Before The Hunger Games, before Divergent, there was The Giver. Lois Lowry’s now-classic young adult novel is the story of Jonas, who has reached the age to be assigned his vocation. At the ceremony, he is assigned the mysterious role of Receiver, a task he knows nothing about. He is to be the next receiver of memories, a sort of living history book for the community.
In an effort to end suffering, war, poverty, and hunger, communities have been established. These highly regulated villages value precision of language, following rules, and conformity or “sameness.” Unbeknownst to the current citizens, they have given up color, memory, and emotion. Through medication, they have been chemically altered to suppress and stifle their individuality, their emotions, and even their hormones.
As the Receiver, Jonas begins to learn what is missing, what people have lost in the name of sameness. And he can’t live with the void.
The movie version ofThe Giver stays true to much of the book. The use of color in this black-and-white world is effective, and the community looks like a tidy, futuristic suburb. The elderly and the weak do not stay long; they are “released to elsewhere.”
I’d recommend trying to get the book version into the hands of your young readers before they are exposed to the other series mentioned above. For readers who come to it after the more recent books and movies, The Giver may seem too tame and too similar to the others. Divergent, in particular, has many similarities; it should come as no surprise that author Veronica Roth names it as a book that had lasting impact on her.
But the reality is that The Giver is the most subversive, the most radical of them all. It challenges much conventional thinking, especially as relates to parenting. Our desire to protect children from the hard realities of the world, our wish to keep them safe and comfortable, can be harmful.
The important themes of Lowry’s story survive the translation to the screen. Attempts to control or purify an entire population have proven to be disastrous: think North Korea or Nazi Germany. Our God-given desires for beauty, love, individuality, and fullness of life are vital to our humanity, and while sin exists on earth, we continue to strive for them in both successful and painfully broken ways.
According to Lowry, people have talked about making this movie for 15 years. I suspect that the reason it finally came into being has a lot to do with the financial success of The Hunger Games movies and others in that genre.
Rather than Jonas receiving his assignment at age 12, as he does in the book, in the movie version Jonas and his friends hit this milestone at age 18. This allows for a romantic aspect of the movie that is far more central to the movie than the book. This aging-up strategy was probably meant to make the movie more interesting to older teens. The doomed love triangle in The Hunger Games and the steamy chemistry between Tris and Four in Divergent are certainly moneymakers for those two film franchises. The romance of the film version of The Giver is much more simple and innocent.
However, the subtle power of The Giver lies squarely in its younger, more naive perspective. The carefully constructed artificial innocence that oppresses the community becomes more sinister as a young and bewildered Jonas receives more memories. The film points that out with a reverse Adam-and-Eve moment: Jonas hands his friend and potential love interest, Fiona, an apple so that she can use it to avoid the morning injections, thereby coming to know a portion of what she is missing.
The movie doesn’t have the same power as the book. Sometimes the transfer of memories feel more like a montage of National Geographic clips. There is also a moment when Jonas tries to replicate the experience of sledding for his friend. While it produces a couple of roller-coaster-worthy, stomach-tingling moments, it is utterly unrealistic and takes you out of the story.
Still, the movie is worth seeing. Parents should consider the readiness of their children as there are a couple of dark scenes. I recommend it for viewers aged 12 and up, or 10 and up if they have already read the book and are prepared for those darker moments. (Weinstein)