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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

The Giver movie review: give it back

The Giver red light

A very simplistic Dystopia for Dummies — with a bit of Terrence Malick for Dummies thrown in — and inoffensive enough until it devolves into all kinds of stupid.
I’m “biast” (pro): I’m a big fan of science fiction

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

I have not read the source material

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

It would be easy to let The Giver slide if its only problem were that it bears too close a resemblance to some of the other examples of young adult science fiction that have gotten recent transfers to the big screen. Such as (and most uncomfortably) Divergent, with which it shares a setting of a seeming utopia that shoehorns its happily conformist citizens into narrow roles until one oddball comes along who chaffs at the system. After all, the Lois Lowry novel this is based on was published almost 20 years before Divergent, and if some of Hollywood’s own self-imposed dystopian conformity is responsible for other issues with this movie — like how the book’s prepubescent 12-year-old protagonist is suddenly an 18-year-old hottie — well, this could still have been something to recommend to the young moviegoer who has discovered she enjoys teen SF action drama. Indeed, during the first half of The Giver, I figured I would be recommending this, if only halfheartedly, as a very simplistic Dystopia for Dummies — with a bit of Terrence Malick for Dummies thrown in — and encouraging any kids who enjoyed the movie to please go check out Brave New World, 1984, and Fahrenheit 451, for starters. (I presume the Newbery Medal-winning Lowry novel is also worth reading.)

That all still applies, of course, but best to skip this movie entirely and head straight to the library. Because the tale of confused teen Jonas (Brenton Thwaites: Maleficent, Oculus), who feels like he doesn’t fit in to the carefully planned and painstakingly structured utopia he finds himself a part of, completely falls apart in its second half, in ways that are all kinds of stupid and, unforgivably for a science fiction film, laughably unscientific in ways that cannot even be defended with “well, we all know that sci-fi movies never get the science right.”

Jonas, you see, has been assigned the job of Receiver of Memories, to be passed on to him by the Giver of Memories (Jeff Bridges: True Grit, Tron: Legacy). These Memories are of the past world that is now hidden from people, a world of war and hatred and all sorts of ugliness, but also of passion and music and art and love. Human emotions have been medically suppressed, and you can’t have love without hate, compassion without jealousy, and so on. (We’re just taking the movie’s word for that. Maybe that’s true, but it’s not instantly obvious that it is, and it’s an idea that is worth exploring more.) The Giver is whom the leaders of the community go to when they need guidance on something or other, though it’s never really clear why his knowledge would be required when, obviously, the leaders are tasked with making decisions without emotion clouding their judgment.

But that’s not the howler that causes the entire scenario to collapse. The howler is the method by which Jonas will return all those awful, wonderful memories to all the people, once he decides that this is what his society needs. (Never before has the fact that a teenager is making decisions that will bring down his entire world, on his actions and judgment alone, been quite so accidentally disturbing.) It makes no sense at all within the context of the story, because it’s kind of like if the people in the past who set up this system had placed a big red button smack in the middle of their thing that they truly believed was for the good of all humankind with a sign on it reading “Please do not press this button.” (Also too: Jonas had to sneakily stop taking his medication to suppress his emotions in order to begin feeling, but this thing will supposedly work to make everyone feel again even though they’re doped up.) It is the most MacGuffin-y of MacGuffins, and it’s made even more offensive by the fact that it doesn’t make sense, either, on a level of how human memory — or collective cultural memory — works.

Maybe The Giver The Movie wants to work as metaphor, what with all those Malick-esque diversions into the emotive past. Except they’re all presented as very concrete, very actual memories that the Giver is sharing with the Receiver (it’s a sort of psychic thing the basis for which we have no understanding), not anything intended to convey much in the way of general human mood. Or if they are, they fail. Cinema is typically a very good medium for the expression of visual emotion, so it’s beyond odd that we don’t end up feeling very much here. The closest director Phillip Noyce (Salt, Rabbit-Proof Fence) gets to making us appreciate a little bit of what Jonas might be going through is how he (Noyce) starts off presenting this world in black-and-white, with dashes of color springing up as Jonas begins to start looking past the blandness of unfeeling conformity. But that’s only Noyce taking a cue from Pleasantville… which I’d also recommend as a smarter alternative to The Giver, and covering much the same ground in a far more entertaining way.


