Twenty years. That’s how long Jeff Bridges has been trying to bring an adaptation of Lois Lowry’s acclaimed 1993 novel “The Giver” to the screen. He purchased the film rights two decades ago with the original intention of his father Lloyd playing the film’s titular Giver, but alas, his father passed away just a few years later while the film was still stuck in developmental hell. And it would stay there for years, even after the YA adaptation boom that was kicked off by Twilight in 2008. But now, finally in 2014, The Giver is here, with Bridges himself playing the role he envisioned for his father.
Problem is, this labour of love ends up more belaboured than anything else.
Just like so many YA adaptations set in a dystopian future, The Giver is founded on a ridiculous conceit: Sometime in the future a great, devastating war happens. The bits of society left standing erect an art deco community on a vast mountainous plateau and decide to enforce a system to make sure such conflict never happens again. Their idea? Mass amnesia. Through the use of drugs and energy fields, they force everybody to forget everything that has happened before, including, apparently emotions. Oh and colours.
Yes, everybody in this new heavily sanitized, bicycle riding (I’m just going to assume that the Netherlands becomes the dominant world power in the future) almost automaton society is colour-blind (because when you can’t see different races, it prohibits certain bad feelings, obviously). There’s one exception to this amnesiac collection of blandness though: The Receiver of Memory (Bridges), an individual who has not lost his sense of colour (or humanity) and is chosen to retain all the collective memories of human society before the war, so that he can draw on that “experience” to act as counsel to the leaders of this new society. Also, dabble in some piano playing and looking especially grumpy and slovenly during community meetings.
This Receiver though is getting old, and needs to hand over his duties. And that’s where Brenton Thwaites’ Jonas comes in. When Jonas is not busy jumping through public water features with his friends Fiona (Odeyah Rush) and Asher (Cameron Monaghan), or worrying about which societal role he will be slotted into (because heaven forbid you actually choose your own career), he’s off experiencing strange flashes of what he doesn’t yet know to be colours. This future community is more Big Brother than utopia though, with everybody monitored 24/7, which means the authorities known as the Elders notice Jonas’ strangeness and thus pick him to be the new Receiver. Meaning the old Receiver is now the Giver (title make more sense now?).
But along with things like colours and music and kissing and just generally not being a grayscaled drone, also comes the memories of humanity’s worst atrocities and greatest tragedies. But can Jonas, who grew up in a society where death isn’t even a concept and people are rather just mysteriously “released to Elsewhere”, handle all of these bad vibes and accept it as just a part of being human? Especially since it seems that he’s not the first new Receiver to be picked, and that his predecessor (Taylor Swift) couldn’t make the cut? Well, therein lies the roiling, thought-provoking moral conundrum at the heart of this movie.
Or at least it should, if the movie actually decided to be truly thought-provoking. Instead we get cursory, clichéd arguments that just skim the surface, and plumb nowhere close to the depths of Lowry’s novel. All those themes of individualistic expression and personal freedoms, not too mention probing the roots of human horror, are all there, but they’ve been abruptly homogenised to fit into the increasingly prevalent YA genre mold. So too the characters and their relationships with each other, much like their career aspects, are all too easily slotted into generic tropes.
Not helping matters much is that while director Phillip Noyce (Salt, The Bone Collector, Patriot Games) deftly handles the film’s unique visual hook – besides for impressively comprehensive minimalist retro-future chic set and costume design, most of the first half of the movie is shot in black-and-white, with the palette slowly getting more colourful along with Jonas’ increased memories – he shoots with about as much of a sense of excitement as can be found in this washed out future society. The film’s script, already filled with head-scratching gaps (just how were memories from a century before even recorded?), also never really gets that swift kick in the gray pants that it needs.
One plus though is that Noyce and Bridges has surrounded the capable but not particularly special young actors with a crackling support cast in Meryl Streep as the Chief Elder, Alexander Alexander Skarsgård as Jonas’ slightly creepy professional caregiver father and Katie Holmes as his security chief mother (which begs the question, why do you even need a security force in an almost sickeningly polite, perfect society with no crime or strife?). These actors, along with the grizzly Bridges, add some sorely needed dramatic and emotional gravitas.
Although I’ve never read Lowry’s original novel, I had heard about this adaptation for ages and was eagerly anticipating seeing what one of the progenitors of the YA genre could do. Unfortunately, contrary to that old axiom, this is not a case of good things coming to those that wait. And while technically competent and boasting a suitably impressive cast, The Giver just doesn’t have that much to give.
The Giver opens 12 September 2014.
Last Updated: September 12, 2014