Why do movies based on young adult novels about resistance to conformity in dystopian future societies have to be so conformist themselves? Lois Lowry’s “The Giver” might have preceded “The Hunger Games” and “Divergent” on the bookshelves by nearly two decades—the fact that the protagonist is a guy rather than a girl is itself a sort of tell—but the films of the other two series hit the screen earlier, and by now the formula has grown very stale, particularly in this surprisingly tepid adaptation by Phillip Noyce. It’s not even worthy of re-gifting; just return for a refund.
The society, called simply “the Community,” was established after some vague calamity. It’s a sort of island of habitation surrounded by cliffs, beyond which there is a wilderness, and it’s presided over by a governing group headed by the alternately soothing and imperious Chief Elder (Meryl Streep), which distributes babies—presumably of the test-tube variety—to families, then gives youngsters futuristic bikes at nine, and later assigns them to particular jobs. All are expected to follow a list of rules, including an injunction never to lie and to obey unreservedly. And when citizens have reached old age, they’re sent “elsewhere”—a euphemism for a gentle form of euthanasia. All inhabitants, who wear assigned clothing and live in identical cubically-structured homes, are also treated daily with an injunction that suppresses emotion and keeps everyone on an even keel. In short, it’s a society marked by regimentation, a lack of passion and a dreary sameness.
Amid this populace are three friends about to graduate to adulthood—Jonas (Brenton Thwaites), Fiona (Odeya Rush) and Asher (Cameron Monaghan). Fiona is assigned to become a nurturer—one who cares for infants until they are ready to be distributed to families. Asher becomes a drone pilot, effectively part of the surveillance service. But Jonas is selected for the utterly unique position of Receiver—the repository of human memory who, as a storehouse of knowledge (including the emotions), can advise the elders when called upon. Jonas will be taught by the current Receiver, a crusty old gent played by Jeff Bridges, in the man’s residence-library at the very edge where Community ends and Elsewhere begins, until he is deemed ready to become the Receiver himself. Bridges thus serves as the Giver of what he knows to Jonas, the Receiver-in-Waiting.
The entire premise of “The Giver” leaves a lot to be desired. The societal structure is much like that depicted in “Divergent,” which was derivative of “Logan’s Run” anyway, and like those it’s a pretty silly notion. Here, though, it’s complicated by the presence of the receiver, which seems utterly superfluous, not only since his learning depends not only on what he inherits from his predecessor’s mind but on a large library of books—which are readily available for the elders to consult. To make the situation more inane, the whole point of the receiver is that he’s supposed to be a repository of wisdom to which the elders will turn in their decision-making; but Streep’s Chief Elder dismisses Bridges’ Receiver at every turn, spurning whatever advice he offers with a contemptuous shrug. The business becomes even odder when one considers that ten years before Jonas’ selection, the attempt to select a new receiver—the current one’s daughter, as we later learn—somehow failed miserably. No one learned from that unhappy event, it appears, nor was it speculated that it might be better not to try again.
A related problem has to do with the politically charged language that the script uses to describe the conflict between dangerous individualism and drug-induced conformity. “When people are allowed to choose,” the Chief Elder says at a climactic moment, “they choose badly.” When a remark like that is joined with the apparent euthanasia practiced on defective infants as well as the elderly, whether intentionally or not the film appears to take a definite stand on one of the most contentious issues of the day—which won’t sit well with some viewers.
On a more mundane narrative level, the data conveyed by the Giver to Jonas is pretty thin gruel. At first it involves the lad’s being able to discern colors: until this point, the film has been in black-and-white, but now it gradually turns to color, starting with individual elements in the frame (think of the little girl’s coat in “Schindler’s List”) and then progressing to “Pleasantville” mode, as it moves from full black-and-white to full color depending on a character’s perspective. It’s a trite technique, but not as unimaginative as the one Noyce embraces as the Giver instills emotions into the Jonas’ psyche. For these the director and editor Barry Alexander Brown resort to a series of helter-skelter montages ranging from whirling dervishes to wedding ceremonies, battlefield scenes and a shot of a beaming Nelson Mandela. All this results in Jonas learning the ultimate lesson—that all you need is love (which is good, because the Giver certainly hasn’t taught him anything of a factual nature). But to restore the memory of what it means to be fully human to all the citizens of Community, Jonas must escape into Elsewhere and cross the outer border of that wilderness—a long, difficult journey, made all the harder because Jonas has decided to bring along an infant that had been slated for termination because he cries overmuch (a sign that he lacks control). At this juncture “The Giver” turns into a chase movie with a destination that’s never fully explained, especially in terms of the fairy-tale cabin and Christmas carols it turns out to involve.
If this description makes “The Giver” sound pretty goofy, rest assured it is; and it’s all played with deadly earnestness unrelieved by much humor. The cast doesn’t help matters much. Thwaites is a blandly handsome, rather dull hero, and the other youngsters are equally pallid. Streep has apparently entered her “Late Olivier” phase, marked by a willingness to be completely indiscriminate in accepting roles so long as a paycheck is involved, and makes remarkably little impression. Bridges is more noticeable, but largely because he juts out his chin while delivering his lines, resulting in a mumbled growl that for a while sounds almost like the impenetrable accent he once adopted for “The Vanishing.” From the technical perspective the antiseptic houses and sleek government buildings of the Community, as envisioned by production designer Ed Verreaux, are initially eye-catching, but the model work and CGI imagery have a somewhat tacky, synthetic feel that diminishes their impact over time. Diana Cilliers’ costumes are more conventional in their simple functionality.
Like all of these teen-centric dystopian tales, “The Giver” struggles to raise big issues of human existence but reduces them to such simplistic terms that it devolves into sledgehammer sermonizing punched up with familiar action-movie clichés. George Orwell’s “1984” may be the ultimate inspiration behind these books and movies, but in this case the result is far from inspired in any sense.