Could The Giver be an unsuspecting polemic depicting the dangers of all that is left thinking; the final destination of those seeking to treat all equally and fairly (or progressivism, to use the four-letter-word)? If Sarah Palin thinks so, then most probably not. But who knows, perhaps well-known Hollywood liberals Jeff Bridges and Meryl Streep, and Oz-man Philip Noyce, took leave of their senses, joined forces with Harvey Scissorhands, and gave the poor, neglected right the parable they most desired?
Perhaps, but again, not likely. Certainly, it would be possible to single out a few elements as feeding into bugbears of the right. But it would also be possible to find something to parallel the extremes of any totalitarian regime of any political persuasion. To that extent, The Guardian, perhaps not so much a bastion of rigorous thinking these days, has it right. Lois Lowry’s 1993 novel has been both a set text and an excluded one in US schools, presumably depending on which side of the perceived political divide the schools lie. Or possibly they just feel threatened at the idea of their pupils thinking for themselves and rebelling against authority. Which is, of course, common to pretty much every single dystopian future society out there, and is absolutely essential to any Young Adult fiction, of which this had a head start.
The Weinsteins continue their current knack for having absolutely no feeling for the YA market (following the bomb that is Vampire Academy), but really The Giver is little better or worse than the other new notables last year (Divergent The Maze Runner) even though it did only a fraction of their business. Noyce is a solid pair of hands, albeit always more impressive with smaller, more personal projects than as a studio gun for hire. He keeps the pace up; the picture wastes little time getting from Point A to B, while throwing in sufficient time to debating its issues that the thematic content isn’t short-changed.
As is de rigueur with such tales, the focus is on a chosen one, Jonas (Brenton Thwaites). At his career graduation, he is announced as Receiver of Memory. Jonas will be released from the passive, regimented society around him to take instruction from the Giver (Jeff Bridges). The Giver was formerly a receiver and in time Jonas will become the next Giver, etc. The purpose of this? To carry the memories of the time before The Ruin (the name for a non-specific apocalyptic event) and advise the leaders of society on particular key areas where they have limited knowledge. Of course, opening up someone who has been drugged and directed his whole life is unpredictable. So much so, one might suggest that, since the last receiver also went awry, it might not be such a bankable system. Jonas begins to buck this system and so threaten its very foundations.
There are some nice ideas here. The Pleasantville-esque use of black and white gradually changes to colour as the Jonas’ world opens up. But that’s also part of the problem. Much of this is rather familiar. The opening sections, where Jonas and his chums (Odeya Rush as Fiona and Cameron Monaghan as Asher) are overpoweringly similar to Divergent, where everyone is given their set task but the special one finds him/herself without such a comfort blanket.
Jonas is young apprentice to an oddball mentor, who guides him spiritually, which could be anyone from Obi Wan Kenobi onwards. I particularly liked his description of dreams, “a combination of reality, fantasy, emotion, and what you had for dinner“. Jeff Bridges is good value, as ever. He is also a credited producer, having steered the project over the course of nearly two decades (during which he intended the Giver to be his father’s role). The downside is that he seems to have decided mumble-mouth is the thing for him going forward (see also, True Grit, R.I.P.D.). Still, he gets to play the piano, which must have been nice for him.
Some of the tropes and devices are on the simplistic side. This is a picture where someone actually offers the line “What does love mean?” The dystopian utopia looks appropriately pristine, but is equipped with budget-conscious bicycles and drones, We assume the Giver and his connection with Jonas is genuinely telepathic, but Noyce isn’t quite so imaginative with his choices of first person experience (indeed, the whole sled thing is a little twee; I kept hoping Orson Welles would pop out from a snowdrift). When the memory-imbuing climax arrives, it has the élan of a low-rent Terrence Malick.
The passive nature of the society doesn’t bear too much close scrutiny either, although I guess Lowry might have provided more detail in her novel. Do the Elders take different daily drugs to the rest, in order to have greater wherewithal? Certainly, Meryl’s Chief Elder is much more feisty, proactive and suspicious. Do the guards with sticks have a bit of aggression in their dose?
Or are they like Jonas’ dad (Alexander Skarsgard), killing babies while talking to them softly, unconscious of what he is doing? It is this, and the reading into it of commentary on abortion and euthanasia, which have been held up by many reading this as right-leaning text. Rather more potent is the underlying idea of the passive acceptance of dictated morality, particularly given how easy it is for a nation as a whole to pitch into what would be considered morally repugnant when the right (or wrong) leader comes along and persuades them (or just as bad. they go with the flow).
Robert B Weide (of Curb Your Enthusiasm) and Michael Mitnick can’t get past the pretty big magical wand that needs to be waved in the third act, which rather deflates an engaging first two-thirds. The problem is partly that the world presented is classically futuristic-scientific, yet the barrier Jonas crosses, from Elsewhere to beyond, in order to release memories to everyone, feels rather arbitrarily mystical. It’s not just blowing everything up, as we are used to; it relies on a big “Because it’s so”.
Noyce does his best to pull the scenes off dramatically. Jonas coming across the sled lends a slightly dreamlike spin (the only serious way to explain his saving baby Gabe from certain doom beneath the waves) and his fate is left open-ended (but not by the sequels). Both Skarsgard and Katie Holmes (as Jonas’ mother) put in strong performances of the feeling-but-not-too-much variety (perhaps this was Katie’s Tom-detox role), and Streep manages to make the defence of her way (“People are weak, people are selfish”) almost compelling (and what the hell did they do to her face in the movie posters?) Thwaites, Rush and Taylor Swift (as the Giver’s daughter in flashbacks) are also decent.
There’s nothing here to set the world on fire, but The Giver is at least thematically more coherent than either Divergent of The Maze Runner, even if that wearing of its heart on its sleeve is also part of the reason it dissatisfies. It seems to think its ideas are enough, which they may be as tailored by the right. To the rest of us, well it’s familiar and mostly agreeable (and, if you’re its primary audience, a bit lacking in the action stakes compared to its YA fellows).