They Take and They Take…
By Johnny Pomatto
Lois Lowry’s 1993 book THE GIVER entered the “young adult” market before Hollywood had figured out what to do with it. The swooning, heartthrobs of “Twilight” and empowered teen adventures of “Hunger Games” and “The Maze Runner” were several years away. Something quiet and introspective like THE GIVER seemed too dark and complex for most teens, and so, after winning numerous awards, it was ultimately discovered and embraced by adult readers. One of those readers was actor Jeff Bridges, who fell in love with the story and campaigned heavily to make the film, with him in the role of the young protagonist’s father, and his own father, Lloyd Bridges, playing the title role. Sadly, Hollywood couldn’t figure out how to handle the subtle twists and mysterious ambiguity of the story and deemed it unfilmable. Now, 20 years later, and after what I can only imagine was a series of compromises, the film adaptation, (directed by Philip Noyce, whose previous films range from excellent to unwatchable), finally arrives, with Bridges in the role of The Giver.
THE GIVER takes place in a kind of utopia where everything has been simplified and given a tone of sameness. Every year, citizens advance to a new age and achieve some milestone in the process. Young children are assigned a “comfort object” at birth, only to have it ceremoniously taken away at 9 and replaced with a bicycle. Eventually one is assigned a spouse, and then children, (babies are created by specifically assigned birth mothers), and everything runs cleanly, though as is the case with most utopias, there’s a dark undercurrent behind all the smiling faces. At the ceremony where the young residents are assigned their career, our protagonist Jonas (the 25 year old Brenton Thwaites, playing a character who in the book is 12), gets a surprise. He is given the task of being the community’s new Receiver of Memories. The citizens live in such ignorant bliss because all memories of pain, loss, and suffering have been kept from them. Even color has been removed from the world, a twist that is a shocking revelation in the book, but here we can plainly see from the start thanks to black and white photography. This is one of the many aspects of the story that once made it thought unfilmable. How do you keep the absence of color a surprise without showing it? I had a few ideas, but nobody asked me. Only Jonas, the Receiver of Memory is given access to the truth of what the world used to be like, and he receives these memories from the old, burdened soul who harbors them in his mind: the titular Giver.
As Jonas receives the world’s memories he becomes increasingly aware of the lies that make up his society, but these aren’t the only troubles he’ll encounter in his saga. The Chief Elder of their world (Meryl Streep) becomes suspicious of Jonas’ expanding mind and ideas. His best friend Asher is assigned a job in government security (a position I don’t even understand the need for if the society is already supposed to be perfect), and he becomes ever loyal to the cause of sameness. And even his parents, (Alexander Skarsgard and Katie Holmes) have no real love for him and would happily turn against him if that’s what was required of them. This is a case of “too many villains” in a story that didn’t need any. Many utopian stories have some man behind the curtain, pulling the strings and hiding the truth from its residents. THE GIVER didn’t need such a villain. The implication of the book was that this culture and its values had been going on for centuries. So long, that The Giver was the only one who still even knew why his tasks were so important. There was only one villain in the book, and that was ignorance. But ignorance can’t say lines like: “Jonas has become dangerous. I want you to find him, then I want you to lose him.” Ignorance can’t pursue someone with a menacing drone. Suddenly THE GIVER starts to look just like any other tween adventure flick, and the radical ideas of the book are watered down and condensed into narration. The story is still technically there, but you really have to already know the details to find them hidden behind the tacked on romantic subplots and action scenes.
In a recent interview Bridges gave to promote the film, he mentioned that in the mid 90’s, when all hope of getting a film adaptation produced by a major studio seemed lost, he decided to film his own version of the story without the rights. This would just be for himself, a true fan of the book, so there would be no need to add unnecessary story elements to increase suspense, or cast attractive young male actors to appeal to an audience of teenage girls. Bridges placed his father in the part that would someday become his own, and his nephew (son of Beau) as Jonas. Now I don’t know how detailed his script was or how much of the story it actually covered, but while sitting in a dark theater watching this Disneyfied insult, all I could think is how much more I would rather be watching the film Bridges made. The one he wanted to make. My review hardly matters when you consider that even this film’s star is disappointed in the final result and wistful of what it could have been.