Imagine a wondrous fantasy world that only exists in a young person’s book but is universally beloved by all who open the covers and turn the pages. Then imagine years later, the news that it’s going to make the leap from the page to the big screen. Naturally, former readers will nurse concerns. Will the right actors be chosen to play the cast? Will the special effects be too cheesy or overwhelm the story? Will the magic get lost in translation?
Directors often seem to do their best to compound the problem by announcing beforehand that they are going to make some changes, which may seem minor to them, but which become controversies that set off Twitter wars and so on. In “The Giver’s” case, one of the big questions was how the black and white world that predominates at the beginning would be portrayed. Also of concern was that the three protagonists, who are supposed to be twelve in the book, all appeared to be well-acquainted with puberty, at least according to their Internet Movie Database photos.
Also, the author Lois Lowry set off a mini-tempest of sorts when she was interviewed about the film and joked that she was going to have a cameo playing the elderly woman that the protagonist helps bathe at a senior care center in the book. Some took her seriously, so up popped online headlines like “Lowry to appear in “The Giver.”
Anyway, after all that was cleared up, the film was completed and released. Its plot generally stayed true to the book, although there was the aforementioned puberty problem that was jarring for me, though I can’t speak for anyone else. When “The Giver” opens, the young(ish) protagonist, played by Brenton Thwaites, lives in a world where pain, fear, lust and all strong emotion is unknown, but is feeling apprehensive anyway because tomorrow he and his two friends (Odeya Rush and Cameron Monaghan) will be assigned their adult jobs in a ceremony that takes place before the whole community. Brenton’s parents (Alexander Skarsgard and Katie Holmes) try to reassure him, telling him that they felt the same way when they were his age, but he still worries. When the moment does arrive and the Chief Elder (Meryl Streep) skips over him, Brenton (and the whole community) panics, but it turns out that this was deliberate, and Brenton has been chosen for a special position: Receiver of Memory. The “Giver” (Jeff Bridges) will entrust to him all the messy memories of the past that the rest of the community has agreed should be his burden alone. Whew! Sounds like a blast.
But soon Brenton discovers that he has the capacity to feel joy, love and all those great forbidden fruits, so much so that he chooses to stop taking the pills that all adults (young and up) are given daily, which unblocks even more emotions. The black and white world (think “Pleasantville”) suddenly begins to change color, just as it has in the past, but more often. He also learns the fate of the previous Receiver (Taylor Swift), the Giver’s daughter, who chose death over continuing to take in the pain that comes along with the memories. Brenton is understandably upset and conflicted, just like Taylor, but when he discovers that the foster infant his family is caring for will be “released” (i.e. euthanized for failure to thrive) and not only that, but his father will be the one to do it (as it’s “just” his job), he decides to leave the community. With him gone, the village members will be forced to start receiving the memories. But (unlike the book), this will put him in direct conflict with his two friends.
“The Giver” is a short book, so much of the fleshing out the world building makes sense. Why Taylor Swift was chosen to be showcased, I have no idea, but the other cast do a fine job. And Katie Holmes, who has had real-life experience surviving as a mom in a cult-like community, is great as Brenton’s mother. The film doesn’t attempt to answer some important questions about how the community works, but then that’s up to the reader or viewer to imagine.