“The Giver” is the latest dystopian thriller to follow an attractive teen who must fight against the totalitarian authority of misguided adults. And if that sounds like every other post-apocalyptic young adult film ever, keep in mind that at least “The Giver” came out a decade or two before such recent YA offerings as “The Hunger Games” and “Divergent.” Directed by Phillip Noyce (his first feature since 2010’s Angelina Jolie thriller “Salt”) and starring an impressive cast (producer Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep, Katie Holmes, Alexander Skarsgard, and a nearly unrecognizable Taylor Swift).
Based on Lois Lowry’s best seller, “The Giver” focuses on a utopian community where there’s no discrimination, war, pain, or hate but also no love, emotion, art, or joy. The goal is “Sameness.” On the day when all 16-year-olds receive their permanent job assignment, Jonas (Aussie newcomer Brenton Thwaites) is selected to inherit the role of Receiver of Memory, a job that requires him to bear all of the pain of the past for the good of the community. The Giver (Jeff Bridges) will impart the truth about the world to young Jonas, who’s forbidden from telling anyone about the lies they’ve been told.
Before you make up your mind, here’s what you need to know about the newest YA adaptation.
1. It’s Based on a Classic
Since it’s far from the first teen dystopia to hit theaters, audiences unfamiliar with the book may not realize that “The Giver” is based on a best seller that’s more than 20 years old. Routinely taught in English middle-school curricula, Lois Lowry’s tale of sameness versus individual expression predates the current young adult craze, so like “Ender’s Game,” it’s got a sizable fan base that ranges from those of us who were teens in the early ’90s to current tweens reading it for the first time.
2. Brenton Thwaites Is Too Old
Jonas, the story’s protagonist, is not quite 12 when the book begins, but the filmmakers decided to age him up for the movie (he’s now 16), Percy Jackson style. And like with Percy Jackson, a magical part of the story is lost in turning Jonas into a full-blown adolescent. Sure, Thwaites doesn’t look his actual age (he’s 25!), but he’s still way too old to be the Jonas of readers’ memory. This is beyond an aesthetic height and hair color issue, it’s a fundamental part of Jonas’ story changed just so what — a hot up and comer could play the part? Age aside, the handsome Thwaites does a decent job, but it still would’ve packed a bigger emotional punch for the characters to remain their canon ages.
3. It’s Mostly in Black and White
If you see the first trailer, you might assume that the movie is in color, like basically every other movie. But you’d be wrong. The movie starts off in black and white to underscore how the community forbids any differences, including colors, emotions, art, and individual freedoms. Without color, “sameness” prevails. Color begins to creep in slowly as Jonas’s eyes are figuratively opened to the realities of life around him. Bet you can guess what — or more accurately who — a boy his age first sees in color.
4. Meryl Streep Is Super Creepy
No one should be surprised that the Greatest Of All Time is skillful in every role she plays, including the community’s Chief Elder, which is a creeptastic combination of (and literary predecessor to) Jeanine Matthews and President Snow, with a dash of Nurse Ratched. Don’t let her long grey wig and bangs confuse you, the Chief Elder is no hippie earth mother leader; she’s ruthless when it comes to protecting the Sameness that keeps the community “safe.”
5. Jeff Bridges Is More Than The Giver
Bridges isn’t just the sage Receiver of Memory ready to pass along the role to his young successor, he’s also the film’s producer. Bridges had been trying to get “The Giver” on screen for years — so long that he originally imagined his late father Lloyd (who died in 1998) in the titular role and himself as the director. The father and son even shot some footage to help it get acquired, but the project languished in development. Twenty years later, Bridges was old enough to play The Giver himself (plus he already had the white beard).
6. It’s Much Less Violent Than Other Dystopias
Don’t expect the sort of graphic teen-on-teen violence prevalent in fellow dystopian adaptations. While there are some disturbing moments (including a horrific shot of a man unknowingly administering a lethal injection to a newborn), violent images of past wars, and a nail-biting climactic chase sequence, “The Giver” is still considerably less bloody than “Divergent,” “Ender’s Game,” and “The Hunger Games.” That’s a good thing, really.
