What makes us human? Is it our intellectual capacity? Our use of language to communicate? Maybe it’s our genetic structure, something in our DNA that makes us different from other living beings. Perhaps it’s our conscience and ability to make moral decisions, or our emotions and capacity for love. Are we just a mashup of atoms and cells that move and breathe in a particular way? Or are we creations with a soul, filled with meaning and purpose and design?
In The Giver, the filmic adaptation of Lois Lowry’s acclaimed novel, this anthropology question is the conspicuous motivation behind an urgent search for young protagonist, Jonas. Unlike the novel, where Jonas is only a boy turning the age of 12, Jonas is now 18-years-old, an emerging adult in his Community. In the Community, there is no suffering or pain, no choices or emotions. Everyone submits to the code of Sameness, having never experienced joy, loss, family, courage, or love. Even death is disguised as being “released to Elsewhere,” and there is no mourning for the released person.
Upon his ceremonial entry into adulthood, Jonas is chosen by the elders in the Community to become the Receiver of Memory. This important role comes with unique responsibilities—Jonas is, somehow, to carry within him the memories of the past transferred to him by the Giver (Jeff Bridges), an elderly man living on the edge of the community. As the Receiver of Memory, Jonas’s eyes begin to open to the possibilities of joy, love, family, and the freedom of choice. Simple memories—riding on a sled through the snow, dancing and laughing at a medieval wedding, the sunset viewed from the bow of a sailboat on the vast ocean—begin to awaken something within Jonas that feels more human. Even ordinary things, like the leaves on a tree or the rainbow reflection of sunlight through water, begin to captivate Jonas’s attention. He starts to feel more awake and alive to the world around him, which becomes a threat to his Community, most notably embodied in the Chief Elder (Meryl Streep) and her mission to keep Jonas and the Giver under control.
While the filmic adaptation feels true to the essence of the book, The Giver is missing some of the pathos, consequence, and mystery that makes the novel so intriguing. Lois Lowry has been quoted saying the film is “very good” but lacks something on screen that is more fully captured in the novel: mystery and discovery.
…I had a little trouble with the ending: In the book, it’s ambiguous, but the movie-people…felt that the ending should not be so ambiguous. You know, I’m a writer, I like to retain subtlety and nuance.”
While readers delightfully discover quite late in the novel that the world of the Community is seen through black-and-white, this is obvious from the beginning of the film (though the filmmakers do some remarkable and interesting things with the color scheme and tones, where the palette is less of a true grayscale and more of muted colors and tones, growing brighter or duller with the presence of Jonas and his increase of memories). It’s all a bit too on-the-nose, and the allegory sometimes feels like it’s being told more than shown. This could be due to the inclusion of Jonas’s voiceover narration, a first-person sharing of his story from the point of view of the future, leaving little wonder if he survives or escapes his perils. Hopefully I don’t sound too harsh; the book is nearly always better than the movie, and while this isn’t a great film (though a great novel), it’s certainly a good one. The final moments, while lacking in the intensity and weightiness of the novel, are still affecting and cathartic, and the film is a worthy entry in the recent batch of YA dystopian films.
Thwaites as Jonas is solid as a naïve teen discovering emotions, memories, and love. Akin to the characters in a similar filmic black-and-white alternative culture, Pleasantville, Jonas and his Community has the sheltered innocence of someone lacking exposure to the darker realities of our world. I was also pleasantly surprised to find this was the first collaboration between Meryl Streep and Jeff Bridges, who both give the strongest performances in the film—their conversation about the nature of humanity in the climatic scene is thought-provoking and affecting as they each defend their positions. Taylor Swift's role is mercifully short, lasting only brief moments in a particular scene involving her playing the piano (of course!).
Ultimately, The Giver explores the unique beauty of humanity by posing a number of questions to Jonas, and thus the audience—what is the nature and power of memory? Of emotion? Of morality? Of love? Of faith? There is plenty in The Giver to elicit spiritual conversations, but the tragedy of The Giver is in its timing and release: in a world where young adult dystopian novel-to-movie adaptations are a dime a dozen, The Giver ironically falls into the trap of Sameness it so readily condemns. See the film, but before you do, pick up the novel and dive deep into Lowry's intriguing prose. There's a reason her book is a modern-day classic in the children's literature pantheon, and she says it herself--subtlety and nuance.
It is this subtlety and nuance, this mystery and creativity and diversity--this is central to what makes us human. We were never meant to all be exactly the same, robotic and static in our development. The Sameness utopia revealed in The Giver isn't the paradise of Eden. From Eden onward, we were always meant to breathe, expand, create, dream, and flourish in a world of colors and vibrancy. We're works of art, invited by the Creator to continue in His creative endeavors. The Giver, both novel and film, are such worthy endeavors...yet I imagine we'll only find one of them in the future heavenly city, when the kings of the earth bring in their splendor--the beautiful, mysterious, nuanced, creative endeavors of the human race.