Jeff Bridges spent eighteen years trying to adapt The Giver for the big screen. I wish he had succeeded earlier. One thing that became achingly apparent while watching the film is that it would have been far subtler and far more affecting ten or fifteen years ago. Lois Lowry published her Newbury Award-winning novel in 1993, and in the two decades since the literary and filmmaking worlds have pumped out young adult dystopian narratives ad nauseam. That dirge of YA adaptations has washed the cinematic palette of anything fresh and new.
Director Philip Noyce and Bridges (who produces and stars in the title role) have taken a children’s novel and spit-shined it into a young adult adventure. Here protagonist Jonas is supposed to be 16 instead of 12, and is played by hunky 24-year-old Brenton Thwaites. Thwaites is not a bad actor, and his performance is committed if perhaps as stiff as everyone else’s. The problem is that he is a bad Jonas. And the film behind him quickly becomes its own worst enemy.
It would have been great to see a subtler version of this film, a translation as quiet as the source. Alas, such a film will never see the light of day. Nearly every single shot in The Giver is gorgeous, but all that beauty glows with a loud, heavy-handed sheen. Citizens live in a painless, symmetrical Community that would make Walt Disney shiver. They know nothing of the world before “the Ruin” and receive injections from glistening wall-mounted pads (in lieu of the book’s pills) to repress “the stirrings.” Those stirrings, which were once so slightly implied on the printed page, are now blatantly romantic on the silver screen. Michael Mitnick and Robert B. Weide’s script is not only unsurprising and clichéd; it’s also stunningly condescending.
Not a single logical connection is left for the viewer to reason out. Title cards at the beginning introduce the setting, and the Community’s rules appear in onscreen text over the frame for the first few minutes. The writers also tie up their ending so neatly it robs the film of that enigmatic charm so essential to Lowry’s book. The Giver thrived in its simplicity and its vagueness, and the chilling ambiguous silence left at the book’s close. Noyce’s film is all flying drones and single-beat characters, signifying nothing. That isn’t to say that the book had stunning depth and dynamics, but it thrived on its minimalism. The film gets so tied up in its watered-down, glitzy depiction of the dystopian Community that it barely provides its cast room to breathe.
Bridges’ Giver pontificates about the old ways in a mumbling voice so distracting you’re practically begging him to stop moping and clear his throat. Meryl Streep is so egregiously one-note that she becomes a walking idea instead of a character. The same can be said for the supporting players, featuring Odeya Rush as a gratingly shoehorned-in love interest and Katie Holmes as a frowning justice system worker whose only line of dialogue very well may be “Precision of language.” The stifled cast plays their respective beats with conviction, but the script they’re acting from is damnably wooden.
Although it was not the first literary work to speculate on the extremes of social order, The Giver did prove the viability such stories could have with an especially young audience. It troubles me deeply to know that Lois Lowry gave her blessing to the filmmakers’ entourage of cosmetic updates. Hearing such a thing makes me question whether or not the author really cares about this work anymore. The film adds sound and fury where none existed and none was needed. Frequent horror film composer Marco Beltrami turns in a decent effort, but his score, like so much else throughout the film, is overbearing and out of place.
Noyce partially includes Lowry’s detail of the Community citizens’ literally black and white vision. But he allows cinematographer Ross Emery to throw the colors seen in the Giver’s memories across the remaining half of the film in bleeding bursts. As Jonas starts to share his newfound knowledge with other characters, the film jumps between sympathetic palettes. When Streep’s Chief Elder takes the fore, to black and white we go. When rebellious spirits arise, we return to living color. Adding to the ridiculousness is Noyce’s bizarre insistence on stock footage in his memory montages, some of which is very evidently ripped from internet videos. A great deal of talent went into making this film, and nearly all of it is misplaced and wasted.
When the screen cut to black and a song from OneRepublic began to play over the credits, I slammed my armrest in frustration. I began to envy the Community. If only we had our own Receiver of Memory, so that one day we could forget the time when compelling cinematic storytelling fell prey to didactic, overcrowded drivel.
Movie Verdict: Fail
This article was published in its original form in The Massachusetts Daily Collegian on September 3, 2014.