dir: Phillip Noyce
By all the gods above and below, this is the dreariest flick I’ve seen in a long time.
I know enough about the book The Giver to know that since the 1990s the book has been on the reading list for high school students, probably causing them collectively to groan whenever they see the advertising because it stinks of homework. Same way the rest of us feel whenever Shakespeare or Anne Frank’s Diary is mentioned.
But honestly, how did this book get such traction in the American consciousness? I haven’t read the book so maybe it’s a masterpiece of dystopian allegory or didactic science fiction, but based on what’s ended up on the screen it’s a trite, dreary and fundamentally unbelievable story with a simple-minded resolution that not even a kid would buy.
And yet a lot of people have read it, and a lot of people saw the film. I remain categorically unimpressed.
It even has The Dude, and even that doesn’t work. Shameful, shameful work.
The world of The Giver is one we’ve seen many a time before. It’s a bland gated community without too many dark skinned people, and everyone is blandly handsome and polite. Plus, they’re all in black and white. In other words, it’s not just that the images we are seeing are in black and white, we’re informed, by how it changes, that the denizens of this community also see everything only in black and white, like dogs.
There’s no harshness, no pain, no highs or lows, no art, no music. People always speak precisely and politely, and everyone does exactly what they’re expected to do when they’re supposed to do it. Surveillance is everyone, to the point where even private conversations between people in a house will be heard and corrected by some Authority if someone says the wrong thing.
People live in constructed family units with people they’re not genetically related to, they neither love nor hate anyone, and there’s no affection or even sex. Or should that be there’s no sex, not even physical affection, and certainly no kissing.
Whenever anyone expresses a thought or feeling with too much passion, someone will always be there to peevishly intone “Precision of Language!” Using the “correct” language is very important for these people, and why shouldn’t it be? If people these days could get away with talking in emoticons I suspect they would.
The Community they all live in is ruled by these wise elders, and the wisest of them is the Chief Elder (Meryl Streep). You’d think some of these oldies are perhaps old enough to remember a time before the present peace and comfort. But even that isn’t clear to me, despite how the Chief Elder acts a lot of the time, because apparently another thing the people of this place are free of is memory.
None of them remember a time beforehand, and none of them know anything about human history. That’s perfect for keeping the sheep docile and pliable, but it helps that all their language is robbed of emotion or imagination, and that they take daily injections to dull their emotions, instincts and senses.
I know, I know, it sounds like a perfect place to live. Actually, it sounds a lot like one of those assisted living communities where old people live out the last of their days. That reminds me, apparently, because everyone’s genetically engineered, or at least selected for uniformity, death is virtually unknown. I mean, I’m sure it happens, but they deal with it euphemistically. The thing is, though, the clods of this world that aren’t elders are so dumbed down that when they hear that a bunch of oldies or non-thriving babies are about to be ‘Released to Elsewhere’, they actually think they’re going to go to a farm upstate where they’ll be able to run and play with the other dogs.
What’s meant to be a grim horror to us is that we realise that of course these people are being euthanised. Forcibly put down. Eliminated. Fascistically finished.
The horror, eh? Why, that’s just monstrous, isn’t it? Isn’t it? What do you mean it isn’t? What do you mean they already do this in our world today and no-one bats an eyelid?
Well that’s just wrong, we’re meant to think, but… eh. Our main character is Jonas (Brendon Thwaites), who is destined, like the main character of every story like this is destined, to reject the system and make things right, somehow. He is the rebel, the worm in the apple’s heart, the one who doesn’t accept things as they are.
He’s different from everyone else, and it’s not just the thickness of his eyebrows, or that he’s Australian and used to be on tv soap Home and Away. He can see more than the rest of them can see, hints of a different colour other than shades of grey. He also has these birthmarks on his wrists. Birthmarks are sexy, I know, but they have far more plot significance than that.
You see, even though everyone in this hellishly idyllic place knows nothing other than what they’re told, and they remember nothing, and aren’t really attached to anyone or anything, there’s one person who knows everything. The Giver (Jeff Bridges). He knows all and sees all, and it’s his duty to transfer his memories to Jonas in order to guarantee the long term survival of the Community, perched as it is precariously on some plateau.
