Lois Lowry’s The Giver was so transformational for me that it sits so far back in memory I can no longer remember when I first encountered it. It was, I think, the first dystopia I understood. Its post-apocalyptic calm is like a permanent photograph in my mind.
Anyone who loves a book this much is bound to hate the film adaptation. Most casual readers of Lord of the Rings loved the movies for their adventure, humour, and care in production. Many über Tolkien fans, though, either hated them or had severe reservations. The Hobbit adaptations have only made the gap between reader and film lover grow wider. These critical Tolkien readers have walked into the theatre wincing. Some didn’t go at all.
I’m sure many avid readers of The Giver will feel about the same. There are some differences. The Giver has been a long anticipated film, with several failed proposals in the twenty-odd years since the book first appeared. Lowry writes of uniformity in The Giver in such a way that any good director is going to bring a contemporary interpretation to the setting. Phillip Noyce, who made some great action films in the 90s, captures Jonas’ village exquisitely as he intentionally moves past the hints we have in the book. His explanation for civilizational memory as technology is super lame, but the way he captures Sameness in architecture and environmental control is well done. In some ways, Noyce is stronger than Lowry in this aspect.
Where Noyce fails, though, is that he doesn’t trust his audience.
The Giver is a very short book, and yet it takes the time to build the story and the world around Jonas. We have some of Jonas’ experiences growing up that act as pillars to the platform of the utopian community Jonas is born into.
One of the intriguing things is that Lowry’s book leaves questions open. A fighter jet appears on the first page of The Giver, and yet nothing like that technology really fits into everyday life in their community. Why do they need a fighter jet if the world is perfect—if there is no war, no enemy, no hatred? What technological links does the community have to the past? How far back is that past?
Intriguingly, we do not know how memory works in The Giver, and even the ending is open to great ambiguity. Personally, I think that Lois Lowry misinterprets the ending to her own book—I’ll leave it to the comments for readers who agree or disagree to talk with spoilers. In all these ways, though, Lowry allows her audience—a young teen audience, remember—to understand the story and to make up the difference in the details she leaves out. Lois Lowry trusts her audience.
Phillip Noyce, however, does not.
Again and again, Noyce makes step-by-step links that the audience does not need. Instead of allowing the audience to decide about memory for itself—it could be magic, religion, technology, miracle, or just a mystery—Noyce draws tight boundaries that squeeze out imagination. Similarly, whenever there is a part in the film that Noyce feels incapable of showing well on screen, he does a voice-over with the protagonist. Except for one part, the epilogue voice-over works well, and the prologue could have been good if they wrote it well. But a handful of times they slowed the action down, had Jonas look up to the sky pensively, and inside his head we heard a profound thought—a profound thought that a good film-maker will show on screen rather than voice in afterward.
It could be that Noyce was just in a rush. The first 15 minutes of the film (after the prologue) fly by, and all the great details about the community are rushed. The result is that the motivations of the characters are sometimes confused. In a science fiction futuristic utopia, Meryl Streep and Katie Holmes could be captivating figures. Because of Noyce’s rush to get to the motorcycle chases and teenagers kissing, these beautiful and talented women are wasted on screen. Their motivations are unclear, and the conspiracy is muddled. Oh, how good that added dimension to the story could have been! Instead, it comes off as kid wearing his first suit. All the parts are right, yet it is wrong in so many ways.
This awkward rushing happens at the ending, too. As Jonas works through the complex moral world he has to navigate, his choice has profound implications. The barrenness of that choice is captured well on film, but the loneliness, desperation, and sheet danger of time running thin are missing. The audience should feel panic and terror; what we really feel is mild discomfort.
Normally when I complain about film adaptations on A Pilgrim in Narnia, it’s because I think that film-makers misunderstand something about adaptation. In this case, Noyce knew he had to transform a book where the action all takes place in a young adolescent’s head. I don’t think Nocye failed in making the transition from book to film; I think he failed in making a great film.
There are redeeming qualities to the film that make it well worth watching. Jeff Bridges is brilliant. Not every line is exquisitely crafted, but his character comes in and transforms the role the way he did as Obadiah Stane in Iron Man. It is a different Giver than in the book, but it captures beautifully the relationship that develops there between mentor and protégé.
Despite flubbing the framework, the memory scenes in the film are very well done. Often beautiful, frequently captivating, the montage scenes of human experience is as vivid as they could be. There are one or two scenes that I would slow down, and I would handle the film’s transition to colour a little differently, but I thought that Noyce understood this feature of the story well and displayed it for us brilliantly.
While some of this praise and criticism comes down to taste and artistic license, I think at the core Phillip Noyce does not trust his audience. Some of the shifts are consumeristic pandering. For example, Noyce elevates the age of the characters so he can move Jonas’ sensual discovery into the realm of the sexual. It is a good economic move.
Beyond these sorts of decisions, though, Noyce is uncomfortable with ambiguity. In the book, the strictest people are caring and kind; in the movie they are harsh. The creepiness of Jonas’ dad cooing as he “releases” a child is bowled over by Noyce’s need to overstate things. In doing so, he misses the key political moment, that the emphasis on “sameness” is really a betrayal of basic human individuality, and the structures for “precision in speech” are really a way of making all speech—and thus all human interaction—meaningless. The Orwellian nature of the dystopia is lost, despite Noyce’s clear eye for the visual.
All of this is there in Lois Lowry’s middle grade novel. She believes that twelve-year-olds are sophisticated enough to appreciate the book in all its layers. I’ve taught The Giver for young teens and university students, and they understood the book.
But Noyce believes that movie-goers aren’t going to get it. We’re just not smart enough to use our imaginations and fill in the blanks ourselves. So Noyce condescends to us by giving us a good story in a great setting with lots of breakneck speed and pedophilic sexual tension built up by pounding music meant to make your heart rush. It is a troubling approach to film-making. It might even be a troubling trend.
But imagine if Christopher Nolan approached The Giver the way he approached Inception. A smart, visually-stunning film with enough ambiguity to make our head’s spin, Inception set a new bar for speculative fiction on film.