7. The Romance Isn’t Exactly Epic
One thing’s for sure, the camera loves Odeya Rush. The Israeli actress is stunning, so of course the many shots of her dewy skin and doe-eyed beauty make it obvious why Jonas is stirring with feelings for her. But this isn’t the swoony Katniss and Peeta / Edward and Bella / Tris and Four/ Hazel and Augustus romance that teens are used to in comparable films. Jonas and Fiona’s relationship is sweet and a central reason he wants to experience life in color, but it’s not one of those epic love stories.
8. Alexander Skarsgard for the Win
Critics have already focused on Katie Holmes and made a connection between the community and Scientology, but I don’t want to go there. Instead, let’s give props to Skarsgard for being the sole adult besides The Giver to show tiny glimpses of feeling and dissent. Even though his character has clearly drunk the Sameness Kool-Aid, he also manages to subvert the rules a few times to comfort his kids and attempt to save a baby who isn’t thriving. Skarsgard infuses his character with depth and kindness.
9. For Once, the Movie Is Too Short
The brisk 94-minute running time is a welcome break from overlong summer popcorn fare like the ridiculously under-edited “Transformers: Age of Extinction,” but it means there’s not enough care taken to make the Jonas-Giver sequences impactful. All of the montages of worldly horrors (and joys) are so fast and furious Jonas barely has any time to process them before the scene cuts away, and he has to deal with something else.
10. The Ending Is Vague
Like the book, the movie ends on a vague note. Although the book is part of a “quartet,” the four installments are companion novels not a traditional chronological series. So if you’re wondering exactly what happens next, you’ll have to consider the possibilities yourself, because a sequel wouldn’t take place exactly where this story concludes. But do read the books (or encourage a teenager to), because they’re all well-written commentaries on what makes life — and society — worthwhile.
“The Giver” is in theaters now.
Photo courtesy of The Weinstein Company
Gallery | YA Movie Mistakes
- ‘Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone’ (2001)
When Harry’s broomstick tries to shake him off because of the spell, you can see a metal seat on the broom. This was presumably to make the broomstick more comfortable for Daniel Radcliffe to sit on (though, you’d think there would be a spell for that).
- ‘Twilight’ (2008)
When Bella pulls up to school for her first day at Forks High, the camera and boom mic are clearly visible in her windshield.
- ‘The Princess Diaries’ (2001)
Mia accidentally hits the softball at Josh’s groin, but in reality, the ball hit him in the stomach. This is an error we can (hopefully) all excuse!
- ‘Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets’ (2002)
In the dueling scene, just before Snape pulls Malfoy back onto his feet, a cameraman can be seen kneeling on the left of the screen among all the children. Someone get that guy a wizard’s robe!
- ‘The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants’ (2005)
When Yia Yia dunks Lena’s head in the water, Lena’s hair changes between shots without her touching it.
- ‘The Twilight Saga: New Moon’ (2009)
When Jacob first reveals his tattoo, it is on the top part of his shoulder. In the forest, at the end of the film, Jacob’s tattoo is noticeably lower on his arm.
- ‘Eragon’ (2006)
When Eragon is examining Saphira’s dragon helmet, the helmet is full face, with only slits for eyes. When Saphira actually wears the helmet, however, it only covers the top of her head and leaves her entire face exposed. Needless to say, it is a different helmet entirely.
- ‘Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban’ (2004)
Malfoy noticeably flinches before the snowball hits him in the back of the head (he’s not supposed to see it coming).
- ‘The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2′ (2012)
Towards the end of the film, the heels on Bella’s shoes vanish momentarily.
- ‘Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix’ (2007)
When Harry and the rest of his crew are held in Umbridge’s office, their confiscated wands (on her desk) continually change positions between shots.
- ‘The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ (2005)
We respect the fact that family movies shouldn’t be gratuitously violent, but in this scene from “The Chronicles of Narnia,” they could have been a little more realistic about Peter getting stabbed in the arm. The sword is barely touching him.
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