The American Library Association reports that The Giver is one of the twenty-five most banned or challenged books of the last decade. So Lois Lowry’s Newberry Medal winner comes to the big screen with a built-in audience—but also a lot of baggage.
The reasons for those challenges are not always summarized in the news stories that simply list banned books, and it’s worth pointing out that some of the objectionable themes—drugs, brainwashing, lewdness, euthanasia—are not exactly glorified in the dystopian classic. People who ban books aren’t always the best interpreters of the stories they contain. But they aren’t usually big movie ticket buyers, either. Which makes The Giver a strange choice for a Walden Media production.
Lowry’s story gives us Jonas (Brenton Thwaites), a teenager living in a “Community.” These idyllic communities have been set up (by whom, we don’t know, exactly) after some vaguely referenced dark period in human history. Living by a strict set of rules has robbed citizens of their ability to see in color and to feel emotion, but it has saved them from war and famine. Each baby is assigned to a family according to his needs, and each adult is given a role according to his abilities.
It’s sort of like a cross between those three other pillars of Western literature: The Communist Manifesto, The Republic and Divergent.
This communal setup is maintained through mandatory drug injections (Brave New World) and made possible only if there is a “Receiver of Memories,” a scapegoat savant who contains and preserves the society’s collective memories. This receiver offers advice to the elders who are apparently in on the secret behind the utopia. Jonas is selected to be the new “Receiver of Memories” and assigned to begin training with the previous Receiver (Jeff Bridges), who is now labeled “The Giver.”
In the book, Jonas is twelve, which gives the training a creepy, pedophilic overtone. Much is made of the fact that the transmission of memories must be made through skin-to-skin contact, so the ritual training usually involves Jonas removing his shirt and laying down so that The Giver can initiate him into the world of secret, painful knowledge. I can’t imagine this wasn’t the reason Jonas is made significantly older in the film; also the method of memory transfer is changed from back rubs to hand clasping.
But that change is not without its own problems. Jonas and his (bland, indistinguishable) friends act significantly younger than their biological age, and they come across in the first parts of the film as infantile rather than lobotomized.
Once Jonas begins his training, the film runs into all sorts of structural and formal problems. The back story is dribbled out in bits and pieces, making it seem like (for anyone who doesn’t already know the story) new narrative rules are being made up as they go along. Wait! There is a line beyond the map where, if the receiver passes, the magical brainwashing spell will be lifted. And there was another receiver before Jonas who failed the training. Somehow the success of this project is also wrapped up in killing all the newborn babies that don’t make weight. As Jonas feels pleasure for the first time, the images on screen acquire color, and we are subjected to random screensaver shots of sunsets and other pretty things gleamed together from Tree of Life’s cutting room floor.