Books are being turned into films left and right. There isn’t one young adult novel that doesn’t have a movie deal, or so it seems. At this point, it feels like every YA novel-turned-film is the same, the main character lives in a future dystopian society, yada, yada, yada. Yeah, we’ve all heard it before. This year, we got Divergent and now author Lois Lowry’s beloved The Giver, which was originally published in 1993 and was the YA dystopian book before dystopian books were ever popular.

Is it a true adaptation? Absolutely not, which is a sad indeed given the fact that it’s one of my personal favorites and a project that actor Jeff Bridges has been working on getting to the screen for ten years. The Giver is underwhelming, the acting wooden, and lacks any of the world and character-building that the book excels at. The film adaptation for the best-selling novel only proves that there are some things better left to the reader’s imagination.
Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) is graduating. And like every graduate, he’s nervous about the future that awaits him and the life he is to now lead. But unlike regular teenagers, Jonas lives in a society of Sameness. This society can’t see in color, wear the same clothes, don’t have last names, take injections every morning in order to prevent them from feeling emotion, and loud speakers all over the community giving them orders, etc. If you disobey any of the community’s rules, the Elders order for your Release to Elsewhere, an unknown place that is seen as good.
Family units are chosen for you, so is your occupation, because if you have the freedom to choose, you’ll surely “choose wrong”. Jonas is chosen by the Chief Elder of the community (Meryl Streep) to be the next Receiver of Memory. What does that mean? Well, the community has isolated themselves and forgotten everything about feeling and of the past, the happy and the sad events that dictated humanity. The only person who is the keeper of these memories is The Giver (Jeff Bridges), and it is now his job to transmit these memories to Jonas so that he can advise the community on matters they struggle with or when they are uncertain of what to do and need the past to guide them.
Jonas revels in the new memories he’s given. He begins seeing in color and feeling more emotion, trying to share these things with his friends Fiona (Odeya Rush), Asher (Cameron Monaghan) and his family (Alexander Skarsgård, Katie Holmes, and Emma Tremblay). But as Jonas becomes more aware of his society and the reasons behind what they do, he ceases to see things the way everyone else does and takes action.
Before getting into the nitty gritty of why this film doesn’t compare to the book and is only subpar, you’ll have read the summary of the movie and thought, “hey, this sounds a lot like Divergent!” And yes, it does, doesn’t it? Well, before we had books like Divergent (of which author Veronica Roth cites The Giver as inspiration), The Hunger Games, and a plethora of other novels like them, know that Lois Lowry’s book came first. Although, most people will unfortunately only look at The Giver as the copycat and not the other way around, since those who will only see the film won’t know which came first.
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk about The Giver as a film. Although one can’t obviously help comparing it to its source material, movies are a completely different art form, so it will be judged as so. And the judgment is this: whether you’re a fan of the book or not, you will not find a lot of enjoyment out of this film. The characters are not properly fleshed out, most things from the book make it into the movie, but it all unfolds a little bit too systematically, and most disappointing of all is that the world in which the characters live is not given enough attention for us to fully absorb what the characters have truly lost by creating this world, and so there’s no real impact by the time the final scene comes around.
The acting is subpar at most. Jeff Bridges is good as The Giver and just what a lot of people have imagined his character to be, so there’s no issue there. Meryl Streep, usually so enticing to watch, is far too bland and doesn’t have much to do except lightly threatening people and staring them down briefly. It’s understandable she wouldn’t have much to do as she’s not a large part of the book as she is in the movie, but hey, I suppose they needed some kind of villain type, but her character falls flat because what the filmmakers fail to realize is that the society itself is villain enough.
Alexander Skarsgård is heavily underused in a role that has much more impact in the book. Katie Holmes is forgettable, Odeya Rush plays Jonas’s friend and love interest which fails at sparking spectacularly. Most disappointing is Brenton Thwaites as Jonas, whose performance could have so much more layered and insightful to what Jonas is feeling as he moves from one new experience to another. Unfortunately, Thwaites’s portrayal is a little too wooden and stiff to garner any accolades or care from the audience.
One of the worst aspects of the film is the age change, which usually wouldn’t be a big deal if it’d only been a couple of years. Jonas is 12 in the book, but 18 in the movie. This is such a large age difference that it changes the entire perspective of the character. Our experiences and outlook on life is much different than it is at 18. For one, the filmmakers do it in order to give Jonas more of a love interest role with Fiona. Fiona is a fleeting character at best in the book and doesn’t garner as much attention as the film gives her, which is a lot, and this takes away more time that could have been spent on a more important character like Jonas’s father.
The Giver isn’t really satisfying on any level. The defects of Lowry’s fictional society seem to bleed over into the film adaptation. It lacks any kind of spirit or strength of storytelling to make an impact. Audiences are meant to leave the theater caring about what happens to Jonas, The Giver, and the society they try to give back to, but there’s none of that to be felt. The film is too systematic and doesn’t try to fill its world with anything more than what we’re given, and so it feels dry and as colorless as the world Jonas used to see. Ultimately, the words of a well-written book are better left, and far more powerful, living inside the pages on which they were written.
Release Date: August 15, 2014 | Director: Phillip Noyce | Screenwriters: Michael Mitnick, Robert B. Weide | Cast: Jeff Bridges, Brenton Thwaites, Odeya Rush, Meryl Streep, Alexander Skarsgård, Katie Holmes, Emma Tremblay, Cameron Monaghan | Genre: Drama | MPAA Rating: PG-13 for mature thematic images and some sci-fi/violence

About Author

Mae is a Washington, DC-based film critic, entertainment journalist and Weekend Editor at Heroic Hollywood. A member of the Washington, DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), she's a geek who loves discussing movies and TV. She is also a voting member of the Black Reel Awards. If she's not at the movies, she's catching up on her superhero TV-watching, usually with a glass of wine in hand.

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