If we could live in a utopian world in which all the sorrows of the world did not exist, what would the cost to humanity be? This is the question which Lois Lowry’s novel “The Giver” asks and which the film of the same name is based. It is not so much how the community within that world is constructed, but what is missing: love, empathy and the ability to retain and reflect on those things (both good and bad) which make-up what is termed memory.
In Lowry’s world children are not the product of a union of two people who come together through love (or even lust) but rather through artificial means; natural urges are discouraged and so when they start to happen, shots are given to dampen them. Children are placed into family units, however there are no emotions connected with the family. In addition, as they age they are numbered and given rewards until they reach the age of maturity, when they find out what their role in the community will be.
Jonas, Brenton Thwaites has two friends, Asher, Cameron Monaghan and Fiona, Odeya Rush. Asher according the Chief Elder was reckless, wild and rude. He is assigned to be a pilot in the drone program while Fiona is assigned to be a nurturer in the Nurturing Center.
For Jonas, he is anxious as to what his job will be. When the Chief Elder, Meryl Streep calls up the graduates to tell them, (each time thanking them for their childhood, which sounds more than a little unnerving) she goes through everyone except Jonas, who is left standing by himself. This is because unlike the others in the community he has the ability to see things they cannot. While the rest of the people in the community see things in purely black and white, he has is able to see color (although fleetingly).
When the Chief Elder finally addresses him, she remarks on this difference and assigns him to be the new ‘receiver’. This position had only been given to one other person before him; however what happened to that person is unknown. Following this, he is sent to a small hut at the edge of the community to learn about this position. It is here that he meets “The Giver”, Jeff Bridges. “The Giver” imparts to him memories. In doing this Jonas will be a receptacle which will hold all the pain, joy, and suffering that came before their idyllic community existed.
In order to mute feelings each member of the community must take a daily shot. When Jonas starts working with “The Giver”, he stops doing this. It is by abstaining from the shot, that his senses (both physical and emotional) start to really open. He is flooded with feelings, through the memories that “The Giver” divulges to him, and in his daily experience. He realizes that the utopian world, in which they live, is actually a dystopia, because the very methods it uses to ward off discord are robbing them of their humanity.
At the same time Jonas’s father, Alexander Skarsgård, works at the nurturing center, this houses infants and the elderly. When infants do not pass a fitness test, or the elderly are too feeble to care for, they are released in the “Elsewhere”. Jonas’s father takes in one of the infants who did not pass this fitness test, so they can nurture him at home. It is important to note that his father named the baby Gabriel, even though naming infants is forbidden. He says he did this in the hopes it would help the baby thrive.
When Gabriel comes to live with them, Jonas bonds with him, making funny faces to help him stop crying, cooing and making him laugh. Gabriel sleeps with a comfort toy, which he is told is a hippo, even though it is an elephant. However, in their community not even animals exist, so the concept of animals and what they mean is foreign to them.
“The Giver”, by giving Jonas memories, is able to not only show Jonas what animals are, but to relate a sense of empathy for them. The pictures “The Giver” gives him are like a collage of memories, mixed with emotions, fear, anger, joy and sorrow. Jonas is so overwhelmed by all of this that he cannot take anymore and wants to quit. Yet, he does not stop there. His desire is larger. He wants to free the community from its grey dystopic world, so that they can experience all that life has to offer.
“The Giver” while an interesting tale is not a new idea; it seems there is a plethora of films out there which are about either a Utopia or a Dystopia, and the ramifications for humanity. This maybe the reason film was made now. There are similarities with “The Hunger Games”, “1984”, “Brave New World” and the old Terri Gilliam film “Brazil”. What this does more is reflect on how when our own society is in chaos, such as now, the films which are made reflect that.
Yet, the end product is riddled with flaws. If the Giver shows Jonas memories, then why at the end are some of the things he sees not memory at all, but instead visions of the future? The reasons for creating a society such as this are never fully delineated. There is a scene at the end, in which The Giver confronts the Chief Elder, yet, it feels as if that scene was edited down to the point where the meat was literally skewered from the bone.
Instead of seeing a feisty discussion between The Giver and The Chief Elder, we are emotionally manipulated into wondering what will happen, and will they do the right thing? This leaves the questions themselves, the arguments which could have been made, lying on the table with little to no thought at all. Clearly it is not that simple. The ideas and desires behind creating a utopian society are not to oppress the masses, but to create harmony and equity. The problem is when those aims are at the cost of what it means to be human.
A curious point is that at end of the film when The Chief Elder is hunting down Jonas, it is revealed that they had cameras listening and monitoring all his activity including the means he used to trick them into thinking he was taking his daily shot. The question then is, if they knew he was doing all these things all along, then why did they wait to do anything? They acted like this was all new information to them, which in fact they must have known from the beginning.
This film is simplistic both in story and in just how far it delves into these questions. There are no clear answers. Like the construction of the community, it is all about presentation, with very little underneath. This is sad, because there was an opportunity to ask those question, and it was in that crucial scene between Bridges and Streep, however it is as if they ran out of gas, and just decided to go for the easy out; love wins, we can all go home now.
For a clearer perspective on this, it is hoped that people will go back and read such epic classics as “Brave New World” or “1984”. In “The Giver” they are constantly referring to using ‘precision of speech’ and admonish others who do not. This is of course a kind of thought control through speech. However, for a fuller deeper understanding of this, why not read “1984” in which Orwell discusses the Thought Police and Double Speak, and how the government used that to control not only thought, but how it was dispersed through the press.
Another film which came to mind when watching this is “Pleasantville” in which everyone lived in a 1950’s world in which, everything is in black and white. Again, there is the lack of emotion, however at least in that movie the thought process behind why they were living that way made more sense. We knew it was a world based on fifties television and in which every street looked like something out of an Andy Griffith Show.
The acting within the film especially of the younger actors was superb. Brendon Thwaites as Jonas has a subtle quality to him, which emits a wide array of emotion from sadness to his playful energy with Gabriel. Odeya Rush and Cameron Monaghan both brought a nuance to their roles that was innocent and then understated and ethereal.
Meryl Streep was fine, if a bit too restrained, and Jeff Bridges while interesting sounded as if he had marbles stuck in his throat. It is unclear if he was affecting a certain style of speech, but he came off as an old codger chewing his lower jaw. Is this his new mode of speech? It is unknown, but it makes listening to him a little off-putting to say the least. One would hope that this was solely for this role and not how he means to present himself in the future.
Is ‘The Giver’ a great piece of film? No. Is it interesting certainly, but more for how it stacks up against other films, which present similar themes. The problem with it is the presentation. The exterior (how it looks) is fantastic, but it is what lies underneath, that is lacking.