Bridges), a mysterious elderly man who is haunted by these flashes of how things used to be before “Sameness” took over.

Through receiving these memories, Jonas starts to realize the coldness of his Mother (Katie Holmes) and Father (Alexander Skarsgård), as well as the naiveté of his sister Lilly (Emma Tremblay) and friends Asher (Cameron Monaghan) and Fiona (Odeya Rush).  New urges become him, like the desire for actual romance, as he starts to discover the feelings within himself that have long been blocked by their daily injections.  Although this world has successfully done away with hunger and war, they have also been stripped of colour and anything deeper than superficial feelings.

This is one of those times where it’s practically a requirement that audiences have read the book before seeing the movie, both to experience the story for the first time exactly as it was written by Lois Lowry, and also to come away with a larger understanding of this world.  The film gets off to a bit of a rushed start, distilling several chapters worth of exposition into a few minutes.  The choice to cast Taylor Swift in a brief but pivotal role is distracting and just seems like an excuse to put her name in the credits.

The story has also undergone some changes on its way to the screen.  The most obvious one is that the characters were twelve in the book, where as here they are eighteen.  The structure of the last act has also been changed, naturally showing us the action from the perspective of the supporting characters, and becoming more of a chase sequence on screen.  But for the most part these things feel more like natural updates than outright deviations, and they don’t take away from the overall messages of the story.

Director Phillip Noyce thankfully hasn’t sacrificed the themes that made The Giver so fascinating in the first place.  There are a lot of interesting ideas at play about how true compassion comes from our ability to understand and therefore empathize with the pain and suffering of others, and how this world has eliminated conflict at the expense of true emotion.  The look of the film is also commendable, with the cinematography switching from black and white, to orange tinted sepia and finally crisp colour images, representing the main character’s expanding knowledge of the world around him.

As a movie, The Giver really finds its footing when Jeff Bridges enters the picture, and his unwavering dedication to the source material is apparent throughout every scene of his quietly powerful and heartfelt performance.  His scenes are some of the best in the film, and the sequences where Jonas receives the memories are beautifully done.  Shown through montages of clips taken from YouTube videos and iconic footage of real conflict, these memorably evocative images stick with us as if we are also seeing them for the first time and produce genuine emotion.

Although a lot of people have been critical, I truly believe in a few years The Giver will be remembered as one of the more interesting studio pictures of 2014, a mainstream film that is stylistically unique and has something to say.  This is a film more thoughtful than the usual summer fare, introducing the powerful story to a new generation, while offering provocative ideas about society through an empathetic and even inspirational lens.  Put simply, The Giver is a great book that has become a good movie.

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