Bringing Lois Lowry's Newbery Award-winning The Giver to the big screen has been an almost two decade long effort. In hindsight, we wonder why -- given the fact that dystopian-set young adult novels are all the rage from The Hunger Games to Divergent and beyond.
The Giver is finally in theaters and it features Oscar winners Meryl Streep and Jeff Bridges leading the way, and a pair of up-and-comers as the two teen leads (Brenton Thwaites and Odeya Rush) who hold the key to this futuristic society.
As teased in The Giver trailer, Lowry’s world is crisp and clean and completely without color or emotion. Through daily injections, all feelings are essentially removed from the human existence. There are no wars, no famine, no discrimination and absolutely no disdain.
Thwaites, Rush and Cameron Monaghan are lifelong friends, and on this day, they are about to become adults that through a ceremony will find out what their future holds (if this sounds like Divergent, you’re not far off -- just remember The Giver book arrived many, many years prior).
Thwaites’ Jonas gets an incredibly special and honorable vocational choice. Streep’s Chief Elder tells him and the entire society that he is the new Receiver of Memory. He is to report to the Giver’s (Bridges) home the next day and begin the transfer of all that came before.
It is here that the true talent of the film, Bridges, takes over. He is astounding and it is clear that this project has been a passion of his for years.
But, unfortunately Bridges is not enough to sustain The Giver for the entire storyline. He forms quite a bond with Thwaites, and as the latter learns of all the emotional joy and pain that came before this world, it becomes clear he cannot handle it. To compound things, he stops taking his injections and the combination of the two makes him quite dangerous to the powers that be.
Streep is her usual awesome self. She just has the misfortune of Kate Winslet serving almost the same role in the Divergent film that arrived recently. And Katie Holmes and Alexander Skarsgard are somewhat wasted as Jonas’ parents. There are elements of what could have made this a truly extraordinary film in their roles, actually.
Holmes' mother is a clear rule-abiding member of the establishment and Skarsgard's character has layers of emotion that no drugs seem to be able to quell.
Thwaites is a fine actor and we expect big things from him, but there’s something about the page-to-screen effort of this powerful book that gets lost in the translation from the literary to the cinematic. Phillip Noyce is a gifted director and we’ve loved his work from Salt to the two best Jack Ryan movies, Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger. Noyce and his filmmaking team have created a visual marvel that is a feast for the eyes and certainly makes us think. But, we craved so much more.
And it’s not that we’re tiring of young adult stories that are set in a dystopian world. In fact, The Hunger Games and Divergent owe pretty much everything to Lowry and her The Giver. It’s just that The Giver we’re given, does not feel like the original landscape it should feel like. In fact, it has all the makings of the one that’s doing the dystopian duplication.
Perhaps the “blame” here is in the adaptation by screenwriters Michael Mitnick and Robert B. Weide. Our The Giver review finds that what should hit us with a hammer, instead feels like we're getting hit in the head with a Nerf ball.