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The Giver a Fair if Basic Treatise on Societal Control

  • Jeffrey Huston Contributing Writer
  • Updated Nov 26, 2014
<i>The Giver</i> a Fair if Basic Treatise on Societal Control

DVD Release Date: November 25, 2014
Theatrical Release Date: August 15, 2014
Rating: PG-13 (fora mature thematic image and some sci-fi action/violence)
Genre: Drama
Run Time: 94 min
Directors: Phillip Noyce
Cast: Brenton Thwaites, Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep, Odeya Rush, Katie Holmes, Alexander Skarsgård,Taylor Swift, Cameron Monaghan

Over twenty years ago, long before the current craze of Young Adult novels, The Giver became an instant classic, a staple of middle school reading lists, selling more than 10 million copies while winning the prestigious Newbery Medal. It was a book ahead of its time. Unfortunately, in the wake of much bigger YA dystopian franchises – The Hunger Games and Divergent, most prominently – the film adaptation of this cautionary sci-fi tale feels like an also-ran on the multiplex landscape. It's also particularly ironic for a story about the ills of 'sameness," considering we've seen this done before.

Still, with source material that boasts a greater literary gravitas, familiarity shouldn't stop devotees of Lois Lowry's book (or audiences in general) from seeing The Giver, which took Jeff Bridges (as producer and the star of the title) several years to make. Sure, the "Hero's Journey" formula doesn't feel fresh as it hits all of the well-worn Orwellian beats, but on the whole it's still pretty good as these movies go. Despite some tweaks – the central boy is aged from 11 to 16, some scenes are given more of an action context and motivation – the narrative core of the novel remains intact, as does its timeless themes about the beauty and horror of the human condition and the evil folly of social engineering, even (perhaps especially) when pursued with the best intentions.

Set in a distant undated future, The Giver finds a human remnant closed off in a highly-controlled environment. At first glance it looks like utopia: everything is clean, pristine, and orderly, and there’s no bigotry, hatred, hunger, or war, or even profanity. People are always polite, courteous, happy, and kind. The climate is even controlled; there's never rain nor snow. We quickly discover, however, the high cost that's been paid to reach and maintain such an idyllic existence.

Our first sign is instantly apparent: the film begins in black-and-white because the characters cannot see color. We come to learn that they also lack any knowledge of art, music, and literature, or any sense of romance or even love itself. Families are manufactured, with babies produced and assigned rather than born and kept. Careers are assigned, not chosen. The price for living without pain is to live without passion. To achieve utopia is to sacrifice humanity. from crosswalkmovies on GodTube.

The human passions are not suppressed by brute force (although floating cameras loom), and indoctrination is just a safety net. The primary tool of control is daily doses of medication that drain people of desire and ambition. The goal is to achieve a "Sameness." That is the highest ideal, to eliminate conflict by eliminating differences. The Giver would play like a Communist Propaganda piece if the community Elders' underlying tactics weren't so insidious – such as the "transition" of elderly citizens to the never-seen heavenly retirement realm of Elsewhere (which is a ruse for euthanasia).

All of these underlying truths are hidden and completely oblivious to the members of the community, in large part because history itself has also been kept from them. They have no memory of the world as it once was. Only the aging Receiver of Memory (Bridges) holds all knowledge of human existence, both through books and by mystical powers, and he must now pass on his knowledge to the newly-anointed Receiver of Memory, a young man named Jonas (Brenton Thwaites, Maleficent) who has already begun to catch glimpses of color.

Through one-on-one sessions of metaphysical transfusion, the Giver bestows not just knowledge to Jonas but also experience and emotion. The Giver starts with the beauty of all that's been lost: color, art, thrills, nature, and deep human connection. Jonas's confusion as to why this has been sacrificed is made clear as the Giver begins to share memories of human brutality, pain, and evil. Yet even with the emotional overload of this disparity, Jonas comes to value and yearn for the good so much – indeed for Truth itself, in all its complexity and conflict – that he vows to free everyone into the full knowledge of the truth, especially as that truth includes murder itself which has been unwittingly carried out by the Elders under a process benignly dubbed "release." As Jonas realizes, "They hadn't eliminated murder. They had just called it by a different name."

That statement is a good example of the real-life parallels to social issues that The Giver draws, speaking to the callous – at times murderous – deceptions we've instituted in the real world under the guise of a better, more compassionate society. And along with more easily grasped ideas like the importance of human individuality and connection, The Giver also tackles bigger concepts of societal engineering and its limits. It shows how humans can only achieve a so-called utopia through control, denial, and deception, and that the imperfect but most honest state of humanity isn't to suppress our nature but to face it.

Veteran director Phillip Noyce (Salt) crafts the story with a taut yet contemplative tone that's a touch above recent YA genre films, and his cast – from Meryl Streep and Katie Holmes to impressive young newcomers – gives a sincere depiction of these people, not resorting to simplistic brainwashed gazes but rather authentic and natural impulses. Noyce even allows Streep and her fellow Elders to show such earnest concern for this society (and repulsion for humanity's potential for evil) that we come to sympathize with their motives even as we repel at their means and ends.

So while the futuristic dystopian milieu is a bit too basic (with on-the-nose labels like “The Community”, “The Boundaries”, “The Ruin”, “The Edge”, and so on), its warnings too familiar and its metaphors too obvious (the Innocent biting the apple), The Giver – like the popular book before it – is a parent-friendly thriller that allows a young audience to think about complex ideas and core human values for the first time. As theologian Frederick Buechner said, "Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don't be afraid."

CAUTIONS (may contain spoilers):

  • Drugs/Alcohol: None in the traditional sense. Inhabitants of the closed community take daily doses of medication that drain them of passions and desires
  • Language/Profanity: None
  • Sexual Content/Nudity: A couple of romantic kisses between teens. Some hand-holding.
  • Violence/Other: Quick-cut images of violence and horrors in the world, and from history. Some depictions of war violence; a little blood, people being shot, but not bloody or gory. An elephant is shot and killed. A teen boy punches another teen. A baby is "released," which is to say it's euthanized. Another "releasing" of a young adult is actually an execution by lethal injection.

Publication date: August 15, 2014