Before “The Hunger Games” and “Divergent” series zoomed off bookshelves and onto movie screens, where they became blockbuster franchises, there was a quieter dystopian novel that entranced millions of young readers: 1993’s “The Giver.”
The original black-and-white cover — a bearded man with white hair and a furrowed, wrinkled brow, a gold 1994 Newbery Medal shining above him — could be seen on library shelves and in the backpacks of children across America. The novel, written by Lois Lowry, offered one of the first young-adult dystopian futuristic landscapes, a world where emotions, differences and choice are removed in an attempt to create a perfect society.
“I was aware that this book was different in its form and its genre than anything else I’ve done before,” Lowry said recently before the movie version premiere of her novel on Friday, in an interview along with the film’s star and co-producer, Jeff Bridges.
To date, the book has sold 12 million copies worldwide and exists as a fixture in schools, with lesson plans built around the book and even a spot on banned book lists because of its discussion of sexuality, among other issues. The success of the book spawned three similarly themed works by Lowry, creating “The Giver Quartet” series and a devoted fan base, which she still receives mail from daily.
One such fan: The Dude.
“About 18 years ago, I was looking for a film to direct my father [Lloyd Bridges] in,” said Bridges as he awaited a coffee at the Four Seasons, comfortably leaning on the accent pillows he stacked next to him. “I wanted a movie that my kids could see. I was looking at catalogs of children’s books, and I came across the great picture of that grizzled guy on the original [‘The Giver’] book, and I thought, oh, my dad could play that part.”
In the book, memories of the world we know now do not exist except in the mind of the Giver, an elderly man trusted to “hold the past” and spare the rest of the community from knowing the hardships once endured. He’s the character envisioned on the original cover, a photograph Lowry took herself.
Bridges’ father, a television and film star, died in 1998, but Jeff Bridges’ pursuit of “The Giver” persisted, the actor mistakenly thinking the book’s popularity would make it an easy film to produce. He calls it a “convoluted journey,” with the film changing writers, producers and directors multiple times, and Bridges losing the rights to the film for a brief period.
But if the 64-year-old Bridges has learned anything in his 40-plus-year Hollywood career, which includes his iconic role as the Dude in “The Big Lebowski” and his Oscar-winning performance in “Crazy Heart,” it’s that you have to remain steadfast even in tumultuous circumstances.
“You work with a lot of people, not just in Hollywood but in all businesses, where it’s a flavor of the month: If this is doing well, then I’m a part of it; if this isn’t, I’ve moved on,” said Nikki Silver, a producer attached to the project throughout the journey. “Through the good years and the bad years of getting ‘The Giver’ developed, Jeff has been a passionate force behind it.”
But why did one of the first YA dystopian novels take 20 years to get a movie adaptation? Bridges has a theory.
“Financiers of the film might have felt it might have been a little too risky,” Bridges said. “I think it’s kind of ironic that movies like ‘Hunger Games’ and ‘Divergent’ that were inspired, I believe, by ‘The Giver’ came out before, and those kind of led the way. I think those inspired Harvey [Weinstein] and Walden [Media] to get it made and say, ‘Oh, yeah, this could work.’”
Unlike the “Hunger Games” and “Divergent” novels, “The Giver” offers a more cerebral dystopia. Romance and violence exist only as undertones, with the driving force being the introspection of the main character, Jonas, as he takes on the work of the Giver and learns what his society left behind.
When Walden Media, which is behind adaptations such as “The Chronicles of Narnia” series, and Weinstein Co. signed on, production conversations turned to straying from the original story, and Bridges said he found himself at a crossroads.
“I spent 18 years visioning this book and really wanting to stay faithful to the book,” he said. “I knew they were going to cast the kids much older, and I came to that spot where I could either say, ‘Well, I wish you guys best of luck. Off you go,’ or say, ‘I’m going to do a little experiment in my life and engage and just dance with the universe and dance with these other artists.’”
Bridges chose to dance, and “The Giver” made it to the screen, directed by veteran Phillip Noyce with a cast that includes Meryl Streep, Alexander Skarsgard, Katie Holmes and Bridges, assuming the role of the Giver previously reserved for his father.
“I started to look more and more like this grizzled guy on the cover, so it became a more appropriate part for me,” he said, grasping his own white beard.
Bridges said the team behind the film pushed to make the main characters older in order to add a romantic arc, and Lowry said that she pleaded not to turn the novel into a teenage romance, noting disdainfully that she “saw a few kisses in the trailer.” The 77-year-old author said that once she saw Brenton Thwaites playing an older Jonas, however, the change felt appropriate. Keeping the details of the book exact, Bridges said, wasn’t as important as keeping the spirit of the book and having Lowry’s stamp of approval.
Lowry offered her input during filming and even visited the Cape Town, South Africa, set for a few days, and Noyce sent “late-night emails,” asking questions about the book’s details. She wasn’t involved in the long struggle Bridges went through to turn the book into a movie, but when she referred to herself as “nothing,” Bridges was quick to defend her. “Well, you’re the source, babe, you’re the source,” he said with a laugh.
The pair have become unlikely friends through this process, even though Bridges lives in Southern California and Lowry writes from a Maine farmhouse. During the interview, both pairs of eyes turned to the newly packaged copy of the book sitting on the table, featuring a still image from the movie of Bridges and Thwaites. It’s the first time the duo have seen the fresh book jacket, with Bridges now as the Giver. “Isn’t that wonderful?” he exclaimed, holding the book up to see it better.
“They should have the Newbery Award stamped on it too,” he says on closer examination. The new gray medal on the cover reads, “Includes exclusive Q&A with Taylor Swift and others!” The singer makes a brief cameo appearance in the film. Under Lowry’s name at the very bottom of the cover, it mentions the award.
“I’m kind of sorry we have to have the Taylor Swift label instead of the Newbery Medal,” Lowry says. “But that’s OK. I think it’s an appealing cover. I think in a bookstore someone will gravitate to it and pick it up.”