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'The Giver' Keeps Giving
Image: David Bloomer / The Weinstein Company
Odeya Rush and Brenton Thwaites in 'The Giver'

Alissa's note: I asked Elissa Cooper, CT's assistant editor who recently saw the film adaptation of The Giver (out this weekend), to write about some of her thoughts on the books and the film. And I'm very glad I did.

We'll also run a review of the film this weekend.

Four and a half years ago, as an intern for CT, I visited a home that provided aftercare for trafficked teenage girls. Between interviews, I participated in their daily lives: We ate meals together, went shopping, and just sat and talked. One night, some workers talked about how one of the hardest challenges involved hearing the girls’ stories.

“Jordan”’s past experiences were pretty horrific. Nightmares plagued her. She shared her memories with the others so she could talk through issues and pray and try to alleviate the pain. But in hearing Jordan’s memories, others had nightmares and struggled with the pain and evilness of it all.

When we reached a break in the conversation, I asked, “Have you ever read The Giver?”

It sounds like a strange question. Why think of a secular juvenile book that has absolutely nothing to do with sex trafficking?

But I had my reasons for not suggesting a Christian story. First, the Christian workers already had theology and spirituality texts at their disposal—they even wrote some of the books. Second, not all the residents claimed a Christian faith, so this provided another outlet for reaching the girls. But most importantly, The Giver—the book and its subsequent companions in the Giver Quartet as well as the recent film—makes a strong case for the importance of sharing memory, both for the individual and the community. As a result, it also dips into spiritual matters. And the film goes even deeper.

In case you’re not familiar with The Giver, the 1993 book won the Newbery Medal. (It also landed on frequently challenged or banned books, but more on that later.) It is widely considered the forerunner of dystopian literature for children and young adults. Yet in a 2007 interview, author Lois Lowry said that she didn’t set out to create a dystopia when writing it. The community was “without war, poverty, crime, alcoholism, divorce—and without the troubling memories of those things. Only gradually did I begin to understand that I was not creating a utopia—but a dystopia. I slowly understood that I was writing about a group of people who had at some point in the past made collective choices and terrible sacrifices in order to achieve a level of comfort and security.”

Jonas, the main character of The Giver, realizes this after becoming the Receiver of Memory. The Giver holds all the memories of the world past, and gives them to Jonas so Jonas can remember once the Giver is gone. The memories help serve the Elders in making decisions for the community. In the book, they once talked about increasing the size of a family unit from two children to three children. But the Giver reminds them that the food supply might stretch, leading to shortages and hunger, so the family unit size remains the same.

The Elders, who assigned Jonas as Receiver, consider this a utilitarian position, but Jonas sees it in a different way. Jonas receives beautiful memories of things he’s never experienced or heard about, like sledding, but also terrible things, like war. And in addition to grappling with the new knowledge, Jonas faces isolation. Only he and the Giver know such things existed. As Jonas’s friends learn their new jobs, they can talk about their experiences and still play together. Jonas stands alone. And the burden of memory is too much to bear alone.

Watch This Way
How we watch matters at least as much as what we watch. TV and movies are more than entertainment: they teach us how to live and how to love one another, for better or worse. And they both mirror and shape our culture.
Alissa Wilkinson
Alissa Wilkinson is Christianity Today's chief film critic and assistant professor of English and humanities at The King's College in New York City. She lives in Brooklyn.
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'The Giver' Keeps Giving