'The Giver' Dumbs Down The Beloved Young Adult Novel Into A Dystopian Dud
Long stuck in development hell like most films based on literary material difficult to adapt, The Giver finally reaches theaters in the doldrums of August and late to the scene of the dystopian YA novel film adaptations (The Hunger Games, Divergent) it inspired. Lois Lowry's Newberry Award-winning novel never seemed like an easy task for any filmmaker to tackle, with most of its prose focused on the interior world of its tween protagonist Jonas and its exterior world rendered in black and white and flushed of any personality.
Director Phillip Noyce (Patriot Games, Clear And Present Danger, Salt) steps up to the task and, for at least the first two-thirds of the The Giver does an admirable job of remaining dutifully faithful to the novel without mishandling the material. Jonas (Australian newcomer Brenton Thwaites, who looks like another Disney Channel cyborg), now a teenager for the film version, learns he's been chosen to be the new Receiver of Memory in his unnamed utopian community's—a task where he is burdened as the sole keeper of human history, emotions, and memories, all of which have been wiped away. He receives them telepathically from the titular elder (Jeff Bridges, who also produces) who serves as the community's sage. The Giver does double-duty as both George Orwell For Kids and a coming-of-age story as Jonas learns to cope with his burgeoning intellect, emotions, and romantic desire alongside developmentally-stunted friends and family (his parents played by Alexander Skarsgård and escaped-Scientologist Katie Holmes, ironically finding her way back into a cult-like role for the film).
For as long as The Giver stays true to its source material, the film never feels like a triumph but at least stays eminently passable. Although the globe- and culture-trotting montages it uses to depict the relay of memories between Jonas and The Giver feel like bombastically silly Cisco commercials, the film uses a clever Wizard Of Oz-like effect as Jonas learns to perceive color. And the art design of what should otherwise be a mundane society is attractively sleek and modernist.
But of course this is Hollywood, and stories with somewhat ambiguous, dangling endings like the one in the book are forbidden. The Giver, previously bland yet agreeable, loses its way with the creation of a race-against-the-clock action and adventure finale that pits Jonas against the menace of the community elder's power (Meryl Streep, reviving the Margaret Thatcher role that won her an Oscar) and the presence of drones, shoehorned into the film as a cheap nod to contemporary relevancy. The Giver came out of the gate as an uninspired and limp work held afloat by the intelligence of its source material, but the blatant attempt to dumb it down unfortunately succeeds in the end.
The Giver is now playing at theaters everywhere.