It is odd that the novel that essentially started the dystopian young adult genre has had to ride on the success of its creations in order for it to come to fruition. But, almost 20 years after its publication, The Giver has finally made its way to the big screen, and since it is so late to the film party, it attempts to distance itself from its offspring.
In my 16 years or so of education, I regrettably have to say that I was never assigned to read The Giver like so many others. Basically, The Giver is about a dystopic utopia, a world that appears to be perfect and wonderful, but is actually a world that has repressed everything. After “The Ruin,” all emotions, feelings, desires, and most vocabulary were taken away and suppressed by medication and strong authority. Everyone receives their assigned career, there are no couples, love is non-existant, twins are killed as babies, and people go about their lives in sedated pleasure not knowing there is such a thing as death. After being selected to be the Receiver of Memories, our hero, Jonas, starts his career with The Giver in learning about what happened in “the before,” and soon he realizes that everything is all a lie.
If any of that sounds familiar to you, it probably is because most young adult novels have stolen from the ideas given in this novel (though The Giver is hardly original itself). From The Hunger Games, to Divergent, to I Am Number Four, and everything in between, the YA genre can thank The Giver for a list of ideas to copy from. While it does contain some noticeably cheesy aspects, it separates itself with its performances, set design, and cinematography.
One might be surprised to know that Jeff Bridges has been trying to make this movie for quite some time now. One might also be surprised to find out that he and a ragtag group of people filmed their own version of it some time ago, but now he has the title role and he steals the scene from start to finish. He is a grizzled old man who knows of all the memories before everything changed, and he must pass them down to Jonas but with that comes the price of knowing of pain, loss, and misery. It is a heartbreaking role as we come to learn more about his backstory, and Bridges delivers on all fronts.
The cast also has a mixture of new and familiar faces. Other than Bridges, Meryl Streep, Katie Holmes, Taylor Swift, and Alexander Skarsgard round out the experienced actors. While Holmes and Skarsgard appear more and have more to offer, Streep and Swift feel a bit unnecessary and only appear to be used as star power to draw in more audiences. Swift’s character, who hardly appears for more than 10 minutes total, could have been portrayed by someone else. Streep’s character, the leader of the nation, who apparently is not a huge role in the book but is amped up in the film to give her more lines so as to make it justifiable to hire Streep. I am not saying their performances are bad, they just are unnecessary for the small characters they play being such big stars. Holmes plays Jonas’ mother; a strict and law-abiding citizen. She is always the first to correct any sort of unapproved vocabulary or behavior, and by the end she has gotten under your skin. It is a bitter and hateful role, and she excels in making us despise her. Skarsgard is good too as the oblivious doctor and father of Jonas who has no idea that he is actually killing babies. He is at times lovable and more caring than Holmes, but he also lives a lie. The new cast, featuring Brenton Thwaites, Odeya Rush, and Cameron Monaghan are all mainly good. Rush and Monaghan, who play Fiona and Asher, sometimes have more depth than Thwaites who is almost a paint-by-numbers young adult star. Asher, the comedian of the group, descends into a disciplined lifestyle and disapproves of anything that is not regulation, while Fiona watches as Jonas change before her eyes with the new knowledge he comes by.
The movie is also more visually striking than any other Young Adult adaptation. The set designs are immaculate. The designs of the homes, the outfits, the landscape, and even the bikes all have a sleek and futuristic design to them. Much like the Hunger Games, it has its own unique representation of what the future may look like, and hopefully the set-director gets some recognition come award season. In addition to the sets, the cinematography is at times bleak but then it transforms and shows us the beauty. Containing both black and white and color, the movie transforms before your eyes from monochromatic gloominess to beautifully shot, eye-popping footage as Jonas sees the memories of a beautiful time.
In the end, The Giver–aside from its momentary cheesiness and other short comings of the Young Adult genre– is one of the better adaptations. The acting is exceptional in most places and the set design and cinematography make it the most visually appealing one too. Yet, though it has the book to blame for it, we have become so inundated with all of the other films that most of the themes and ideas do not seem original or new. But do not let this keep you from seeing it if you are a fan of the book, it is still a solid film.