It’s been more than 20 years since Lois Lowry’s The Giver first hit shelves, and more than a decade since I first read it. It’s one of those transformative books, and before the recent YA trend towards totalitarianism, the first exposure most people had to dystopias. It’s not really 1984 for children (because it’s not really for children, despite everyone I know having reading before middle school), but what it says about the world and about imagination is formative for a lot of people. It definitely was for me.
When I heard it was being adapted, I wasn’t excited about it, but I also wasn’t totally put off. It’s a story about imagery, and actually seeing some of the images that are discussed in the book (and the way they affect the view of a colorless, lifeless world) struck me as potentially compelling.
But as I sat in the theater, I realized that I was wrong: The Giver isn’t about imagery at all.
It’s about imagination.
Director: Phillip Noyce
I’ve gotten into an unnecessary number of philosophical arguments about the color red. There are those who argue that “red” isn’t really a thing. They say that we’re all point at a thing and calling it red without having any real sense of what red is. But the reality is that “red” is the reflection of a particular wavelength of light. Red is a thing that we can measure, and thus a thing that exists. But unless they’re colorblind, even those who would argue that red is just a social construct would admit that a red shirt I pointed to was the thing we had all agreed on as red.
The Giver is about the color red. Sort of. The color red is not in and of itself important to the narrative, but it’s the first color that Jonas can clearly see. In this future world, color has been eliminated in favor of Sameness, and though the early trailers didn’t show it, it’s been removed from the film as well. (The difference between the look of the first trailer and the final film is completely bizarre.) Everything is monochromatic (which I’m only now realizing probably has some kind of racial component), and everyone looks the same, sounds the same, and acts the same. Unlike 1984, they have neglected to actually remove emotional words from their speech, instead focusing on “Precision of Language” and chastising those who do use them (which I’m only now realizing makes literally no sense).
It’s been long enough since I’ve read The Giver that I don’t really remember the narrative; I only remember details. I remember the shock that The Giver could turn off the loudspeaker that barked orders in every nook and cranny of Sameness (a detail the film lacks), I remember the color of an infant’s eyes (oddly less striking onscreen), and I remember the sled (they kept the sled).
Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) has recently graduated and is ready to be sorted into his assigned job. But whereas everyone else seems to know their plan in life, he feels like there’s no place for him in society. At the big sorting ceremony, Jonas is skipped and everyone else gets a place. Then he is told that he will be the new “Receiver of Memory.” He meets with Jeff Bridges, the former Receiver of Memory and now The Giver (of Memory). Their job is simple: To see the world that the elders of Sameness have worked so hard to eradicate. They feel emotions and see colors and know the true meaning of pain and death and violence. He gets memories of all kinds. But his first memory is the sled. A simple sled ride down a snowy hill is a revelation to someone who doesn’t know what hills are or snow is. It’s a completely new sensation, and a wonderful one. It opens his eyes and he wants everyone else to feel it too.
If you remember the book in any detail (again, I do not), you’ll probably have noticed the modern YA influences, and that comes before I mention the whole romantic subplot. The Giver is conventional, although its dystopia is far less bleak than those from in newer stories. Conventionality is not inherently a problem, but it is a shame, given that The Giver was ahead of its time. The thing is, The Giver‘s biggest failing is a conceptual one.
When Jonas doesn’t know what the color red is, The Giver has to explain it to him. He has to explain that there are other colors to be seen and he will soon be seeing them. But the problem is that you and I and everyone else in the theater knows what red is. We know what a sled is, and snow and the sunset. As a novel, The Giver can make us imagine (potentially even recall from our own memories) these things, but with a film we can see them. We don’t need what we just saw explained to us, because we understand it already. The fact that the protagonist is stupid and doesn’t isn’t our problem. We’re lightyears ahead of the guy, and that’s a problem. Even when he stops having things explained to him and starts making grand proclamations about culture and emotions and etc., he’s not saying anything new. Going into the theater, we already know literally everything that Jonas will know by the time the credits roll. The Giver is not transformative. It isn’t even informative.
But despite all that and against all reason, I found myself enthralled by some of the imagery. GoPro shots of kayaking rapids are pretty spectacular on the big screen, and the footage of poachers shooting elephants, real or not, is pretty upsetting. The images of the dystopia fail to make their mark (although the way color seeps into the world as the film continues is a nice effect), but those from our own world are often beautiful, or at the very least interesting. Unlike its peers, The Giver has a reverence for life and for humanity. Montages of footage, new and old, are reminders of why Planet Earth itself is so amazing, but also just how different its billions of inhabitants are.
The Giver is not a good movie, but its optimism is invigorating. Right from the first trailer, the marketing for the film highlighted Meryl Streep’s line, “When people have the freedom to choose, they choose wrong.” It’s a powerful statement, but in context it’s completely different. This isn’t the statement of an authoritative figure casually explaining her ideals; this is a woman at the brink of losing everything, pleading for reason against emotion. She is beaten back by a literal wave of human optimism.
And while The Giver is not particularly successful as a narrative or a film, I must celebrate it for that.