Chances are, if you were in middle school any time after the mid-’90s, you were exposed to Cambridge-based author Lois Lowry’s 1993 Newbery Medal-winning young-adult novel, The Giver.
Myself, I was one of a bunch of phonies who came of age in the early ’80s, so my forced literary diet consisted of Rye, Salinger-style. As such, my first exposure to Lowry’s colorless Community of perfectly content drones who fear nothing—not war, not pain and especially not pleasure—came in this comeback effort from Aussie director Phillip Noyce. He’s mostly languished in TV jobs in recent years, but the 64-year-old journeyman has had success with literary adaptations before, from 2002’s one-two punch of Rabbit-Proof Fence and The Quiet American to a couple of crackling Jack Ryan thrillers starring Harrison Ford, released back when Lowry’s book first began earning its reputation as a modern classic.
Few will accuse Noyce’s adaptation of achieving such status here. But it’s another 64-year-old, Oscar-winning actor Jeff Bridges, who’s spent a total of 18 years trying to bring Lowry’s beloved book to the big screen. Bridges optioned the rights with an eye toward making his directorial debut, with his father, Lloyd, in the role of the Giver, a bearded old man who “holds the memories of the true pain and pleasure of life,” as Lowry described his singular abilities. Alas, the Sea Hunt star died in 1998, and the film adaptation languished for another 16 years.
That is, until young-adult novels, led by the success of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight in 2005, became a powerhouse publishing phenomenon. Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games followed in 2008, with Veronica Roth’s Divergent thrilling readers in 2011. And unless you’ve only been watching movies based on comic books (which is easy to do), you’re likely aware that young-adult fiction has moved beyond bookshelves, finding greater success in cinemas.
The lucrative adaptations of these books (and their sequels) convinced the Weinstein Company to open their pockets and fund Bridges’ dream project, only he ceded directing, taking on the role of the Giver himself. Doubling as producer, he lined up three-time Oscar winner Meryl Streep to play the Chief Elder, and the rest of the pieces fell into place.
It’s a shame that few of those pieces came from Lowry’s novel. Watching Noyce’s obviously budget-rate film (the Weinsteins’ pockets aren’t so deep anymore), I was puzzled about how this story captivated a generation of schoolchildren. The Newbery Medal isn’t given to just anything (and certainly not to the Twilights, the Hunger Games or the Divergents), so I dove into the book before penning this review. And you know what? It’s wonderful. A real page-turner. Essentially a two-character chamber piece, the second half of the slim 179-page volume focuses mainly on the interactions between the Giver and Jonas, a 12-year-old boy who has been carefully selected as his Community’s rare “Receiver of Memory,” an important designation that requires intelligence, integrity, courage, wisdom…and the ability to endure pain. That, and the Capacity to See Beyond.
Here, Noyce evokes Seeing Beyond by gradually adding bits of color to a movie that begins in black and white. If you’ve seen Gary Ross’ 1998 film, Pleasantville, you’ll know what to expect here, and perhaps wonder whether that film owes a debt to Lowry’s tome.
Certainly, the 25-year-old Roth has made no secret of the fact that Divergent wouldn’t exist if she hadn’t been exposed to The Giver. But all of the recent adaptations of young-adult novels influenced by Lowry’s text only serve to make Bridges’ long-gestating passion project feel like an also-ran. Audiences for these films skew toward the older teens and 20s, which probably explains the decision to advance Jonas’ age to 16. (He’s blandly played by 25-year-old Australian hunk Brenton Thwaites of Maleficent.) Also older are his friends Asher (20-year-old Cameron Monaghan) and Fiona (17-year-old Odeya Rush), whose roles have been expanded so that Fiona serves as Jonas’ love interest, while Asher is now a romantic rival.
Likewise, Streep’s Chief Elder has been blown up to villainous proportions, borrowing from—of all things—Kate Winslet’s character in the filmed version of Divergent. And Asher’s chosen role in the Community has gone from Assistant Director of Recreation on the page to Drone Pilot in the film, the better to add an action scene: After Jonas socks him in the face, Asher hunts his pal from the air. I don’t remember those scenes from the book, either.
And while the novel certainly has Jonas awakening to a world of love, he’s not in love. But here he sneaks away to kiss Fiona, who, because of this transgression, even gets threatened with being “released” (the Community’s ritualistic form of population control through euthanasia). It’s another newly added scene of unnecessary third-act conflict.
Bridges, however, clearly understands one of the things that probably drew him to the book: his solemn role as the Giver. It’s one of the few elements worth praising in the picture. Another thing that remains the same? The Chief Elder’s words to Community members as their adult roles are announced during a public ceremony: “Thank you for your childhood.”
Just don’t go into this film expecting to receive the same Giver you got in your childhood.
The Giver *1/2
Starring Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep, Brenton Thwaites, Alexander Skarsgard, Katie Holmes, Odeya Rush, Cameron Monaghan, Emma Tremblay and Taylor Swift. Written by Michael Mitnick and Robert B. Weide, based on the book by Lois Lowry. Directed by Phillip Noyce. At Boston Common, Fenway, Assembly Row and in the suburbs.