Review: ‘The Giver’ takes on more action, but something’s missing
If it does little else, the movie version of Lois Lowry’s “The Giver” restores that prize-winning young adult novel’s pride of place as the elegant progenitor of dystopian follow-ups like “The Hunger Games” and “Divergent.”
Unfortunately, little else is just what this disappointing film ends up doing.
It’s not that there’s anything terribly wrong with “The Giver,” which is directed by the capable veteran Phillip Noyce and stars Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep and young Brenton Thwaites. It’s more that the resulting film has a bland, earnest, even pokey quality that no amount of tinkering with the book’s plot has rectified.
FOR THE RECORD:
“The Giver”: A review of the film “The Giver” in the Aug. 15 Calendar section gave the name of the main character as Jason. It’s Jonas.
Bridges, one of the film’s producers, initially envisioned this project as a vehicle for his dad, the late “Sea Hunt” star Lloyd Bridges. It’s taken him 18 years to get off the ground with this look at a regimented future society where emotion and choice have been eliminated, and the subtle, delicate nature of the book is part of the reason.
“In so many recent dystopian novels (and there are exactly that: so many),” author Lowry herself tartly acknowledges in an introduction to the book’s new paperback edition, “societies battle and characters die hideously and whole civilizations crumble. None of that in The Giver. It was introspective. Quiet. Short on action.
“‘Introspective, quiet, and short on action’ translates to ‘tough to film.’”
That moviemakers would attempt to fix that problem was preordained, but paradoxically, the work done by screenwriters Michael Mitnick and Robert B. Weide (whose drafts are spaced 17 years apart) have worsened the problem instead of fixing it.
Inevitably aware of the book’s massive fan base (it has sold 12 million copies, and Lowry still gets offers to speak from as far away as South Korea and Kyrgyzstan), the film feared to depart too much from what was written.
That has led to a situation where “The Giver’s” added action sequences and increased melodrama feel half-hearted, where whatever stabs at tension and conflict we see have a clunky, manufactured air.
“The Giver” starts with type on screen and then voice-over letting us know that in the wake of a presumed catastrophe called “the Ruin” new communities were built and all traces of the past erased.
This meant not only that children were assigned to families at birth and jobs selected for young people by community leaders called Elders but also that memories have somehow been excised from the population. Emotions like fear, pain, envy, hate, even love, were no more, and the residents see everything in colorless black and white.
But because the Elders recognized that the past held information that might help them make decisions, one individual was designated the Receiver of Memories and all of society’s history resided in his mind and his mind alone.
The film’s voice-over is spoken by protagonist Jonas, who is 12 in the book, 16 in the film and played by the 24-year-old Thwaites, Prince Phillip in “Maleficent.”
At the ceremony where young people are assigned professions, Jonas’ best pals Fiona (Odeya Rush) and Asher (Cameron Monaghan) are given standard-issue jobs, but the Chief Elder (Streep in a severe hairstyle) has something special in store for Jonas.
He is to be the society’s next Receiver of Memory and report to the current Receiver (Bridges), whose job of imparting the past now turns him into the Giver of the title.
Though everyone else in the community lives in tidy Modernist houses (Ed Verreaux did the expert production design), the Giver lives in a rambling pile that contains some 20,000 books. As played by Bridges in a role that doesn’t feel like a perfect fit, the Giver is a gruff and grumpy old galoot who doesn’t stand on ceremony. But then he has a lot on his mind.
In addition to the burden of all that knowledge, the Giver is still dealing with the aftereffects of a decade-old difficult situation involving Rosemary (a tiny Taylor Swift cameo), his previous protégé.
As he imparts his memories in a hands-on, Vulcan mind meld kind of way, the Giver also has to decide what to tell Jonas when. Making the existence of color one of the first things he exposes Jonas to is an easy call, but deciding when his young charge is ready to learn about things like war and death is a harder decision. And revealing the true nature of the dystopian community they both call home is the toughest call of all.
The problem with “The Giver” is not that it departs from the book by adding things such as surveillance drones and hints of romance, it’s that it has been unable to find a way to make the essence of the novel cinematically involving. The film’s very earnestness weighs it down, reminding us of the truth of Jonas’ cri de coeur: “If you can’t feel, what’s the point?” A very good question.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for a mature thematic image and some sci-fi action/violence
Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes
Playing: In general release
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