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.

Jeff Bridges and Brenton Thwaites in 'The Giver'
Image: The Weinstein Company

Jeff Bridges and Brenton Thwaites in 'The Giver'

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.

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Taylor Swift in 'The Giver'
Image: The Weinstein Company

Taylor Swift in 'The Giver'

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.

I am, admittedly, being sarcastic here. But there is a point to be made: The Giver isn’t really a narrative that lends itself to cinematic adaptation, because it isn’t really a narrative at all. It’s at best an allegory; more realistically, it’s a giant metaphor. Filming abstraction is a bit like filming poetry—you are welcome to try but you better hope you have an awfully good director/cinematographer team. The line between Samsara and the Apple-Walt Whitman commercial is not so wide that good will alone can keep audiences on one side of it.

The difficulty in filming abstraction is also underscored as the film moves towards the conclusion and relies more and more on mouthpiece speeches and voice over narration, tacitly acknowledging that big portions of the audience will probably need to be told what they are watching.

It doesn’t help, either, that Lowry’s ideas aren’t really profound or sophisticated enough to infuse the finale with emotional stakes. The Giver and the Chief Elder (Meryl Streep) don’t debate so much as take turns reciting platitudes. “If you can’t feel, what’s the point?” “When people have the power to choose, they choose wrong.” The film thinks one of these statements is prima facie true and the other clear evidence of the character’s villainy. That being the case, there’s no suspense or genuine conflict in the film, only delays in the unfolding of the plot.

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Meryl Streep in 'The Giver'
Image: The Weinstein Company

Meryl Streep in 'The Giver'

Bridges keeps the whole enterprise afloat for a while with a gem of a sideways, muttering performance. But in the end, we know what Jonas is going to do long before he does, even if we’ve never read the book.

Caveat Spectator

The Giver earns a PG-13 rating more for its themes than for the sort of content that usually prompts trigger warnings. Probably the most disturbing scene comes when a baby is euthanized and we, like Jonas, have to watch as a brainwashed character does it. In some of Jonas’s interactions with The Giver, the memories of war and hunting are sufficiently, if briefly, horrible. There is some dark material here, but the film usually comes across as the illustration of those ideas rather than as something horrible. I would be a little more worried about adolescents being restless than traumatized, but either way I don’t recommend it for them.

Kenneth R. Morefield is an Associate Professor of English at Campbell University. He is the editor of Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema, Volumes I & II, and the founder of 1More Film Blog.

The Giver
Our Rating
1½ Stars - Weak
Average Rating
(69 user ratings)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
PG-13 (For a mature thematic image and some sci-fi action/violence.)
Directed By
Phillip Noyce
Run Time
1 hour 37 minutes
Brenton Thwaites, Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep
Theatre Release
August 15, 2014 by The Weinstein Company
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