Releasing a film adaptation of The Giver in 2014 was always going to be tricky.
Why? Because Lois Lowry’s kid-lit classic, first published in 1993, helped to invent the tropes of dystopian young adult fiction. (Even though, as its Newbery Medal would attest, it’s actually meant for middle-grade readers; yes, young adult and middle-grade are different.) The Hunger Games, Divergent, Delirium, Matched, The Maze Runner — they’re all indebted to Lowry, even if each of those later books is less lyrical and more literal than Lowry’s original.
But now that there’s a glut of dystopian YA fiction — both on bookshelves and at multiplexes — a film version of The Giver runs the risk of seeming both generic and derivative… even though its story was written long before Katniss was even a twinkle in Suzanne Collins’s eye. Thankfully, a faithful adaptation of Lowry’s story would help to curb those accusations, since the book is really pretty different from the works it inspired: The Giver has no real action sequences. Its main character is a thoughtful 12-year-old boy, not a brooding, badass teenage warrior. The entire narrative takes place in fewer than 200 pages — a far cry from the increasingly bloated tomes being churned out by present-day YA authors.
The Weinstein Company’s new Giver movie is… not that faithful adaptation. How do we know? Because of the film’s first trailer:
We open with the soothing, familiar voice of Meryl Streep setting the stage for what we’re about to see: “From great suffering, great pain, came a solution: Communities where disorder became harmony.” As she speaks, we see a figure in a desert, watching as something (a settlement?) burns in the distance. Is this one of the memories that Jonas (Brenton Thwaite), our story’s hero, receives from his mentor, the titular Giver (Jeff Bridges?)
It’s unclear, but the next few shots definitely are: Here’s Jonas remembering what looks like the Vietnam War.
Jonas learning about war is one of the book’s most traumatic scenes: “The boy sighed. His head fell back, his lower jaw dropping as if he had been surprised by something. A dull blankness slid slowly across his eyes. He was silent. But the noise continued all around: the cries of the wounded men, the cries begging for water and for Mother and for death.” Still gives me chills.
As Meryl — who’s technically playing the Community’s Chief Elder, though we all really know she’s just playing Meryl Streep — transitions into describing the future’s “utopian” civilizations, we see a few shots of bucolic peace. Look how fun it is when you don’t have those pesky feelings!
And here’s where we hit our first real snafu. In the book, much is made of Jonas’s “capacity to see beyond;” he’s one of the few people in his community who’s able to detect color. It’s not that his world is actually black and white; it’s just that all the Normals are colorblind. They don’t even know what colors are. Jonas’s ability to see in color gets stronger as he learns more and more about how the world used to be, before the Sameness (yes, it’s capitalized) was imposed. Knowing this, it’s disappointing to see that The Giver‘s film team has elected to make the entire movie in color instead of illustrating Jonas’s ability by gradually transitioning from black and white to color, Pleasantville-style.
And here’s the boy of the hour. Er, make that man — Brenton Thwaites seems to be playing 16 or so, but in real life, he’s 24. Also, in the book, the “capacity to see beyond” correlates with having pale (actually blue) eyes; evidently, they opted not to go for color contacts. (Shades of Harry Potter?)
This is Jonas’s family — his unnamed mother (Katie Holmes), his unnamed father (Alexander Skarsgard), and his little sister Lily (Emma Tremblay). None of them are biologically related, if the film follows the book’s lead — in this universe, people apply to get a spouse and are matched by the Committee of Elders. They apply to receive children as well; babies are born of birthmothers whose entire job is to procreate. (We follow one of those birthmothers in Lowry’s only direct sequel to The Giver, 2012’s Son.) Also: 35-year-old Holmes and 37-year-old Skarsgard are just 11 and 13 years older than their onscreen son IRL. Hollywood!
“The way things look and the way things are, are very different,” the Giver tells Jonas as we get our first glimpse at the stately back of his head. (Not a line from the book, by the way.)
Here we meet Jonas’s pal Fiona, who in the book has a special affinity for the community’s elder population. She’s dressed pretty fashionably, considering how everyone in the book wears matching smocks. He’s also got another best friend named Asher, played in the film by Cameron Monaghan; evidently Asher didn’t make it into the trailer.
In Lowry’s world, when kids hit puberty, they start taking a daily pill to suppress their “stirrings.” (What those “stirrings” are is never explicitly explained, which makes those parts very confusing if you read the book in fourth grade.) In the movie, pills have been swapped for “daily injections,” because needles are scarier.
Here we arrive at the meat of the story: The Giver passing down memories to Jonas. In what appears to be the Cloud City of Bespin.
Hang on, kid — it’s time to start learning about all the cool stuff you’ve been missing out on…
Snow! (In the book, Jonas’s first memory is of riding a simple sled down a simple hill; you’ve gotta go bigger in the movie, I guess.)
Taylor Swift! JK — Swift is an actual character in the film. Her name is Rosemary, and she was chosen to be the Receiver of Memory before Jonas was. Things… didn’t turn out well. (At least her eyes are blue.)
And, of course, smoochin’. Which will probably happen more here than it did in Lowry’s story (zero times).
“There’s something missing from our lives. Something that has been stolen,” says Fiona, sitting in some kind of interrogation room. Wait, wha? This is totally new territory; Book Fiona is not a rebel. In fact, as the Giver points out, she’s “very efficient at her work” — which would be caring for the old, then eventually Releasing them. (The Giver teaches many things, chief among them what “euphemism” means.)
Katie Holmes senses a disturbance in the Force.
So does Jeff Bridges, who spent nearly 20 years trying to get this damn movie made. Originally, he wanted Lloyd Bridges to play The Giver.
So does Meryl, appearing onscreen for the first time. Is she the only Elder who’s actually… Elder? “When people have the freedom to choose, they choose wrong,” she says. How very Miranda Priestly of her. (Also not a line from the book.)
Everyone in the novel rides bicycles. In the movie, they’re SUPER SWEET FUTURE CYCLES. Did we learn nothing from Abduction, people?
So Jonas escapes from the Community — on foot now; that’s why getaway vehicles that don’t require gas are more efficient — clutching Gabriel, a fussy baby who had been scheduled for Release. This happens in the book.
This… does not.
So long, childhood.