The Giver adaptation has the spirit of the novel
Review by Daniel Rester
Lois Lowry’s 1993 novel The Giver has relatively sustained its popularity throughout the years. One of the book’s many fans, actor Jeff Bridges, has wanted to adapt the material into a film for several years; he even envisioned himself directing the film and his father Lloyd starring in the title role at one point. Bridges has now achieved his goal, only with him as one of the film’s producers and himself as The Giver.
The story takes place in a seemingly utopian society, free of such things as war and differences. The location is clean and peaceful, populated with people who take daily injections and are assigned to specific duties. Jonas (Brenton Thwaites), a 16-year-old (11 in the book), is assigned at the community’s Ceremony to be the new Receiver of Memories.
This position is special and unlike any of the others. Jonas is isolated from the rest of the community when he does his work, learning under a mysterious and elderly man known as The Giver (Bridges). The Giver provides Jonas with knowledge and memories of the world’s past, teaching and showing him things that are unknown to the larger community.
Such things as color, death, snow, and music enter Jonas’ mind. He is told he must learn these things in order to provide council to the community leaders if it is needed. However, he is told by The Chief Elder (Meryl Streep) to never tell any of the regular community members of his newfound knowledge. Things don’t exactly go according to plan. I won’t provide any more plot details in case you haven’t read the book.
It’s been years since I’ve read Lowry’s young adult novel, but from what I remember of the material this adaptation seems faithful. Some changes include the ages of the children becoming older, a key book moment involving an older woman being left out, and The Chief Elder and The Giver having a more dynamic relationship in the film. That last one seemed like it was going to be a given even before I saw the film. I mean who would waste the opportunity of putting Bridges and Streep in a few scenes together?
Anyways, nothing has been significantly butchered in the page-to-screen process in my eyes. Writers Michael Mitnick and Robert B. Weide and director Phillip Noyce have a firm handle on the material and play it for what it is. It hasn’t been Hunger Games-ized as I heard many fans feared would happen, though some action and dystopian elements do come more into play in the third act. Still, it has the spirit of the book.
The film does take a little while to hit a smooth stride. The beginning is a bit bland, with a heavy amount of voiceover and some banal dialogue. I was at first in fear of seeing something completely standard-issue. However, the film gets going and Noyce kicks up his craftsmanship as soon as Jonas and The Giver begin their lessons together.
Bridges and Thwaites are terrific in their scenes together, with their characters’ bonding moments easily being the highlights of the film. I wish there were even more scenes of them together in the film’s 94-minute runtime; it’s a rare occurrence where I wish a film were longer. Thwaites does well is presenting Jonas’ heart and transformation, and Bridges effortlessly brings dramatic weight to the material.
The two performers are surrounded by other strong deliveries. Streep is fine as The Chief Elder, adding presence without chewing scenery. We also get Alexander Skarsgard and Katie Holmes as Jonas’ parents, both of whom do well. Cameron Monaghan gets in a few dramatic moments as Jonas’ best friend, Asher (who becomes a pilot), and Taylor Swift actually pops up in an important role. The best of the supporting players, however, is Odeya Rush as Fiona.
Fiona is an old friend of Jonas’ who gradually becomes a love interest. She is often a person Jonas turns to in sharing his sense of discovery from The Giver. Rush perfectly delivers the excitement and fear in Fiona in learning the strange new things from Jonas. She and Thwaites share a few beautiful scenes together.
Noyce does well in handling the themes of sameness versus diversity, ignorance versus emotion. He also has an artful hand with his style without ever smothering the story. The cinematography by Ross Emery and editing by Barry Alexander Brown aids Noyce in presenting creative uses of color, grain, frame rates, and overhead shots. A few of the film’s montages, shown during the “receiving” scenes, are handled and mixed in an eye-popping way that has freshness to it. The “sameness” production design (by Ed Verreaux) of the community is perfectly juxtaposed with these bright moments.
These aesthetic choices blend well with Jonas finding out new things, especially when it comes to color and music. Speaking of music, the score by Marco Beltrami comfortably fits with the material on the screen. The tracks from the composer have both an epic and intimate quality to them — with the piano work standing out the most.
I wish The Giver had a bit more storytelling meat and push to it. The film is emotional at times but the final punch at the end isn’t as strong as it should have been. I think drawing out some more of the complexity of the material would have been good, which could have allowed for further character attachment from an audience standpoint. Even so, the mid-section and some of the third act of the film are gripping and wonderful. I’m glad Bridges got to bring this to the screen.
Score: 3 out of 4 stars (Grade Equivalent for Me: B+).
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for a mature thematic image and some sci-fi action/violence).
Runtime: 1 hour and 34 minutes.
U.S. Release Date: August 15th, 2014.