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The Giver (2014)
US/Can release: Aug 15 2014
UK/Ire release: Sep 19 2014

MPAA: rated PG-13 for a mature thematic image and some sci-fi action/violence
BBFC: rated 12A (moderate violence, threat)

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, you might want to reconsider.

  • Froborr

    Been years since I read it, but IIRC the transition from black and white to color was in the book as well. So… the only effective use of the medium of film the director achieved was actually something taken directly from the prose text. Ouch.

  • Danielm80

    I realize that film and prose are different mediums, and that a director’s personal style can contribute a lot to a movie, but if I were adapting a classic, much-loved novel, I would consider “This adds nothing to the book” to be a high compliment.

  • althea

    You are correct about the black and white in the book. There’s a moment early on, before Jonas meets the Giver, that he witnesses an apple thrown in the air briefly appear “different”. He doesn’t know that it’s changed to red because he doesn’t know color. And the reader doesn’t know that yet.

  • Bluejay

    I presume the Newbery Medal-winning Lowry novel is also worth reading.

    Yes, it is, very much so. From what I’ve seen of the trailers and read in the reviews, the movie just took a wrong turn into Action-Packed Generic Dystopia, a far cry from the much quieter and more disturbing tale that I remember the book to be. The book’s ending was also intentionally vague and open to interpretation; I wonder if the movie’s ending is.

    As others have said, the black-and-white thing is not just a cue from Pleasantville but is taken from the book itself, and it’s a big “aha!” moment when the reader realizes that everyone in the book (prior to Jonas) can’t see color, because the writing cleverly avoids mentioning any colors until the apple. So you’re put into the position (along with Jonas) of initially assuming everything’s normal and only gradually realizing that you’ve been missing out on something, and what that something is. You lose that right away in a visual translation, which just makes the lack-of-color thing obvious from the start.

  • Bluejay

    I wouldn’t. Because if it doesn’t add anything, why bother watching the movie?

    I would rather that a film adaptation add the right things to a book.

  • Jurgan

    “The book’s ending was also intentionally vague and open to interpretation; I wonder if the movie’s ending is.”

    Not even close. Rot13 spoilers:

    Wbanf tbrf guebhtu n TYBJVAT ONEEVRE naq n evccyvat jnir bs pbybe fcernqf npebff gur jbeyq. Gura lbh frr rirelbar’f zrzbevrf ergheavat nf Wbanf jnyxf bss vagb n pnova jurer crbcyr ner fvatvat Puevfgznf pnebyf, gb yvir unccvyl rire nsgre.

  • Jurgan

    The movie was definitely a letdown. The black-and-white to color transition was perfect, and taken directly from the book. However, the book was a lot more contemplative and ambiguous. It deliberately avoided going into how the memory suppression worked, and the medications they took in the morning were mainly to suppress hormones and sexual desire, not emotions. The emotions were tied to the memories, and no one would have been able to emote simply by avoiding their medicine.

    You hit on one of the big problems with “it’s never really clear why his knowledge would be required when, obviously, the leaders are tasked with making decisions without emotion clouding their judgment.” In the book, except for the Receiver no one even knew what starvation, poverty, war, loneliness, etc. were. At one point, the elders consider raising the childbirth rate to improve industrial output, and the Receiver tells them it’s a bad idea. He doesn’t bother to explain how overpopulation can lead to starvation and war, because he knows the elders wouldn’t even be able to conceive of such things. The Chief Elder had a greatly expanded role in the movie, which was either the cause or the effect of casting Meryl Streep. In the book, she was a non-entity, but they decided to make her too much of a villain in the movie. It became clear she was fully aware of the choices she was making, and so the society was less well-meaning but overzealous utopia, and more totalitarian dictatorship. The Receiver still had to hold in the memories, I guess, but the “advising the elders” role no longer made sense.

