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'The Giver' film doesn't do justice to the classic story

On Screen Entertainment

By Zak Witus, Daily Arts Writer
Published August 19, 2014

“The Giver” takes place in utopic-seeming dystopia, where everything is white and everybody is white and a totalitarian government dictates every aspect of the citizens’ lives from their menial jobs to their heteronormative “family units,” to their mood-controlling “medication.” The citizens are basically idiots — albeit happy, benign idiots (America! Fuck yeah!). They only receive educations pertaining to their assigned professions, and the professions are limited to very technical jobs, like drone pilots, garbage collectors, nurses, and so on. As a society they’ve eliminated all of what we’d call art, academia and culture. There are no writers, painters, musicians, or scholars, except for Jonas (Brenton Thwaites, “Maleficent”), the one “receiver of memory,” and the Giver (Jeff Bridges, “The Big Lebowski”). They are our intrepid teenage protagonist and his Socrates-like teacher.

This basic plot structure might sound familiar because it closely resembles many other dystopian stories, like 1984 or “The Hunger Games.” Like these other dystopias, the film criticizes our society through the sci-fi, futuristic lens — in this case warning us of the dangers of totalitarianism, Big Pharma, and sameness (to name a few). There are at least a few positive things to be said for the film: It celebrates the value of liberal education and critical thinking; it challenges our culture’s tendency to associate the color white with goodness and purity; and at some points it celebrates freedom, democracy, and love.

Overall, it’s the cinematic version of vanilla pudding. “The Giver” doesn’t build on or revise the major or minor dystopian classics. Instead it regurgitates them, partially digested, for a younger audience, like a mother bird feeding her chicks. As a result it gives us an unoriginal plot that’s less intellectually and artistically nutritious than the dystopia classics.

This blandness and lack of “food for thought” wouldn’t necessarily be a problem, except that it isn’t redeemed by the rest of the filmmaking. At times the acting is bad to the point of being unintentionally funny (I’m looking at you, Mr. Thwaites, and you, Katie Holmes). And there are important plot questions that go unanswered: like, why were Jonas and the Giver the first giver-receiver pair to rebel against their corrupt society and government? It’s obvious after seeing the film that the corruption would be glaring to any receiver of memory. And why is there any academy at all? If I were running a totalitarian state, the some of the first people I’d eliminate would be the academics; so why does this totalitarian state in “The Giver” insist on fostering those who threaten it?

Reviewing films adapted from novels is tough because I feel like I have to distinguish between the film and the book. I’ve never read the book “The Giver,” but the plot that the film presumably borrows from the novel is the best part of the film. But so the problem for me as the reviewer is that I only know the “basic plot” through the film, and so the elements of the film and the elements of the book are all mixed and mingled my mind — impossible to separate, like egg white and yolk whisked together. So, with this problem in mind, here’s my verdict: the basic story of the film is interesting and compelling and makes me want to go read the book, but the filmmaking is mediocre and overall “meh.” My recommendation is to skip the film and read the book instead (myself having never read the book). Overall I wish “The Giver” gave me a better movie.


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