Lois Lowry's book The Giver was published twenty years, beating out The Hunger Games and Divergent by a considerable margin. In the case of the latter, which recently had an adaptation starring Shailene Woodley, the author has openly stated she drew inspiration from The Giver in crafting the faction-based, uniform world of her popular novels. Does anybody really care about that, though? Nobody will think about which book came first, all they'll know is which film came first and which one looks like a derivative, boring entry in the YA genre.
The irony is so many of these films are about celebrating diversity yet they are virtually indistinguishable from one another. The Giver takes place in a future society where sameness is celebrated; all emotion eradicated and even the color spectrum is reduced to shades of gray. There is no war or hunger but there's also no excitement, and you can forget about sex or anything that qualifies as fun. Even words are highly regulated by this quietly oppressive governmental system, one that sends the elderly off to a mysterious paradise known as "Elsewhere". Of course this supposedly utopian society hides a dystopian underbelly, one that the Elders don't want to see revealed.
But if someone is going to expose what's really going on it may be Jonas (Brenton Thwaites), who during the "Choosing Ceremony" (well, that's what Divergent called it anyway) is shocked to learn he's been chosen to become the new Receiver of Memory. The Receiver is to train under the tutelage of the Giver (Jeff Bridges), a sort of Yoda master gifted (or cursed) with memories of how humanity used to be; the love, the war; the racism; the joy; the freedom; all the things that Jonas has never known. When Jonas' eyes are opened to the reality of human potential, and begins to see color in a way reminiscent of 1998's Pleasantville, he takes it upon himself to change the status quo once and for all.
The Giver explores our basic need to conform, to gain acceptance from others even at the cost of our individuality. This is a recurring theme we've seen far too often and done with greater insight by other films. The big problem is that Philip Noyce and screenwriting duo Michael Mitnick and Robert Weide do a terrible job of world-building , never fleshing out this society in a way that would make this believable. It's almost as if this was a movie made solely for the initiated who already knew everything going in, and maybe since Bridges has been developing this movie for a decade that's the case. He scored a major coup attracting the likes of Meryl Streep to star as the Chief Elder and she's so bland you wish for the hair-pulling excesses of August: Osage County. But she's a damn sight better than Thwaites who seems to have taken the lack of emotion to heart. While others such as Katie Holmes, Alexander Skarsgard, and Odeya Rush are expected to dial it back due to the story's requirements, Thwaites has no such excuse. He's comically bad and woefully stiff, but worse he's just not much of a presence at all. The story needs a charismatic figure and the only one it gets is Bridges. With a mischievous, knowing twinkle in his eye he's the only character fully-formed enough to warrant our sympathy, especially as he mourns over the memory of his last student (Taylor Swift in a minor cameo) who met a tragic fate.
While Streep is ostensibly the "villain" the real nemesis for Jonas is societal compliance, and that doesn't give him much to directly contend with. As a result there's a severe lack of action (unless sled rides are thrilling to you?) and a tone that stays flat throughout. Without a proper rising of the stakes the film ends with a resounding thud that won't have many aching for a sequel. Uniformity muddies The Giver's core message, and without a compelling story or central character it's not a film you'll want to receive.