Here’s a safe bet: If the villain of your dystopian young adult novel is sameness, then the movie adaptation had better not look exactly like every other dystopian Y.A. movie on the market. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened to Lois Lowry’s “The Giver,” which during its 20-year journey to the screen has shed just about every quality that made it worth adapting in the first place. It’s a special shame given that Jeff Bridges, who original dreamed of directing his father in the title role, spent 18 of those years trying to get the film made only to end up with a movie that bears little trace of his passion for the material.
“The Giver,” which was directed by Philip Noyce from a screenplay by Michael Mitnick and Robert Weide, amps up Lowry’s novel in the obvious ways, providing a concrete villain in the form of Meryl Streep’s chief elder and rejiggering its climax to include motorcycle jumps and a sleek-looking drone plane. But the themes at the core of Lowry’s novel are never brought to emotional life. Noyce’s staging of the suppressed social memories the Giver passes on to Brenton Thwaites’ Jonas, the newly appointed Receiver of Memory, comes close to full-on kitsch: The joy of life is embodied by a swirling, slo-mo Renaissance Faire shindig; its pain by a grainy Vietnam flashback. The movie’s use of footage from Ron Fricke’s “Baraka” and “Samsara” only underscores the extent to which Luc Besson’s “Lucy” leaves “The Giver’s” pallid evocation of the range of human experience in the dust.
“The Giver” opens in theaters on August 15.
Reviews of “The Giver”
Scott Foundas, Variety
This year at the movies has given us two superior dystopia tales — “The Lego Movie” and “Snowwpiercer” — rich in the kind of real emotion “The Giver” talks about a lot but never achieves. Instead, the more vibrant experience supposedly flows into the movie, the more canned everything seems. In the novel, Lowry conveyed the Receiver’s transmitted memories as indelible fragments of primal experience: the feeling of sun and snow against bare skin; the suffering of an innocent animal; the aftermath of a bloody combat. Noyce gives us those sensations, too, but he isn’t content to stop there, amping up Jonas’ visions into frenetic montages of global chaos and togetherness that feel like a cross between a Microsoft ad and a Save the Children infomercial.
Ann Hornaday, Washington Post
Ironically, it wasn’t until its imitators became box office bonanzas that “The Giver” was seen potentially profitable enough to produce for the big screen. Far less noisy and graphically violent than those films, this mournful coming-of-age tale feels like their more subdued and introspective older sibling, even as it trafficks in the self-dramatizing emotionalism and simplistic philosophizing that are so recognizably symptomatic of the YA genre.
Inkoo Kang, the Wrap
If the film aces its depiction of the dawning horror and social alienation that comes with studying yesteryear, the rest is largely a failure. “The Giver” is an anti-totalitarian allegory so farcically hyperbolic it feels like only a teenager could have come up with it. The picture is more human than the people it depicts, but it merely goes and ends where you’d expect it to, save for a gruesomely stupid final two minutes that surprises only with its laziness.
John DeFore, Hollywood Reporter
This easy out should go over especially badly with readers attached to the novel’s much more ambiguous end — though to be fair, audiences by now are so used to this type of nonsense that it hardly even register. Like Jonas’ father — Alexander Skarsgard, who more than anyone in the cast finds a way to embody Sameness while being unmistakably human — we moviegoers tend to accept what we’re told, never knowing the peaks of feeling and intelligence we should really be demanding.
Diana Drumm, Indiewire
In spite of grand, world-building special effects and a stellar cast, the film falters under giant leaps of faith that land it just outside of the typical audience’s threshold of suspension of disbelief. For fans of the book, this adaptation brings it to paint-by-numbers life, blurring over many details while capturing the overall, at times overwhelming, spirit. For newcomers, it’s a familiar tale of self-discovery set in a semi-distant future — a young man is “chosen,” he discovers a new outlook and becomes the champion for free thinking.
Jack Giroux, Film School Rejects
Having made two of the finer Jack Ryan films and 2010′s “Salt,” Noyce could have made a more conventionally exciting version of this story — where Jonas picks up a gun and starts fighting the system with his teenage buddies — but even his camerawork is far from the level of flash we expect in the summertime. While his approach to the short bursts of shared memories is a tad hamfisted and often hokey, there’s a controlled cleanness to the way he and DP Ross Emery approach the dichotomy. The beautiful black-and-white neutrality to these cold environments nicely contrasts “The Giver’s” earthy, handmade settings. Lowry never went into great detail about how everything should look, but Noyce and his team have done a fine job bringing her sparse descriptions to vibrant life.
Elizabeth Bird, School Library Journal
Is this a case like “The Lorax” where the film upsets the very moral of the original source material? Or will it be more like “The Fantastic Mr. Fox” and preserve the beauty of the book’s thematic core while clearly establishing itself as its own beast? “The Giver” happily falls into the latter category. It is most faithful to the book in terms of the themes, the morals, and way in which it confronts the problems with conformity. Over the next few decades millions of children will be shown this Newbery Award adaptation in school. And I, for one, am grateful.