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Sunday, Aug. 24, 2014

The Giver

Film fails to bring the dystopian novel to life

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As The Giver opens, the viewer is immersed in what seems to be a Utopian paradise. Instead of a bleak futuristic look, the setting is comforting and sun-dappled. Retro architecture, clothing styles and other period tidbits subliminally suggest the bygone ’50s. Everyone seems to wear a vague sense of contentment. Indeed, in this setting, people no longer experience pain, sadness, war or, for that matter, any of the lamentable truths of the so-called real world. Moreover, there is no racial or ethnic conflict. Perhaps you won’t notice or ascribe any intentionality to the fact, but throughout the film, we see an uninterrupted wave of pale, Eurocentric faces.

We meet our fresh-scrubbed protagonist, Jonas (Brenton Thwaites), a young teen, who is about 16 years old. He is cavorting with his two best friends, Fiona (Odeya Rush) and Asher (Cameron Monaghan), who are similarly wholesome in appearance. The trio eagerly looks forward to an upcoming ceremony in which they and their peers will be assigned a job, which will last them for a lifetime (shades of Divergent).

As we incrementally learn, this isn’t such a wonderful world after all. Not only do citizens have their jobs designated, they are assigned spouses and children. The Giver is silent on the issue of whether sex is even allowed in this Brave New World. Do people really have the self-discipline to deny themselves such pleasures? In addition, lying, stealing, fighting and all other base behavior have all been abolished. Are people able to voluntarily refrain from such misconduct for the good of society?

Did I neglect to mention that upon waking, each citizen receives a daily mandatory injection? Apparently, in this carefully controlled society, each person is engulfed in a perpetual, pharmaceutically induced haze, stripped of any scintilla of free will. Moreover, the notion of privacy is obsolete. People’s homes are subject to 24/7 surveillance. The Elders, a cabal of unelected leaders, can be trusted to know what is best.

At the assignment ceremony, a nameless woman, known only as the Chief Elder (Meryl Streep), appears by hologram. Privately, she disdainfully espouses the credo, “When people have the freedom to choose, they choose wrong.” With the exception of Jonas, the Chief Elder ticks off the name of each member of the graduating class and specifies their assignment. Has the lad somehow been overlooked?  Has he been relegated to assignment purgatory?

Not at all. Jonas is about to have a special honor bestowed upon him as the so-called Receiver of Memory. It’s a highly elite, top-secret role, which has been vacant for a decade. Jonas will serve as an apprentice to a high-ranking official, ominously known only as The Giver (Jeff Bridges).

The film is derived from a book of the same name by Lois Lowry. When published in 1993, The Giver elicited an extremely polarized response. It won the prestigious Newbery Medal and numerous other accolades. Many schools placed it on their required reading lists. The American Library Association gave it the William Allen White Award as Best Book for Young Adults. The organization also placed it on their list of 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990-1999. Particularly disturbing in the book and depicted again on screen is the institutionalized practice of neonatal euthanasia to achieve genetic tranquility. The Society also engages in a practice known as “release,” a euphemism denoting the killing of any person deemed obsolete.

The film version is a total disaster. The source novel is conceptually driven and introspective with virtually no action to speak of. Perhaps as a result, the film is dramatically inert. The gradients of time and place are abstract, essentially non-existent. Certain characters experience epiphanies, which are abrupt and without adequate foreshadowing. Even a cameo appearance by pop star Taylor Swift is thoroughly wasted. The book is intended as a cautionary tale about the perils of acquiescing to an authoritarian state. The film fails to explicate the essence of Lowry’s vision. We are presented with a conceptually muddled adaptation. Despite its lofty title, you’ll receive nothing substantive from this film.