Author Lois Lowry has been very supportive of the movie adaptation of her Newbery Medal-winning book The Giver, which hits theaters this week, complimenting how screenwriters Michael Mitnick and Robert B. Weide and director Phillip Noyce (Salt) “have taken [her] work and expanded it, brought it to a new level.” The level the filmmakers are aspiring to is clearly the one occupied by recent hits Divergent and the Hunger Games, with which Lowry’s story has a lot in common. Like them, The Giver is set in a dystopian future in which its hero/heroine comes of age and attempts to topple the oppressive system, and it kicks off a loose series of books set in the same world, all ripe to be brought to the screen should the first one work out.
But Lowry’s 1993 novel comes from a different era, when “young adult” was more of a library subsection than a massive literary industry dominated by sci-fi and fantasy. The Giver doesn’t play by the same rules as the adaptations with which The Weinstein Company seems to hope it’ll be grouped. Lowry’s book, which is a standard on many middle school curricula and reading lists, isn’t a rollicking adventure filled with love triangles and feats of physical endurance — it’s more of a fable, in which its main character spends a lot of his time sitting in a room with an old man, talking and thinking.
But that hasn’t stopped the filmmakers from trying to YA-ify The Giver, and the result is something that trades in a lot of what made Lowry’s work a contemporary classic for generic dystopian details.
1. Jonas is now a teenager.
The movie bumps protagonist Jonas up from 12 years old to 16, and he’s played, in typical Hollywood fashion, by 25-year-old Aussie actor Brenton Thwaites. There are obvious reasons to make this tweak — the long-past-his-teens Thwaites is more heartthrobby than any actor playing a tween could ever be. But the aging up of Jonas also shifts our perception of the story, which is about how Jonas is selected to become the new Receiver of Memory, the person who stores all the Community’s memories from the time before they converted to orderly, neutered “Sameness,” when they still felt strong emotions, engaged in wars, fell in love. The old Receiver, who becomes the Giver (Jeff Bridges), slowly transmits these memories to Jonas, and Jonas comes to realize the horror of what everyone’s given up to have such extreme stability. At 12, Jonas is just leaving childhood and starting to see and question the world through adult eyes. His journey into awareness is paired with his coming-of-age — he has good reason to, at first, not grasp what’s going on. But at 16, Jonas feels more like he’s already a part of that world, just another one of the Community’s fit, white, cheery, well-behaved, slightly dim residents.
2. There’s a love story.
The biggest change in bringing The Giver to the screen is the addition of a love story for now post-adolescent Jonas. In the book, Fiona is one of Jonas’ friends, who has a gift for caring for the elderly and is described as “quiet and polite,” but with “a sense of fun as well.” She sparks Jonas’ first hormonal “Stirrings,” which the citizens of the Community take pills to tamp down — their marriages and the kids they raise are all assigned to them by the Elders. But, as played by 17-year-old Odeya Rush, Fiona is moved up to full-on love interest. Jonas kisses her, convinces her to stop taking her medication, and begs her to run off with him. It’s an understandable attempt to inject a more prominent female character into the story, but there’s still almost nothing to Fiona. She’s now the “girl who makes everyone smile,” and she adores babies, and there’s the faintest implication of a love triangle involving the pair’s other bestie Asher (Cameron Monaghan), another character from the novel given a reworking on screen. But, in a story in which the characters have been deliberately stunted by a stifling environment, this added romance doesn’t come across as organic or forbidden, just expected and empty.
3. The end has been changed into a chase sequence.
Toward the end of the novel, Jonas and the Giver come up with a plan in which Jonas will run away from the Community forever, leaving it without a Receiver and obligating the members to absorb and deal with the memories that will be released to them. What happens is ambiguous (though Lowry picks up with the character in later books), and the act is, in essence, a sacrifice: Jonas surrenders his connections to his friends and family in order to force them to rediscover their humanity, and to save the life of a baby, Gabriel, slated to be killed. It’s an introspective finale, with Jonas having to leave unprepared, suddenly in the night, ducking search planes and trying to forage for food on the road. Though it’s understandable that the movie tries to goose the sequence with some action and drama, much like the romance, the result is strikingly generic. Jonas races toward the Boundary of Memory, a line outside the Community, the crossing of which will somehow release awareness of the past to everyone. There’s a motorcycle chase, and, for added suspense, there’s the threat of Fiona getting executed in a ceremony carried out by Jonas’ father (Alexander Skarsgård). Jonas doesn’t intend to leave forever — he’s racing toward a goal line with plans to come back once everything is restored. It’s a very different, less impactful finish — a happily ever after.
4. The Chief Elder has become the story’s Big Bad.
The best aspect of The Giver is the performance from Jeff Bridges, who portrays his character as worn, wise, and sad after living a life made lonely by his burdens. In a sea of characters who are deliberately meant to be shallow and half-formed, incapable of feeling or thinking deeply, he’s the only fully developed human, and there’s true poignance to the moment he begins to believe that change may be possible. He’s pitted against Meryl Streep as the Chief Elder, the head of the Community, a character who appears in just one major scene in the book where she heads up the ceremony in which Jonas learns he’s been selected as the new Receiver. Like that of Fiona, the role of Chief Elder is beefed up on screen, as you’d expect for a part given to one of the world’s finest living actresses — but there’s little for Streep to work with, and the film turns her character into the main villain, one who believes that “people are weak, people are selfish!” At one point, she purses her lips and orders drone-pilot-in-training Asher (the Assistant Director of Recreation in the book) to kill Jonas, a sequence invented wholesale for the movie, and one that doesn’t really make sense — the members of the Community don’t appear to really know what death is, much less how to murder someone. It’s not just a waste of Streep’s talents, it’s a betrayal of the basic idea of Lowry’s story: The Community isn’t under the control of sinister forces; it’s the creation of a common, willful delusion. Having a main baddie makes it easy to assign blame, and not accept that the story is about how well-intentioned people can live this way and never even realize what they’ve sacrificed.