The Giver Review: Waffling Doesn't Do Anyone Any Good
The long-awaited adaptation of The Giver was finally produced after twenty years of being in development hell, likely as a result of the sensational success of other dystopian YA adaptations like The Hunger Games and Divergent. But while the themes of The Giver are somewhat similar to those two franchises, the novel has a very different tone. It's quieter, more atmospheric, more pensive. In The Hunger Games and Divergent, the dystopian premises are used as essentially worst-case scenarios; anything that can be terrible, is. The Giver is slightly more complex, and portrays the dystopia as a utopian concept gone wrong, rather than just the result of everyone being evil. It's also just more subtle in general; for example, Lowry easily could have taken her premise to extremes and depicted the characters as literally having no feelings, but instead they just have "shadows" of feelings, superficial pleasures and grievances that they mistake for real emotions because they've never felt anything else. This way, they still resemble humans as we know them today, but upon closer examination are perverted into something else, which is much more powerful than reading about beings we can't even recognize.
While Philip Noyce's film is ostensibly faithful to the novel in the sense that it hits all the major plot points and world-building details, this type of faithfulness actually forces the film to sacrifice the thematic significance of the novel. Similar to last year's The Great Gatsby, it rushes from scene to scene without following the simplest cinematic conventions that would get the audience to actually care about the characters or the plot. It manages to hit all the notes while completely missing the point. Every character and relationship is underdeveloped (particularly the crucial relationship between Jonas and The Giver), every revelation comes too quickly without enough emotional consequence, and almost all of the ambiguity from the novel is lost for the sake of expedience. Although the idea that society is actually better off without emotions (and therefore without war, prejudice, famine, and all manner of terrible things) is briefly discussed, it's never seriously considered. This lack of ambiguity is never more blatant than in the modification of the last line. Jonas has escaped his community and realizes that he's about to find a new one when he hears people singing. In the novel, the last line reads: "Behind him, across vast distances of space and time, from the place he had left, he thought he heard music too. But perhaps it was only an echo." In the film, Jonas says, "I thought I heard singing. Maybe it was only an echo, but it was enough. Enough to bring us home." Instead of ending on an ambiguous note that fits the moral difficulty of the premise, it's changed to pure optimism, a victory lap that's much easier for mass audiences to swallow.
And Noyce did make some changes to the plot for mass consumption. He added a couple of tepid action scenes, developed the love story a bit more, and added a salacious backstory to the relationship between the Giver and the Chief Elder (although the latter was likely intended to give Meryl Streep more to do as much as anything else). But since it was still relatively faithful to the plot of the novel, not much actually happened. If this adaptation had been successful, it likely would have been because it went one of two ways: it could have cut a lot of the details from the book, focusing on the tone, atmosphere, and relationships. This way, it would have ultimately been a small, contemplative movie that stayed true to the thematic content and tone of the novel. Conversely, it could have shamelessly capitalized on the success of The Hunger Games and Divergent, done some limited world-building and then taken the premise all the way to near-apocalypse territory. This way, it would have been a wildly entertaining blockbuster of which no one could expect too much thoughtfulness. But by taking the middle-of-the-road approach, this adaptation will not really satisfy anyone.