Based on Lois Lowry’s novel, as a film The Giver manages to be unsatisfying as entertainment while also, somehow, being emotionally effective.
If you’re not already familiar with Lowry’s novel, the plot takes place in a centrally planned society that has eliminated difference, conflict, and emotion. The Giver is the story of Jonas (Brenton Thwaites), who is training to be the one person allowed cultural memory and emotion in his society, referred to as The Community.
While Jonas is supposed to keep his learning secret, he is ebullient at discoveries like music, dance, and colors. He stops taking his government mandated medication that suppresses emotion, and shares these items with his family and with his two wary best friends, drone pilot Asher (Cameron Monaghan), and nursery worker Fiona (Odeya Rush).
Eventually, given the knowledge of the actual horror of death (which his society just refers to as release), Jonas rescues a baby that is to be killed for not meeting societal benchmarks of development and calmness, and escapes his community, to head to The Boundary of Memory. Once he crosses it, the knowledge he is holding will be returned to society, setting people free.
While the film executes the concept well, Lowry’s prose does not transfer to the screen with the elegance it has on the page. Ultimately, though, the problem with The Giver is that it works so hard to render the flat, unfeeling (and presented in black and white) world of The Community, that the movie itself feels flat. The lack of passion makes it hard to care about any of the characters, including Jonas, Fiona (with whom he shares a sweet romance), and the intriguing but underutilized Asher.
Also frustrating is the footage used to represent the societal memory Jonas inherits. While the footage is beautiful and iconic, it often feels cliché, cloying, overly familiar, or even inappropriate to exploit in this particular way.
Despite all this, The Giver has several notable bright spots. These include the masterful acting in the final confrontation between The Giver (Jeff Bridges) and The Chief Elder (Meryl Streep); a pivotal speech from Fiona that makes you wish the script had developed her more from the outset; and the exceptionally clever casting of Taylor Swift as someone who failed at Jonas’s role in the past.
Yet perhaps most startling about The Giver isn’t where it fails or succeeds as entertainment, but that, despite all its problems, it is stunningly emotionally effective. Even as parts of the film dragged, and access points to most characters were completely unavailable, I found myself tearing up at the credit sequence because of the sheer onslaught of content about beauty and the power of our messy emotions.
For younger viewers, this film may well be empowering, or at least compelling. However, the more cynical among us in need heart-warming stories set in emotionally and medically controlled societies may be better off revisiting Pleasantville (1998) or Gattaca (1997). Those films are not without their flaws, but both manage to tackle this sort of narrative conceit with more structural elegance and more compelling romances.
Final verdict: Stick with the book until you can catch The Giver on the small screen.