Main cast: Brenton Thwaites (Jonas), Jeff Bridges (The Giver), Katie Holmes (Jonas’s Mother), Alexander Skarsgård (Jonas’s Father), Odeya Rush (Fiona), Cameron Monaghan (Asher), Taylor Swift (Rosemary), and Meryl Streep (The Chief Elder)
Director: Phillip Noyce
The Giver is very loosely based on the award-winning children’s book of the same name by Lois Lowry. Kiddie books that win awards invariably deal with heavy issues and depressing matters, ending often in an ambiguous note so that adults reading this books would feel very proud of themselves without all that “Yikes, I’ve lowered myself into reading books meant for my kids – does this mean that my reputation as a philosophical reader of deep thoughts is ruined, relegating me to the ranks of unwashed masses that read those plebeian brain rot by Stephen King and John Grisham?” guilt.
This movie, however, probably realizes that movie adaptations of such books would most likely tank in the box-office. Therefore, scriptwriters Michael Mitnick and Robert B Weide had decided to turn this one into a teen romantic melodrama with some lightweight deep thought moments to go with the soulful glances and pained longings. The end result is surprisingly enjoyable.
In The Giver, the world has changed after a big war devastated the world and left the survivors – a mostly Caucasian bunch, naturally – deciding that hate, jealousy, and other strong emotions are the cause of humans being the way they are. Free will is the reason why the world would never find peace, because humans would always make the worst decisions based on their base impulses. As a result, life in the Community is always serene… because everyone is given a jab at the beginning of each day to get them into a functional lobotomized state, free from emotions. Everything is controlled – children are genetically created and distributed to families that are deemed the right fit, these children grow up under careful supervision and tight rules, and when they graduate, they are packed off to their respective careers that are determined for them based on their personalities.
Jonas is special. Well, not special in the sense that he should be staying in a home for mentally handicapped kids – he has more innate curiosity and sensitivity bubbling underneath him that show despite the daily jabs of peaceful juice. Upon his graduation, he is picked to become the new Receiver of Memories. Basically, all history of the human race has been wiped from memory, with the notable of the Receiver, who remembers history in the form of what seems to be fragmented memories of people in the past. His or her role is to advise the Elders on matters based on what is known from these memories.
The current Receiver, who sardonically calls himself the Giver since he’s now training Jonas by transferring those memories in his head to Jonas’s basically by holding hands in a totally non-Sandusky manner, is on the rebellious and erratic side due to a traumatic incident involving his previous apprentice Rosemary, who quit from all the pressure to write and sing crappy songs about her ninety-six ex-boyfriends instead – okay, not really, but it’s really sad what happened to Rosemary, the poor thing.
Meanwhile, Jonas is giddy with excitement from learning that life can be full of color, music, and stuff. He’s especially excited to learn that he can do fun things with his mouth and more with Fiona, the love of his life. He can’t help sharing what he learns with Fiona and his friend Asher, despite the rules forbidding him to. Oh, and there’s war and stuff too, so sad, and learning the stark cruelty humans are capable of only make him understand how necessary the finer feelings are to people.
Worse, he realizes that, by living in an emotionless vacuum, humans are living without any moral compass, which gives rise to that always naked dude from True Blood horrifically keeping his clothes on for the entire movie – THAT IS SO FREAKING INHUMANE. Er, I mean, Jonas realizes that people are just as capable of cruelty without experiencing negative emotions – we need to experience them, both good and bad, as they define us as human beings and make us who we are.
All his education would come to a boil, and eventually, he would clash with the establishment, with potentially tragic consequences.
The Giver strips away most of the more poetic and magical imagery of the book, breaking down this movie into a more standard kid-against-the-establishment flick with a strong teen romance element thrown in. Some of the darker elements are retained, but others – such as the Giver’s decision to remain behind after training Jonas – are removed. In many ways, watching this movie can feel pretty wrong for fans of the book, and some letting go and treating this movie as just another action-packed teen movie catered to the young adult demographics may be necessary to enjoy the flick. The movie also creates a less ambiguous ending, making it more obvious that Jonas’s efforts would lead to a better world for everyone. Oh, and Jonas is 16, not 13, in this movie, which is good, or else some people would get squeamish in the more romantic scenes between him and Fiona (who is also 16 here), which is basically a pretty euphemism for the fact that puberty is kicking in and they just want to get happy.
Brenton Thwaites does his best to erase folks’ memory of him in the hilariously awful Blue Lagoon reboot by channeling Ethan Hawke in Dead Poets Society here. Still, he manages to portray his character with a kind of bumbling earnestness that makes Jonas both a likable and sympathetic character – an unlikely kind of rebel whose fiery determination to do right comes from within, a stark contrast to his pleasant and affable demeanor. Fiona doesn’t have much to do here other than to look beautiful and react to Jonas, but Odeya Rush has good chemistry with Mr Thwaites and does the best she could to make her character memorable.
Meryl Streep is here basically because every kiddie flick needs a famous female actress of a certain “mature” age for some reason, but Jeff Bridges gives his role some depths and sympathetic gravitas underneath his surly rebel demeanor. His role of the Giver is quite stripped down from the Giver as portrayed in the book, and the student-mentor role never feels as well developed as it could have been, but, like Ms Rush, he has good chemistry with Mr Thwaites.
The cast is good, and the movie is solidly paced, with solid performances by the secondary cast to back up the principal players in this movie. This is the biggest reason why The Giver works very well for me. It has me riveted from start to finish, and I choke up a bit by the time the credits begin to roll. It certainly qualifies as one of the sweetest surprises of the year for me.