The Giver

September 13, 2014
Brenton Thwaites in 'The Giver' (2014)
Brenton Thwaites in 'The Giver' (2014)

Lois Lowry’s The Giver has sold more than 10 million copies, but until the film version arrived many of us will have been completely ignorant of the book and its author. This is because Lowry is an exponent of ‘young adult’ fiction – a genre that can only remain a mystery to people like me, who would prefer to forget all about their teenage years.

Hollywood has no such scruples. Two films based on Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games series have been box office hits and a third is already on the launching pad. Then there was Divergent, from the first part of a trilogy by Veronica Roth. While I’m prepared to sit through a third Hunger Games, the prospect of two more films like Divergent is not to be relished.

The Giver is the first part of a four novel sequence, so we could be seeing a lot more of the characters in this film. Once again it’s not an appealing thought. There are so many similarities in the dystopian futures imagined by the authors of ‘young adult’ fiction that it feels like Collins, Roth and Lowry were all set the same assignment in a creative writing class.

Every story is an allegory for the process of growing up – as bright, sensitive teenagers are made to conform to the repressive dictates of an adult world. The obligatory teenage rebellion is turned into a revolutionary struggle against the forces of darkness. Only the power of yoof can lead the world out of the bondage imposed by the wrinklies. And what a wonderful world it would be, if the teenagers made the rules!

The Giver has the distinction of being the first of these films to be assigned a director with a substantial track record, namely, Australia’s Phil Noyce. A Hollywood journeyman of long standing, Noyce has made a few great movies and some very tradesmanlike ones. The Giver is a beautiful film to watch, but it strains after a profundity that only seems to slip further away as the story hastens towards its predictable conclusion.

It’s 2048, and the world is recovering from the disastrous war which is a staple ingredient in such tales. A new model of civilisation has been built from the ashes of the past. Everyone has had their historical memories erased, while anything that excites strong emotions or a consciousness of difference has been expunged. Even the perception of colour has been eliminated, meaning that these cheerful zombies see the world in black-and-white.

Brenton Thwaites plays Jonas, a 13-year old boy who is about to undergo the ceremony whereby young people say goodbye to childhood and are given their job for life. If he seems mature for his age this is because Thwaites, who hails from Cairns, is 25.

Jonas watches as all his peers are assigned tasks and ushered from the stage. When he is the last teen standing his destiny is revealed: he will become the Receiver of Memory – the only member of the community allowed to have knowledge of the past. His mentor will be The Giver (Jeff Bridges), who uses this knowledge to advise the Chief Elder (Meryl Streep). In time, Jonas will be expected to take on this momentous responsibility.

Surprise, surprise – when Jonas begins to receive memories of the past he realises how boring life has become. Yes, once there was war and violence and hatred, but also music and colour. He discovers a novel emotion called ‘love’, and is eager to share the discovery with his friend, Fiona (Odeya Rush).

Jonas begins to see a sinister side to the would-be Utopia in which he lives. Babies are born in centres to nominated mothers and raised in laboratories. When old people or miscreants are “released” from the community, it means they have been euthanised by lethal injection. Birth and death are both treated as mechanical processes, accepted by a citizenry stupefied by a compulsory daily intake of chemicals.

The Giver doesn’t like this world and is happy to pass on his subversive sentiments to Jonas. The only way to bring about a change is for Jonas to take his memories and cross the perimetre of the community into the zone called Elsewhere. Then – for reasons which may be explained in the book, but are completely mysterious in the movie – everyone’s memories will come flooding back. It may sound simple, but Jonas has to cross snowy peaks and sandy deserts, carrying a baby he has rescued from imminent extinction.

The story is not simply a battle between the passion and idealism of youth versus the conservatism of maturity (think of the youthful Christopher Pyne leading the student opposition to university fees), it’s a conflict between reason and emotion, the head and the heart. The viewer’s sympathies are tethered firmly to the heart, engendering little sympathy for Meryl Streep’s gang of authoritarian oldies. We have no hesitation in rejecting the elaborate structures of education/indoctrination devised by the coldly rational architects of this society.

For young people, the film is telling them to hold on to their dreams, but also that it’s OK to reject things they find unfair or onerous. The teenage mind, being relentlessly self-centred, has a habit of adapting universal concepts to small personal dilemmas. So while it may seem reasonable to reject the idea of a world without music, in many young viewers’ minds it is but a short step to rejecting a world in which they are asked not to impose their music on everyone else.

The Giver
Directed by Phillip Noyce
Written by Michael Mitnik & Robert B. Weide, after a novel by Lois Lowry
Starring Brenton Thwaites, Jeff Bridges, Odeya Rush, Meryl Streep, Katie Holmes, Alexander Skarsgård
USA, rated M, 97 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 13th September, 2014.