18 years ago, Jeff Bridges directed a BetaMax version of The Giver. It was a lo-fi test run starring his father, Lloyd Bridges, photographed by brother Casey Bridges and narrated by Bud Court (Harold and Maude). It never made it to market – or outside the Bridge’s living room for that matter – but as it yellowed in a storage box somewhere, Bridges has since been trying to get The Giver made on his own terms.
Says Bridges, “Wanting to direct it myself, I had a certain vision of how it would go and I was in love with the book so I wanted to put that onscreen exactly how it was.” With Bridges stepping into the role that he always saw his own father in, he has helped contribute to a movie version of Lois Lowry‘s Newbury Award-winning story that preserves the spirit of the book; a baleful, cautionary tale of what we lose when equality reigns supreme.
Phillip Noyce‘s (Patriot Games) adaptation of The Giver begins in picturesque black-and-white. Like a cold-pressed “Harrison Bergeron”, society has been sanitized of all that makes us different. Everyone’s house is the same size and layout, every Year Nine gets a futurist, Walmart knock-off looking bike. Jobs are assigned just as partners are. The time for hyperbole has ended; precision of language is a must. The world of The Giver has been scrubbed of color because that might tend towards favoritism. The Communities are lands without high and lows, without love and hate. It’s a kingdom of meh.
Enter Jonas, a mild-mannered Year Twelve. He’s supposedly a potpourri of attributes, but he comes off just as bland as everyone else in this axenic town. The only thing that separates him from the quieted rabble is his persisting sense of wonder. He’s a daydreamer even in a world sanitized of dreams. In a land where being different is to be outcast, he’s a square-circle peg in a circle-square hole. His one degree of difference is just enough to tip off the higher ups that he’s not quite fit for this rigid society of yay-sayers and apologists.
Brenton Thwaites (Oculus) is an older Jonas than you might remember but he handles the material aptly. He’s a little stare-heavy and a touch too wholesome but Thwaites mostly does the role justice, offering a sacrificial character who’s capable of both great mental strength and weakness. At his graduation – er Ceremony of the Twelves – Jonas sees his peers assigned roles one at a time. His good friend Fiona (Odeya Rush) is assigned to be a Nurturer. His other mate Asher (Cameron Monaghan) is a drone pilot. Note, neither are good actors in the slightest.
As the roll drifts to Jonas, it skips past him, continuing onto the next classmate down the line. He finds himself briefly without an assignment before the Chief Elder (Streep) turns to him. Between a chop of Razorclam bangs that makes Elisabeth Moss’ motley doo on the first season of Mad Men look like a piece of high art, Meryl Steep is a rhadamanthine czar of the harshest order. She’s a dubious politician, a low-spoken dictator; a less shouty Shitler. With a mop that would date Kim Jong-un’s, she’s quietly terrifying. It’s her way or the “highway.” Remember though, there are no highways in the Communities, just wittle, itty, bitty injections that “release” you from society.
After a thudding zinger that would be at home in a Phil Dunphy Real Estate Conference (“You’re my favorite group of realtors, but I must admit, I say that to every one of them”), Elder Streep assigns Jonas the mysterious and exalted position of Receiver of Memories. In a civilization where every house looks the same, there is one that juts out like a sore thumb, lying on the edge of the map, and that’s where Jonas’ assignment has him headed.
Here, he meets the elder Receiver of Memories (Bridges), a man who single-handedly is responsible for the collective memories of the past in the hopes that he’ll be able to advice Streep and her Elder cohorts in matters we know not of. He’s a somber hermit, a man burdened with all the anguish of history and gifted with all its joys. As he passes along these memories to Jonas, the good and the bad, he loses his old moniker and becomes The Giver.
Though Noyce abandons some of the more morally tricky areas of Lowry’s novel – the interesting discussion of what has become of sex and reproduction has been all but left out – he never defames the material on which his film is based. In fact, much of Noyce’s interpretation of Lowry’s corrosive prose puts images to verbal abstractions in powerful and poignant strokes. As The Giver waxes on love, war, happiness, loss, those ideas waft from the screen in healthy torrents. He pummels us with effigies of joy, strangles us with imagery of tragedy. It’s at once chessy and breathless and, by and large, works really well. Noyce’s visual montages – though obnoxiously shuddery – seek to remind us of the power of life, the yin and the yang that is having and losing, and might even conjure up a spare tear.
As Bridges gives a quietly devastating performance as the eponymous character, The Giver tip-toes to the finish as an occasionally whopping crowd-pleaser. Noyce’s is a direly decorated dystopia sans the violence and romance of similarly themed Young Adult fare (and it’s only a brusk 93 minutes.) Noyce offers drab aestetics and moral battles in lieu of the high stakes “Do or die” of Divergent and The Hunger Games. His Giver relies on ideas prevailing over pretty pictures, meaningless battles and fluffy romances. Where other films shout, The Giver whispers. It’s not a perfect adaptation of Lowry’s provocative novel but it is boldly faithful; a mostly thoughtful vision of utopia gone awry.