    Of course, as you say, the real kicker is the ending. Until the last fifteen minutes, the movie was a decent adaptation, if containing a few logical lapses here and there. There were some unnecessary action sequences (I wonder if changing Asher from a recreation director to a drone pilot was a hamhanded attempt at political satire), but it was basically what I expected. But anyone who’s read the book will tell you the wonderfully ambiguous ending is the best part. Jonas still goes off into the wilderness in hopes it will save society, but we don’t know if he succeeds, or even if he survives. We don’t see the community again after he leaves it; we see only what Jonas sees. So the explicit ending is awful, and I barely stopped myself from shouting at the screen. I only hope there’s an alternate ending that was originally filmed before a studio demanded more closure, and the alternate is on DVD, but I doubt it. Then again, the book had three sequels, which I’ve never read, so it could be Lowry already wrecked the ambiguity. She said she thought people were too pessimistic about the ending and didn’t want them thinking Jonas died. In my mind, this is a great argument for authors not to make statements about the meaning behind their work.

    So, yeah, can’t really recommend this one. I pretty much agree with your review. Also, Movie Bob used the same tagline (“Give it Back”) in one of his promos, but I’m sure that’s just a coincidence.

  • Bluejay

    Ugh.

  • LaSargenta

    Gross!

  • I don’t know who Movie Bob is, so yes, it’s a coincidence.

    He doesn’t bother to explain how overpopulation can lead to starvation and war

    But you don’t need emotions to see that if you don’t have enough food to feed new mouths, this will be a problem. The Elders couldn’t see that on their own?

    Jonas still goes off into the wilderness in hopes it will save society

    But how is he supposed to save it? Is the stupid “Boundary of Memory” a thing in the book, too?

  • althea

    Ditto LaSargenta & Bluejay. Holy F’n Crow.

  • David

    I remember him going into the woods mostly just to save the life of an extraneous child.

  • David

    That’s freaking terrible. One of the points of the novel is that it did not offer the an easy answer of whether the society should be torn down or not.

  • Jurgan

    Movie Bob does video reviews of new releases and reflections on pop culture trends. I figured you’d run into him at some point-, the world of online film criticism can’t be that big. (Not that I was accusing you of stealing from him, of course!)

    The truth is the Elders really couldn’t understand anything outside their world. It’s not just emotions, it’s memories, and the society deliberately removed all memories of suffering. People literally could not conceive that the world was ever different than it currently was. Minor changes could be made, but the idea that society could be vastly changed was impossible. Does it work? Well, I thought so, but you might disagree if you read it. In any event, it’s kind of tangential to the main point, which is simply that someone has to hold in the memories.

    “Is the stupid “Boundary of Memory” a thing in the book, too?”

    Eh, not exactly… Like I said, the book is deliberately ambiguous about how the “memory-removal” worked. Lowry doesn’t mainly write sci-fi, so she may have been afraid an explanation wouldn’t make sense to more serious sci-fi readers, but I think it was the right decision to keep it vague. Basically, the idea is that all of the societal memories are tied to the community, and as Jonas gets farther away, they gradually trickle back. There’s no bright blue line, just a slow change as he goes. Or do they? Again, we only see Jonas’s POV, so there’s no way of knowing if the plan ever had any hope of success, but the Giver and Jonas believe that once he gets far enough away (to “Elsewhere”), the memories will return. At least, that’s one view. A darker interpretation is that the Giver knew the plan was impossible and sent Jonas out intending for him to die, which he knew from experience would return the memories. I don’t think that was intended, and the sequels may have cleared it up, but within the book itself the fact that we have no idea whether the plan will work makes it stronger.

  • Tonio Kruger

    Also, Movie Bob used the same tagline (“Give it Back”) in one of his promos, but I’m sure that’s just a coincidence.

    And the musical group Midnight Oil uses the same phrase in one of their more famous songs from the late 1980s but I’m sure that’s just a coincidence too. ;-)

    Not that I don’t feel more than a little silly pointing that out to all the experts on Gen X culture that post on this forum but still…

  • I figured you’d run into him at some point; the world of online film criticism can’t be that big.

    Never heard of him. I mostly don’t read other reviews before I write my own, because I don’t want to be influenced, and then after I write my reviews, I’ve moved on to other movies. There’s just never time.

    And there are thousands of people reviewing movies online. The world is huge.

