Lois Lowry’s magnum opus, The Giver, hit bookshelves in 1993. It was sometime in the mid-2000’s that I read it as part of my junior high school curriculum. I didn’t like every book they gave us but I did like The Giver, so much that for a while I was the annoying guy who gave the book to family and friends to read.
As a teenager I mistakenly assumed that anything in our English lit. syllabus was universally accepted as an important part of the literary canon.
The Giver has been a critical point of contention since day one.
It takes place in a future “Community” that has rebuilt from the ashes of catastrophe. The new order is cordial, serene, sterile, passionless. Community residents are given a utilitarian place in society – a career – when they come of age. The elderly are euthanized, but their deaths are called “releases to elsewhere” and there is no concept of life’s end other than the “release ceremony.” Family units are centrally planned but love is not discussed, practiced, or taught. There is no knowledge of anything outside of Community’s borders or from before Community’s formation. The way of things is not to be questioned.
It seems strikingly similar to our Western perception of North Korea right now.
Some critics believed The Giver to present an exaggerated, cherry-picked, hypothetical egalitarian dystopia, levying complaints similar to those of Ayn Rand’s Anthem. Some didn’t like that the science in the science fiction wasn’t well explained. Some simply thought it to be uninspired, too similar to previous staples like Nolan & Johnson’s Logan’s Run or Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury.
Guess what!? This isn’t even a review of the book though. This is a review of the film, which suffered through substantial development hell, taking twenty years to finally be made and released. (I’ll have to give the source a fresh read sometime and post a review for it.)
The Giver, directed by Phillip Noyce, elicited equally divisive reactions as the source novel. One added point of contention among viewers was the question of whether the film was true to its source. I’m in a slight minority that say it was, and the slight minority that say the film was great overall.
Phillip Noyce is one of my favorite directors. His output is inconsistent (to me and viewers and critics) but his great films are some of the best ever. These are Rabbit-Proof Fence, Catch a Fire, and (I contend) The Giver.
I’m in good company on my opinion of the last film. Author Lois Lowry said that she was so pleased with parts of her novel’s screen adaptation that it made her want to go back and change the book to be more like it.
During the months following his assignment, he trains under the outgoing Receiver, now the Giver (played by Jeff Bridges.) The Giver, memory by memory, transmits to Jonas the locked away aspects of a long lost world. One of these aspects is music.
Emotions and music are just two of many things that the architects and heads of Community have deemed too dangerous to be made known to the general population. The Receiver of Memories exists only to advise the Elders on how to keep problems of the past at bay.
“ Memories are not just about the past. They determine our future. You can change things; you can make things better.”
“We’d been told the Chief Elder knew everything, things nobody else did. But I had learned that knowing what something is, is not the same as knowing how something feels. I got lost, the good kind of lost. I saw sights and sounds I had no words to describe – faces with flesh of all different colors. I felt so alive. This was forbidden? I didn’t know what to think, what to believe. ‘Have faith,’ the Giver told me. He said faith – that was seeing beyond. He compared it to the wind, something felt but not seen. It was life; it just seemed more complete. The more I experienced, the more I wanted.”
Jonas and the Giver secretly forgo their daily injections. Every citizen is required to take them. They are purported to be a kind of multivitamin, but are really just emotional sedatives to help keep everyone docile. The Giver and Jonas abstaining from these injections heightens their perception of the memories they keep. They are made keen to the important kind of... soul that has faded from Community. This soul is difficult to clinically describe and in fact, shouldn't be taught clinically, at least not exclusively. A soul is fostered by experience, experiences that the Elders have relegated away to the archives in Jonas’ and Giver’s minds.
Jonas and the Giver plan to make a change, to release the memories of the past to everyone. But they must be secret and careful until the plan is in motion. The Giver had tried this once before, with a previous student, but it all went awry and she was “released to elsewhere.”
The Giver admonishes euthanasia, infanticide, eugenics, authoritarianism, emotional repression. These things lumped together into what’s presented as an oppressive egalitarian regime soured many viewer responses. Ideological naysayers viewed it as a subtle (or not so subtle) jab at several current societies. It’s a jab worth pondering. The film’s setting is governed by Elders who who euthanize babies that aren’t calculated to have viable prospects. Community is designed so that every home, building, and street has a utility, but no distinction. Citizens take daily injections so that (unbeknownst to them) their emotions never factor into decisions.
Circumstances in our world today are potential warning signs of our proclivity to move in the direction of Community. Work critically from the other side of that coin, and The Giver simply makes a point of what’s wrong with us now by scaling it up to a possible future. Iceland has recently been celebrated for eliminating down syndrome in their country, by aborting virtually every pregnancy with signs of it. Gated communities in places like Florida get fined by HOAs for having “unseemly” paint colors or grass that’s too high. Children and adults across the U.S. are increasingly prescribed sedatives like Xanax to temper anxiety, hyperactivity, depression, even slight social misalignment. Regarding the last example, I contend there’s an over-prescription. Multiple people who are close to me have undertaken a medicine regimen that masks their mental/emotional issues with docility. The bad stuff goes away but so does the great, and the problems aren’t so much solved as they are locked away along with personalities.
This week, Notre Dame Cathedral caught fire and burned for 15 hours. Despair was universal. Voices of support came from celebrities, politicians, every-day admirers, and even people who probably hadn’t given the cathedral a thought in years or ever. It wasn’t the most unsettling kind of catastrophe, because it wasn’t an act of aggression and no one was killed. But it did make a real-life point of the importance of things Community did away with in The Giver.
For the purpose of this review, I’ve so far been looking at the satirical motives of The Giver. I think it’s worth mentioning that it’s also a great character-driven narrative, and Philip Noyce brings that to the film version with a superb cast.
Lois Lowry asserts her aging father's memory loss inspired her to write The Giver. In her words, she originally “just wrote it as a story, as an exciting adventure…. It was only afterward that I realized out of that arises food for thought. A lot of questions were raised. I think the best books raise questions….”
Give the book a read and the film a watch to both follow some compelling characters on an adventure and to consider the greater, ever-present, questions about what defines our humanity and what that definition is worth.
“ I wish I had been there when the memories returned. They were the truth. The Elders and their rules were the lie. So I do not apologize. I knew Fiona was safe, that I’d see her again, and that I held the future there in my arms. The Giver had led us here, to this house. It was real. From far behind me, from the place I had left, I thought I heard music too. Perhaps it was only and echo. But it was enough. It would lead us all home.”
END OF SPOILER
Also worth noting are the home video’s special features, which contain a wealth of BTS footage, interviews, a Comic Con panel, and an extended scene which in itself could be a great standalone short film.