Let me preface this review by saying that the whole, “the book is not as good as the movie” argument is not only obvious to every director, screenwriter, and producer in the business, but it is also terribly played out. I prefer to judge a movie based on its stand-alone artistic merit, and not as an adaptation from a book. Because you’re not going to the theatre, renting from RedBox or Netflix, or flipping on the tube to read a book. That’s what books are for. Thank you.
After discovering some seemingly unethical surveillance programs being run by the National Security Agency, government contractor Edward Snowden released this information to the public then sought asylum in Russia, where he remains to this day. In Phillip Noyce’s The Giver, we see a similar situation: a solitary figure must remove himself from a blinded society in order to reveal the truth about what goes on behind its everyday experience.
I’ll admit, I never pegged the classic Lois Lowry novel as a science fiction piece. The story takes place in a distopian future where, through some medical and technological breakthrough, all human emotion is not only restrained but also contained like data within one sole source of memory, known as the Receiver (Jeff Bridges). The reason? What you would expect: people have grown tired of war, pain, loss, suffering, and every other negative human experience conceivable, and because they have developed the means to essentially institutionalize society, they decided to get rid of the bad and (perhaps unintentionally) the good in human experience. Using the memories of the past, the Receiver’s role is to provide counsel to the leaders of the Community in case there is an issue which transcends their black-and-white rules. Normally, this is something that is very controlled, but when Jonas (Brenton Thwaites), the next Receiver, is given access to these memories, society begins to unravel.
The biggest problem I had with this movie is that I felt as though I had seen it before. Then, I realized I had! Enter Pleasantville (1998), a story which follows a somewhat identical plot-line to The Giver: a literal black-and-white society in which there is no negativity (and hence no real optimism) is gradually turned on its head when keepers of memory begin tampering with the rules, revealing splashes of color which appear more vibrant (both on-screen and in the story) against the drab background than they would in full Technicolor. It’s actually crazy how closely the two stories follow one another (though, if you want to avoid a Toby McGuire-centered arch, better to go with The Giver).
Both stories are designed to inspire some kind of appreciation in the audience for the “little things” in life, even the bad ones, because that’s what makes life worth living, or something to that effect. Jonas sees red for the first time much the way the people of Pleasantville react to the slight changes in their environment. But where The Giver seems to pull ahead, however, is through the periodic bursts of contrast from the main story. Every so often, we are exposed to scenes from human history that transport us from the greyness of the Community to times which are much more interesting and “colorful.” You also see a much more gradient version of the color selection technology seen in Pleasantville which adds to the nuance of human emotion; rather than seeing only red, we as the audience are also exposed to slight red hues which subtly affect how we see everything else – even things that we don’t identify as red.
This film also comments somewhat on the need for predictability in our lives. The central narration is from Jonas’s point of view in past tense (if that should lend any clue as to the outcome). We get a very dude performance from Jeff Bridges as the Giver, a man who seems to walk to the beat of a different blunt instrument than the rest of us; we receive a similarly cold performance from The Iron Lady star Meryl Streep as the machine-like leader of the Community; Katie Holmes deadpans her delivery, rarely expressing more than slight concern; and we are given a special treat in the form of that iconic deer-in-the-headlights stare of Taylor Swift, that look of surprise that she never seems to tire of.
Overall, this film reminds us that terms like history, memory, and truth, are all very subjective and constructed ideas – explicitly so in The Giver, but perhaps less obvious in our own personal experiences. We remember things as we choose to remember them, and we take ownership of the story whenever we tell it. We can elect to remember only the good, only the bad, or even nothing at all (with enough injections, as the movie suggests). Or, we can decide to stop self-medicating and actually take a look at the world (for all its beauty, its terror, and its mystery) around us.