Since Lois Lowry‘s The Giver was published 21 years ago there’s been an abundance of YA novels that have explored similar territory, likely inspired by her ubiquitous summer reading assignment. Director Philip Noyce‘s film is at a disadvantage in that regard, playing catch up on a trend launched partly by the material he’s adapting. The slew of recent young adult films haven’t been wildly dissimilar from one another, often dealing with characters trying to break free from a familiar dystopia, yet Noyce’s film manages to standout from the herd by being a surprisingly faithful and, more importantly, good adaptation.
In this black-and-white community, Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) is about to turn 16 years old, which means getting a job assignment. Jonas’s assignment isn’t one he’s ever heard of: receiver of memory. As the job title implies, it’s someone who holds the memories of the old world, where there was war, music, dancing, love, and all other kinds of emotions that have no place in this perfect future, which is led by the chilly Chief Elder (Meryl Streep). The man who prepares Jonas for his position is known as The Giver (Jeff Bridges). He slowly shares memories of the way things used to be, opening the young man’s eyes until he sees his world for what it truly is: a lie.
His rebellion isn’t the most triumphant or action-packed. Unlike The Hunger Games or Divergent Lowry’s novel isn’t full of action set pieces. There’s a moment of suspense, given weight by screenwriters Michael Mitnick and Robert B. Weide within a sea of difficult, coming of age drama. To their credit, they never try to make the book something it’s not. The Giver isn’t a thrill ride, nor should it be.
The book and film both focus on Jonas and The Giver’s relationship. That’s the heart of this story. If that relationship doesn’t work, neither does the movie. Thankfully the filmmakers found a formidable pair with Thwaites and Bridges with the younger actor thriving when he’s acting opposite The Dude. He’s fine elsewhere, but the scenes with the two of them sharing joys and pains which no one else knows about pump bright blood through the veins of the story. Bridges brings warmth, sadness and charm to every scene he’s in. He has one moment in particular — as he and the Chief Elder passionately argue their beliefs — when the tired, old man’s hardship resonates the most.
That exchange is also the one scene that humanizes the Chief Elder. We see she’s not coming from a place of pure evil, but she only sees the horror in the memories The Giver shares with Jonas. By the end, the Chief Elder blossoms beyond caricature into character. The Giver is in a rush that means a few side characters never get their due until the very end. The first 10 minutes are especially too busy setting up the world. There’s some nifty condensing, but the set up throws too much information at us all at once, hoping we’ll keep all of it in mind as the minutiae starts to matter. It begins as pure exposition rather than an open window into a closed world. Once the movie settles down, though, it finds its groove.
What’s refreshing about how the book has been translated here is how the filmmakers have stuck with its simplicity. Having made two of the finer Jack Ryan films and 2010’s Salt, Noyce could have made a more conventionally exciting version of this story — where Jonas picks up a gun and starts fighting the system with his teenage buddies — but even his camerawork is far from the level of flash we expect in the summertime. While his approach to the short bursts of shared memories is a tad hamfisted and often hokey, there’s a controlled cleanness to the way he and DP Ross Emery approach the dichotomy. The beautiful black-and-white neutrality to these cold environments nicely contrasts The Giver’s earthy, handmade settings. Lowry never went into great detail about how everything should look, but Noyce and his team have done a fine job bringing her sparse descriptions to vibrant life.
They’ve served the material well. Not all the book’s edges have been softened — including the initial use of black-and-white and what an infant who goes to “elsewhere” entails. Those details, in addition to Bridges’ performance, help The Giver avoid feeling like a cheap cash in on the current YA movie fad. There are a few hiccups from the book’s transition to screen, but more often than not, Noyce’s picture is an entertaining and thoughtful adaptation.
The Upside: Jeff Bridges is excellent; captures the spirit of Lowry’s novel; the beautiful black-and-white photography; Marco Beltrami’s score; finishes strong
The Downside: A slightly bumpy narrative; the end credits song doesn’t suit the tone of the movie or the ending; one scene definitely should’ve been in black-and-white, since it’s not from Jonas’s point-of-view
On The Side: Jeff Bridges once wanted to direct The Giver himself with his father, Lloyd Bridges, playing the titular character.