  • Rachel

    ” Cinema is typically a very good medium for the expression of visual emotion, so it’s beyond odd that we don’t end up feeling very much here.”
    That was a huge part of my problem with the movie… the book’s scenes of transferred memories were overwhelming and emotional, but mostly because of their subtlety I think. The scene of war was centered around a wounded, dying boy begging for water from whoever the memory’s originator was, and the hours of listening to fallen soldiers suffering and dying around him. There was no chaos as the movie showed, nothing was “in your face” emotion… a lot of the book’s emotional power was in that it let readers realize for themselves what was happening… I think dramatic irony is what you call it. The whole stupid “boundary of memory” was never even a concept. What happened in the book is that Rosemary, 10 years earlier, couldn’t bear the long lonely life ahead of her of bearing all those memories, and chose to be “released”- she killed herself. The memories that the Giver had given to her were released as well, basically because they had to go somewhere. So they ended up with the people, who were traumatized and couldn’t deal with it. Jonas comes along, and he and the Giver eventually decide that this can’t go on, that the people need to know… especially once Jonas understands that “release” is just euthanasia. They hoped that if Jonas got far enough away from the community to effectively be “released”, the memories would go to them. And the Giver could help them to come to terms with that. However, there is a complication… Gabriel, the infant who is too fussy, to incapable of being independent, to be allowed to live (some psychologists would just call him “sensitive”), is to be released. Jonas had taken to giving peaceful memories to Gabriel, because of Gabriel’s innate sensitivity to them (signified by his light eyes, which Jonas also has… everyone else has dark ones), but once Jonas can no longer do that, Gabriel goes back to being an unspecified infant. So Jonas takes Gabriel, they bike all through the night to get away, hide from drones for days, and by the end are so overexposed and starved that there is no way of knowing if, after getting to the top of the snowy hill, they just die, or actually get to the warm, Christmastime house below.

  • Abedalsalam Sinno

    “The Giver” Review.

    Emotions are what shape our world, our present, past and future. That what the authorities would take away from their citizens to have them controllable, or that what “The Giver” wishes to make us aware of. Memories what bring about emotions. If you cannot remember, you cannot sense. How could you love a person you never saw?

    In a hypothetical world, “The Giver” narrates a story of a seeming isolated community. Citizens are taught they are equal, in nourishment, duties, language, medications and their dwellings. The community seems utopian, or heavenly if I may say. However, as events go on, suspicions come out bit by bit. Elderly rule the society. People are categorized after graduation, based on their merits. One, the chosen, is allowed to receive the memory of the past, and keep it within to provide wisdom for elderly, the rulers, whenever needed. The giver is the one who transmits history via physically attached sessions of meditation every other day.

    The chosen receiver, while obtaining memories of the past, starts re-collecting emotions he loses through daily injections- every citizen is exposed to- thought curative as told. As he retrieves his memories, he feels what a real human can be. He experiences love, joyousness, music, habits and colors. It doesn’t look weird for an isolated community not to experience the said qualities, as they were never introduced, but extracted. It was enjoyable experiencing what a life could be with qualities such love, happiness and what have you. That said, Jonas, the receiver, was badly dreaded when he witnessed the other part of the story. War, as depicted in a killing scene, was not as lovely, but displayed voraciousness and brutality of humanity.

    The elderly claim that people will always choose wrong. Thus, communities have to be isolated from their own nature, and should be nurtured emotionless. However, could a man, who sees the real version, stay put and never attempts to change? Would a rebellious impulse originate to set a confrontation mode against an artificially constructed community?

    “The Giver” attempts to reflect the trade-off between equality and freedom. Who favor which and why? Politically, psychologically, philosophically and sociologically driven film is rich with ideas dawning viewers’ minds. Noteworthy movies are to be considered as source of knowledge if read well. “The Giver” is one of those!

  • Wow, that is completely thematically different from the movie.

  • Thomas Watson

    If you’re a fan of the dystopian movies (and by golly they have been coming at us with great force recently!) then do watch the Giver. I don’t think I’ll watch it again, but I am glad that I can now tick that off my ‘to watch’ list.

  • Unless you’re a fan of *good* dystopian movies. Then you might want to avoid this one. :-)

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