The Giver: Adapting the Original YA Dystopia

The GiverBy Antoinette Weil

“The important thing is that a film doesn’t obliterate a book. The movie is here now. But the book hasn’t gone away. It has simply grown up, grown larger, and begun to glisten in a new way.” – Lois Lowry, 2014

Lowis Lowry’s 1993 novel The Giver was a childhood favorite for many, and it remains one of my favorite stories of all time. That being the case, I had the same feeling many book lovers experience when they find out one of their favorites is being adapted to film — some mix of elation and anxiety. After all, I’ve loved this book for two decades, and the message is still as relevant today as when I first read it.

Oscar-winner Jeff Bridges must have felt the same way — he spent 18 years trying to get this film made. While he had originally planned to direct the screen version with his late father Lloyd Bridges as the Giver, he ended up taking on the title role and some producer responsibilities, with Phillip Noyce directing.

Subconsciously, I may have been longing for The Giver to hit theaters as a counterpoint to the newer dystopian YA stories that don’t stack up for me. After all, Lowry’s game-changing novel unquestionably influenced those that came after. While the announcement of the film and its big-name cast had me chomping at the bit to see the story played out on screen, I also had trepidation that The Giver may not translate well to film, and even if it did, that this version might miss the mark.

The Giver is a utopian-turned-dystopian story set in a community that has long practiced “Sameness.” There is no color, no hunger, no pain, no emotion. The people of the Community want for nothing and feel no hardships, but live a strictly planned existence, mapped out by the Community Elders. At year One, children are assigned to a mother and father, who were assigned to one another by the Elders, and everything from meals to medications to careers are assigned in like fashion.

The Giver follows Jonas who, in the book, is an eleven-year-old boy suffering anxiety about the impending Ceremony of Twelve, where he and the rest of the new Twelves will be assigned careers. In the film, 25-year-old Brenton Thwaites plays a 15-year-old Jonas going through the “Ceremony of Sixteen.” I suppose in order to sell movie tickets (specifically to teens and young adults) this change may have been necessary. And it was certainly necessary to create the love triangle that does not exist in the book. But we’ll get to that later.

At the Ceremony, Jonas receives the assignment of “Receiver of Memory,” a post that is both honorable and alienating.  There is only one Receiver in the community, and Jonas is told that he will need the courage to endure real pain and the “capacity to see beyond.”

Jonas’ training consists of meeting with “The Giver,” played by Bridges, to receive memories from before Sameness. He experiences things that do not exist in his world: color, music, snow and sledding, the warmth of sunshine and the sting of sunburn, animals, broken bones, war and love. Jonas begins to see his world differently, and despite the brutal pain of some of the memories, begins to yearn for the ability to choose and to feel.

While Jonas’ escape in the movie was approximately one thousand times more dramatic and violent than in the book, the ending stayed pretty true to the source material, albeit a more literal, less ambiguous depiction.

Overall, the film wasn’t bad. But it wasn’t so good either. The use of black and white and the simple garments and community architecture were a little futuristic Pleasantville, but conveyed nicely what Sameness might look like. The film breezes over some of the memories given to Jonas and tweaks others, but in general the message comes across pretty well.

As previously mentioned, Jonas and his two friends Fiona and Asher, played respectively by Odeyah Rush and Cameron Monaghan, are teenagers in the film, but that isn’t the only change made to this relationship. While Jonas and Asher are best friends in the book, the film turns the two boys into rivals for Fiona’s affection. This love triangle didn’t exist in the source material, and the film version also goes a little wild with Asher’s career assignment and general characterization. While Lowry’s novel casts Asher as the lovable, goofy best friend who becomes the Assistant Director of Recreation, Noyce’s version frames Asher as a rather serious and competitive Drone Pilot, who is eventually seen viciously hunting Jonas.

Of course I understand this decision. If you want to compete with The Hunger Games and Divergent, you need some special effects, some planes, some bad apples, and some dramatic, violent situations. And honestly, the narrative of The Giver doesn’t contain much action. That being said, it is slightly counterintuitive to portray Asher as jealous, angry, and vindictive when the point of the story is that he—along with the rest of the Community—isn’t capable of such feelings.

Jonas and Fiona never kiss or share any kind of romantic interaction in the book. In one instance, Jonas has a risque dream about asking Fiona to get naked. Jonas’ mother refers to these dreams as the start of “the stirrings,” for which daily medication was to be taken. It’s sort of interesting to see the way the film aims to be more mature than the book (the characters’ ages, the kissing, the violence), and at the same time takes the only sexual element out of the story. Is this because asking a girl to get naked would constitute an R rating? Are we more comfortable with teenagers hunting and shooting one another than a sexually intimate dream? Or is it simply that creating a love triangle between the three characters gives more conflict for filler than Jonas’ unassuming dream would have? I’m sure it is mostly the latter, but I do think there is something to the question.

Even as a die-hard fan, I understand the changes that were made. After all, the book, if strictly adapted, probably wouldn’t have made for a great film. The unfortunate part, though, was that this altered version didn’t either.  A victim of poor conception, The Giver isn’t close enough to the source material to excite fans of the book, but it isn’t exciting or original enough to entice as a standalone film.

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