By Preston Wilder
And Harry Potter begat Twilight, and Twilight begat the current wave of dystopian sci-fi sparked by The Hunger Games … Adaptations of ‘Young Adult’ novels are everywhere, but there’s a catch: they’re aimed at young adults. The youngsters in these films are carefully detailed, but the grown-ups and authority figures often behave incoherently (as all grown-ups do, if you’re a teenager) so the films make no sense. Taking part in the Hunger Games is supposed to be a punishment (it’s how the central government keeps order, or whatever) yet players are turned into celebrities, the better to feed teenage fantasies. Divergent is even odder, positing a world where really special kids – those who tick every box, instead of just one box – are summarily killed. Why? Because grown-ups are mean, basically.
The Giver comes from an earlier novel, pre-dating the current boom (it was published in 1993), which may be why it avoids these problems. Jonas, our hero (played by Brenton Thwaites) is in a similar bind to the heroine of Divergent: in a future world that prizes sameness above all, Jonas is different. He even has visions, which appear as fleeting splashes of colour in a black-and-white world. At the graduation ceremony, where teens come of age (“Thank you for your childhood,” intones Chief Elder Meryl Streep), Jonas is pointedly left behind as his friends learn their assigned jobs – but the community isn’t isolating Jonas in order to kill him. Since he’s special, he gets a special job: “Receiver of Memory”, a repository of knowledge from the past, vouchsafed to him – and him alone – by “the Giver”.
Good or bad, at least this makes sense – and The Giver makes sense in another way too, though it doesn’t seem to be aware of it. At one point, when Jonas starts rebelling against the System, the film flashes a montage including Nelson Mandela and the guy facing down the tanks in Tiananmen Square. These are memories, designed to help him fight – and of course they’re memories of fighting totalitarianism, the old liberal dream of personal freedom. Maybe that was obvious when the book came out in 1993, but today something else is even more obvious: the society depicted in The Giver – a peaceful, law-abiding, consensus-based society – is less like apartheid South Africa or Communist China, and more like our own Western society circa 2014.
In the film, everyone is constantly medicated. A daily injection gets rid of bad thoughts; medication takes care of “the Stirrings”, inappropriate sexual feelings in teens. In the West today, hyperactive kids are pumped with Ritalin, depressives with Prozac and potential psychopaths with god-knows-what. In the film, all differences have been abolished – race and sex are irrelevant – and language is constantly monitored (“Precision of language, please!” warns Katie Holmes as Jonas’ mother). Our own society isn’t quite there yet, but calling attention to difference is certainly deemed “impolite” – to quote the “community announcements” in the movie – and ‘offensive’ words are constantly weeded out. Above all, The Giver depicts a world where there’s no need for dictatorship, because democracy does the job just fine; everyone is happily complicit, living in the same kind of house and going to sleep at the same time. Think of that when you next hear about 35,000 McDonalds outlets, or 1.1 billion Facebook users.
In a sense, The Giver is too smart to be a Young Adult adaptation. In another sense, alas, it’s too dumb to be a good one. The film gets increasingly clunky as Jonas becomes acquainted with the past, which society has erased from memory (that’s another nod, whether conscious or not, to real life: we live in a technology-driven age where the past is often viewed as irrelevant). He sets out to cross the Boundary of Memory which will set the memories free and wake people up, and meanwhile his girlfriend Fiona (Odeya Rush) tries to help, Meryl practises her ice-queen look and bewhiskered co-producer Jeff Bridges radiates wisdom as the Giver. It’s all a bit naff.
There’s another difference between The Giver and more recent YA novels. Those books tend to be sagas, often spread across trilogies, so film adaptations tend to be very plot-driven as they try to cram everything in. Lois Lowry’s book, on the other hand, is less than 200 pages – so there’s space in the movie for thoughtful moments, occasional visual felicities and scenes like the one where Streep and Bridges sit down and philosophise. “When people have the freedom to choose,” she points out, “they choose wrong.” People were free to choose whether to watch The Giver, and mostly chose not to (the film made $45 million in the US, barely enough to cover its budget) – but in fact they chose wrong. It’s patchy but often fascinating, and not just for young adults.
DIRECTED BY Phillip Noyce
STARRING Brenton Thwaites, Jeff Bridges, Odeya Rush, Meryl Streep
US 2014 97 mins