The Giver - Movie Review

The Giver

Release date: 15 August 2014

Directed by: Phillip Noyce

Starring: Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep, Brenton Thwaites

Based on the novel The Giver by Lois Lowry

Walden Media/The Weinstein Company


This review may lightly touch on some spoilers for those who have not read the book.

I've had my qualms about the film version of The Giver for some time now. First, the studio released a color trailer, when long-time fans of the book were expecting at least part of the film to be in black-and-white, since the community examined by both forms of the story has done away with the perception of color in the interest of maintaining equality as the highest ideal. It took the production several weeks to release the expected black-and-white trailer, but by then the damage had been done: the Internet's buzz about the film had dissolved into a disapproving hum. Pre-release marketing was capped off by a fundraising campaign called The Giver 4 Good, which despite some nebulousness* managed to raise almost $20,000 for arts charities, and gave fans a chance to attend the August 11 NYC premiere of the film with the principal cast and production team.

I had hoped Jeff Bridges's involvement and passion for the project would mean a better-than-predicted outcome, since he was co-producing as well as playing the titular character. I headed to the theater on opening night (husband in tow) in the hopes that the futuristic, aged-up adaptation would at least deliver the cathartic feeling I remember from reading the book. Unfortunately, while occasionally entertaining and exploding with color, the movie seemed to flatten itself against its own emotional payload to the point of muffling the reactions and understanding of the audience.

I really liked the futuristic interpretation and overall design of the film: the communities, the uniforms, and the stiffly cheerful way the characters conducted themselves in their utopian existence. The cast and the director, Phillip Noyce, did a passable job of recreating and interpreting the mood and characters of the novel. Meryl Streep is chillingly authoritative as the Chief Elder, all sharp edges and crisp lines. I also loved the sweet, haunting soundtrack.

Despite all that was good about it, the adaptation overall seemed a little tone-deaf. The introduction of shaky-cam in the later scenes as Jonah (played by the ebullient Brenton Thwaites) flees the community jarred me in just the wrong way. It was hard to watch and really took me out of the action, even as it was supposed to drop the viewer right into the urgency of his escape. Adorable as he might be at other points in the movie, Jonah's clumsy overtures towards childhood friend Fiona (portrayed by charming newcomer Odeya Rush) bordered on the smarmy, while also being unintentionally funny. Furthermore, Taylor Swift's cameo as Rosemary doesn't reveal any particular talent for acting; absolutely zero spark between her and the parental figure she shares the scene with makes the scene uncomfortably slow and quiet.

My husband, Jason, would occasionally laugh inappropriately and elbow me in the darkness of the theater, finding these missteps humorous. For him, since he had never read the book and was unfamiliar with the story, the scene which explains the concept of "release" to the audience (carried out in perfect stoicism by Alexander Skarsgård) fell fatally flat. What should have elicited a gasp of realization or horror from the crowd elicited no reaction at all from either of us; in fact, Jason's strongest impression of the film was how happy he would be to give up anything if it meant he could live in their tidy, peaceful, well-organized community.

While not a total disaster, The Giver's film adaptation hits too many sour notes to be thoroughly satisfying, whether or not you have read the novel. If nothing else, it's a great tool around which one can build a discussion of film vs. print and the difficulties inherent in translating one form of media to the other. Hard-core fans will likely leave disappointed, while those with middling-to-low acquaintance with the material may find enough in the pretty visuals to keep them entertained. As for me, I must have gotten my injection that day; nothing about The Giver touched my heartstrings enough to move me to either laughter or tears.

New York Premiere, Monday, August 11, 2014

*As a participant in The Giver 4 Good campaign, I wondered what organization was going to benefit from the fundraiser, as the preliminary materials didn't state any place in particular. I eventually got in touch with someone from the campaign and found out that American Repertory Theater (A.R.T) was one of them, based in Boston but with a supporting group in NYC. The organizer wasn't able to name any of the other "arts charities".

Lack of concrete information and all, I wasn't able to convince anyone I knew to donate. However, I still "placed" high enough in the campaign to get a pass to the NYC premiere of the movie. Since I wasn't about to spend $1300 on airfare to see a free movie (even if The Dude was going to be there, which to be honest, made me seriously consider the possibility) I figured out a way to transfer the ticket to an elementary school teacher friend of mine in the area.

Photo credit: Colleen Khachatourians. L to R: Meryl Streep (Chief Elder), Brenton Thwaites (Jonah), Odeya Rush (Fiona), Katie Holmes (Mother), Cameron Monaghan (Asher), Taylor Swift (Rosemary), Emma Tremblay (Lilly), author Lois Lowry, director Phillip Noyce, producer Nikki Silver (?), producer Jeff Bridges

Having just read the book herself, and having been moved so deeply by it, the film version was "a bit of a disappointment" in the way it rushed through the beginning of the story, failing to connect you to the characters. 

She wrote to me:

"Much of the important details are quickly explained in little soundbites or glimpses. At least the movie makes the most of the gray vs color detail. It seemed like the most potentially powerful details were glossed over or softened. This was a book that scarred the children who read it. I was hoping it would make the audience shit in their pants. It didn't bear that same weight for people. I didn't shed a single tear. The last half is almost completely rewritten."

My 13-year-old friend J.T., who attended a remote premiere, agrees: "At first they followed the book a lot but then BANG! They added a bunch of whatever they wanted. Also, there was completely different messages from the book compared to the movie. Overall I think it was worth seeing... since I didn't have to pay a single cent. :P"

Colleen still seems glad the had the chance to attend the premiere, and at the very least she had a little fangirl moment when she walked past Lois Lowry.

The Giver Collection from China Glaze. I got everything except "Community". Don't ask me why CG seems to throw a poo-brown color into every collection.

My signed copy of The Giver (thanks, Amber :)

The Giver is currently in theatres nationwide, plus Canada, Israel and India. It will release worldwide over the next 6 weeks.