Why would they bother, you would think? Well, the oldies who couldn’t really possess any experience or wisdom themselves, since they don’t remember anything (we keep being told, but it doesn’t seem practically possible, even for them with all their Technology), might need to consult with the Giver if something comes along that they don’t have the knowledge to problem-solve. So he could be trotted out like an aged Swiss Army knife to tell them what to do.
That’s the theory. I couldn’t see any application for it here, but we’re not meant to think that the Chief Elder or her goons are right in what they’re doing. Jonas and the Giver start hanging out, and the memories of the past, not of the Giver’s past, but some kind of collective human memory going as far back as the Vietnam War gets painstakingly transferred to the young man with some kind of mind-meld through the birthmarks on their wrists.
And… that’s that. The Giver is meant to be old, so Bridges puts on his oldest old man voice, which sounds like an old man at a bakery complaining that the bread they sell gets under his dentures. It’s an awful voice and I hated hearing it. He makes it sound all jowly and weak and it’s very unpleasant. His job here is to share humanity’s collective history, across all of its emotional and moral spectrum, slowly enough to Jonas so that he doesn’t get too freaked out by it all. All this does is convince Jonas that that the way they live is terrible, and that he has to get out of there as quick as possible.
It is terrible, yes, I’m not going to deny that. It’s terrible, to me, because it’s so fucking bland. I know the blandness is deliberate, but I also know there are probably millions of people on the planet that would happily sell their firstborns to live like that, no matter the sacrifices. And they probably do, because it doesn’t look too dissimilar from a bunch of gated communities I’ve had the privilege to see.
Even having said that it strikes me that the flick mostly fails because it never really musters much of a competing interest. We know from the start that the bland stylings and stilted manner in which everyone talks in this place means it would be a total drag for people to live there. The clinical executions aren’t that appealing either. So at no stage is there a tension between the established order and the one we could imagine or the heroes imagine could be created if they overturn the system, because there’s nothing seductive about it. We never think there’s any doubt that Jonas would leave, because he’s not like the rest of them, he’s like ‘us’, and we’d leave, wouldn’t we?
I’m sure the people behind this, including Jeff Bridges, who’s been trying to get this flick made for 20 years or so, would deny this, but the element most worrying to me is the clear godbothering element. Walden Media, the company that also made the Chronicles of Narnia movies, makes no bones about putting Christian themes in its movies, and there’s nothing wrong with Christian themes per se. They don’t appeal to me in the slightest, but I’m sure they appeal to a lot of people who don’t really care for films but love seeing anything that affirms their faith/prejudices.
To me, and I might be biased, the way the theme really comes across is like this: the movie is saying a place like this is an abomination, because the manipulation of language, the use of chemical controls/drugs and the abolition of traditional families has led to a secular hell where even babies can be killed without anyone realising how evil it is. Worst of all, the elision of emotion and shared memory between these people makes it impossible for religion and faith to take hold again and govern their lives.
Does it sound familiar? Aren’t they really taking a book written as a paean against conformity and resisting the mainstream, and turned it into a story where the dystopia equals the world we currently live in with The Jesus taken out of it?
The film is a slog, it’s dreary and awkward, and bits of it look horribly amateurish (like something off the SyFy channel, effects-wise in the ‘drone’ sequences), thematically the flick doesn’t work for me, performance-wise The Dude let me down, and there’s even a Taylor Swift cameo which I hated because, hell, it’s Taylor Swift. The ending is also absurdly ridiculous, a patently magical ending where Technology, somehow, does something for no earthly reason, something which doesn’t make sense even in the movie’s own context.
Did anything work? Well, I actually thought Brendon Thwaites as the lead character was really solid. I know it sounds weird, considering that I hated almost everything else, but he was strong as Jonas, and I found him oddly believable in a story that is not believable at all. He also worked well with most of the other actors, and watching him blossom and expand his horizons, and experience certain emotions for the first time was fine.
Perhaps they were hoping for this to become the next Hunger Games, and there are three more books in the series, but I doubt they’ll see the light of day, and I’d be happy for this to end here. Some things have a natural time when they should end, and The Giver really didn’t give me anything other than the shits.
5 times this has to be one of those occasions where the book is better than the film out of 10
“If people have the freedom to choose, they choose wrong” – yes, they do choose wrong, they could choose to voluntarily watch The Giver