If you’re in the film industry and hoping to make a splash at the box office, it never hurts to bring a popular young adult book to the big screen.
With post-apocalyptic YA adaptations The Hunger Games and Divergent cashing in with audiences, an adaptation of the legendary novel The Giver couldn’t have been too far behind.
Lois Lowry’s Newbery-winning story, a beloved tale about the importance of a vivid life, has been favorite of many since its 1993 bow.
Similar to the two titles above (but written far before those two), The Giver centers on a young protagonist (in this case, Jonas) who, within the perimeters of a limiting society, sets off a chain of events that could disrupt the status quo.
Even though Katniss and Tris beat Jonas to the cinemas, The Giver stands apart from the stories that followed it. The film’s contemplative ways only serves to push the original ideas of the novel home in a new setting.
After an unknown series of events, society has turned into a vanilla world of predestination, paleness and politeness. Children are told what their futures will be, there is no such thing as color and no one ever speaks out of turn or in anger. Even the simplest offenses receive a prompt apology.
When he becomes of age, Jonas (Brenton Thwaites), a bright young man, is given his life’s job by a deciding council (anchored by Meryl Streep’s Chief Elder). Jonas is summoned to receive the memories of the past from a man named the Giver (Jeff Bridges) in order to become an adviser to the higher-ups in making world-altering decision that won’t mimic those of before peace was reached.
As Jonas begins his work with the recluse Giver, he begins to see the world as it once was, a vibrant place of originality. With his eyes opened, Jonas begins to question why the world is the way it is.
Director Phillip Noyce (Patriot Games, Salt) does an admirable job of bringing Lowry’s vision to the screen, a difficult job to undertake due to the introspective nature of the source material.
The Giver as a novel is not a page-turner like The Hunger Games. Instead, the novel is a detailed look into what the world would look like if everyone was the same. It’s as much as a cautionary tale as anything, warning its young readers to always keep the world’s uniqueness in tact.
With that in mind, the film makes some wise craft and storytelling choices that help the viewer see the plot through Jonas’ eyes.
The film starts out in only black and white, which is exactly what Jonas is seeing, and not a single color appears until Jonas experiences it. This move allows for Ross Emery’s powerful cinematography to both simmer and pop. The mood of the blank society is made even more blank by the bleak images on screen, and the impact of Jonas experiencing real life for the first time wouldn’t be the same without introducing such vibrant colors into the film for the first time.
Both Noyce’s vision for how the scenes of discovery are staged and Emery’s vision behind the camera for how the world looks help make the film’s craftsmanship its finest feather in the cap. Emery’s work deserves to be recognized once Oscar voting rolls around, as its some of the finest so far this year.
Thwaites earns his breakout role as Jonas, bringing an earnestness and maturity to the character that makes it worth following what the young actor does next. Bridges has worked to get a Giver film off the ground for some time now, and his lobbing has paid off. Here, he gives the Giver a stoic-yet-passionate touch that makes the character entirely captivating. When the two are on screen together, it’s easy to see how well-cast these roles are.
Streep brings an appropriately icy touch to the Chief Elder, and Odeya Rush shines as Fiona, Jonas’ close friend and love interest. Thwaites and Rush have some of the film’s most heart-wrenching scenes together, with their puppy love a foreign notion in a world without true emotion.
In the spirit of the novel, the film is heavy with mood and dialogue, but a little added conflict is sprinkled here and there, especially in the third act, to add a little more suspense to the plot. It’s a move that may have staunch book fans in disagreement, but the additions give the final stretch a good dose of adrenaline to help it match with some of the more adventurous summer films out there. The film’s overall message and story remain in tact.
As far as YA adaptations go, The Giver doesn’t fully reach the epic heights of Harry Potter or Katniss Everdeen, but sometimes, it’s enough to get it right, and that’s exactly what The Giver does.
Noyce and company have made a reverent film that both honors its beloved beginnings and provides audiences with a thoughtful piece of family entertainment.