The Giver, the Newbery Award-winning novel by Lois Lowry, is absolutely one of the most important books in the field of children’s literature of the last fifty years. The original dystopic novel for young people (it turned twenty this year) The Giver raises still-timely, still-powerful questions that people of faith, young and old alike, must confront--everything from euthanasia to our culture's hiding of reality through euphemism ("drone strikes" as opposed to "assassination" or "murder," for example.)
It’s also a book that entails some controversy; I did the "Discussion Questions" for the initial paperback edition twenty years ago and received an angry phone call denouncing me for betraying Calvin College (where I teach) through my participation in this book. The book has regularly been banned in school districts across the country.
Now there is a powerful new film adaptation of The Giver produced by Walden Media and The Weinstein Company about to open in theatres across the country. Having just seen the film version of The Giver, the more I think about it, the more it seems to me is that this is really a story about love—and love in many forms.
At the center of the film is the claim by the Giver that without love, faith and hope too must perish. What a frightening picture, but one that seems to be borne out again and again in our culture. The Chief Elder by contrast, insists that when people are given a choice, they always choose wrong.
And of course, she’s almost right.
It’s not hard to look around and see that people choose wrongly all the time. But to remove choice, to remove what it is that makes us most human, is a response that makes us ultimately inhuman. Both novel and the new film do not deny that choice will lead to pain and suffering, but both insist that choice is also what leads to love.
And in the end, the denial of choice does not really end the suffering; it anesthetizes. And how often can that formula be seen at work today: the anesthetizing of our culture.
(I’m sitting in an airport while writing this, listening to CNN which has to has to has to be on because this trivia is so so SO important; while all around me people are eating food that they have not made or seen made, filled with they don’t know what, but pleasing because of the chemically-manufactured taste—which chemicals are doing we don’t know what to our bodies.)
Perhaps the great refutation of the Chief Elder’s claim is the action by Jonas himself: When called to make a choice, he makes exactly the right one: he saves a life. He is the ultimate denial of the Chief Elder’s axiom—as any act that comes out of love is the ultimate denial of her notion.
Over and again, this film insists that love is stronger than anything, even such powerful human conditioning. This is a hugely important message.
For people of faith, these are some of the central questions of our time. When we live without faith, when we live without hope (What is there to hope for in this community until Jonas comes into play?), when we live without love, we only exist.
When we live in a culture that is so amazingly unaware—and wants to be so amazingly unaware—where ironically the media is not making us aware, but instead riling us up toward insignificance—how then do we live? The Giver insists on awareness, on living fully as a human being, on choosing despite the risks.
We need to be talking about this stuff. The Giver provides us that rich, important opportunity.
Gary Schmidt is Professor of English at Calvin College, and the author, most recently of Okay for Now, (a National Book Award finalist), as well as the Newbery Honor and Printz Honor book Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy, and The Wednesday Wars.