Monday, August 25, 2014

The Giver: Haunting Dystopia or Hunger Games Rip-Off?

 “They told me they made a society free from murder. But they didn’t. They just called it something else.”

The Giver, based on the famous children’s novel by Loius Lowry, premiered this past week in theaters with mixed reviews. Liberals hate it because they claim it touts a cheesy anti-abortion and anti-big-government message. Conservatives are shocked at Hollywood producing such a moderate film and are lamenting the fact that it will certainly not be a huge blockbuster hit in the shadow of The Hunger Games trilogy or the upcoming Maze Runner. And hardcore fans of the novel are quite frankly befuddled at the strange twist at the ending that completely deviates from the original plotline.

One of the covers for the novel
The fairly simple story revolves around a perfect society where everyone is the same because all memories of the past have been erased from people’s minds: racism, war, hatred, prejudice, and even color (the beginning of the film is shot in black and white). Unfortunately, important things such as love, sex, and even feelings have also been completely stifled and removed; each person is required to take an injection every morning that renders them emotionless and quells any “unhealthy” appetites. Nobody lies, exaggerates, fights, or really has any fun. Physical affection towards a non-family member is prohibited. Babies are conceived by birth mothers in special wards and then adopted by families, and the sick and elderly of the community, as well as any babies who are underweight or just not wanted, are “released” in a special ceremony. We don’t find out what this actually means until later on, but any shmuck should know better. 

Meryl Streep (in a rather bad wig) as one of the Elders of the Council
 Jonas’s family is (thankfully) traditional with one mother and one father both taking on somewhat traditional roles. Jonas’s dad (Alexander Skarsgård) looks like a zombie with his pale makeup and deadpan expression, and the mom (Katie Holms) displays as much emotion as a fence post. Only Lily, Jonas’s little sister (Emma Tremblay) is a convincing family member who holds up well against the stark blankness of her parents. (Jonas’s family is not like this in the book, and their surprisingly warm affections make Jonas’s later witness of his father casually Releasing a newborn all the more disturbing.) When Jonas’s father temporarily brings home a newborn named Gabriel in order to monitor it for his caregiving job, Jonas takes on the sickly, fussy baby as his personal responsibility. Gabriel loves Jonas and Jonas is the only person in the family who can sooth him. 

Alex Skarsgård as Jonas's Dad
  Every child in Jonas’s special community receives a special job when they turn 12 years old that they will continue in for the rest of their lives. Jonas’s friend Fiona becomes a caregiver of babies and elderly, and his friend Asher is selected as a drone pilot (a total deviation from the book and a blaringly obvious modern political plug). Jonas, however, is chosen to become the next Receiver of Memory, a very special and secretive task where he receives all the memories, emotions, and feelings of the past from the previous Receiver of Memories (aka the Giver), an older man who is nearing the time of Release. The Giver is the only person in the community who knows the truth about the past, in all its ugliness, glory, and beauty, and the Council of Elders consults him and his wisdom when unsolvable problems arise in the Community. 

Jeff Bridges, with lots of makeup, is The Giver
 Jonas goes to the Giver's house for training every day, and in the book, Jonas lies shirtless on a couch while the Giver transfers his memories to Jonas by laying his hands on his bare back. I was curious if they would follow this protocol in the movie, and, as I thought they would, they changed it to Jonas simply holding hands with the Giver instead—a more politically correct method. At first, Jonas receives pleasant memories of sledding downhill, of Christmas, and of throbbing colors drenching him in emotions he’s never even dreamed of. The camera slowly begins to lighten as reds and blues pop out in the scenery before his very eyes. Jonas stops taking his morning injections. He spends hours lying in the grass and staring at the lovely topaz sky and lush green leaves above him. He starts to feel attracted to Fiona and even dares to give her her first kiss. These scenes of his awakening stir up some raw and lovely emotions in the viewer; it’s a tragedy they go by so quickly.

Jonas and Fiona
  However, soon Jonas must receive bad memories along with the good: war, murder, abuse, pain, death. These shake him so badly that he runs away crying, unable to cope, and wonders if he should resign from his assignment, even though such actions would result in his Release. He can no longer look at the world the same way. He sees children playing combat in their yards and can barely stand to watch. He starts lying to his family. Desperately, he talks to Fiona, who ultimately convinces him to return to his mission. He begs her to stop taking her daily injections as well, hoping that she will eventually begin to understand his position and feelings. Meanwhile, the Council has been monitoring Jonas’s every conversation, meal, and sneeze, and they are not happy with his conduct. He has become a rebel, and a dangerous one at that. Meryl Streep, as the witch-like Leader of the Council, decides to take matters into her own hands. 

The Giver and Jonas
 The last straw is when Jonas sees his own father, a caregiver of babies, callously euthanizing a newborn by injecting poison into its skull and then tossing the body into a garbage chute. In the book, this is all the more horrible because the father is actually quite nice and likeable, but in the movie the viewer is hardly surprised, even though the camera never deviates from the baby as it slowly stops breathing. Jonas realizes that he has to do something to show people the truth; that “release” is “murder” under a different name, that human beings are meant to be so much more than emotionless automatons, that destroying individuality means destroying life itself. He also realizes that the weak, sickly Gabriel will soon be scheduled for Release, and decides to “kidnap” him, so to speak, and head for the hill country outside of the Community where no man (screw it, person) has gone before.

I don’t want to give the ending away, but I will just say this: the book and the movie both end in totally opposite directions. The book ends with a bleak and almost disappointing scene, while the movie, for the sake of the Hollywood-feel-good code, contrives a strange and completely unbelievable end result where everything turns out just fine. It is a disappointing and poorly-handled situation that leaves the viewer feeling cheated. 

Jonas and Fiona play with Gabriel
 With all that being said, I really wanted to like this movie. The chemistry between Brenton Thwaits (Jonas) and Jeff Bridges (The Giver), was touching; the choice of black and white photography juxtaposed with color was intriguing; the sweeping cinematography of the Utah landscape, breathtaking. The musical score fluctuated from Orwellian to classical to traditional, with faint Christmas carols squeaked out by happy children around a lighted tree—one of the most lovely memories Jonas receives. Thwaits and Odeya Rush, who plays Fiona, infuse a refreshing innocence into their characters. Jonas’s love for Fiona is as chaste and genuine as it is beautiful; Thwaits can say more by gently holding her hands than by any overdone snogging scene. In the book, Jonas is 12, but they ratcheted his age up to 17 in the film, probably so they could make more locker posters of star-crossed lovers. Thwaits himself is 25 in real life, but he plays a teenager rather convincingly. 

The Giver tells Jonas about music, another memory that has been erased from the Community
 Jeff Bridges is a very convincing older man, tired with the burden of his memories while being a patient and comforting father figure to Jonas. When Jonas receives the gristly memory of an elephant being shot to death by vicious hunters, the Giver comforts the shaken boy with a warm embrace. Their scenes together are as lovely and powerful as they are poignant, radiating a simple trust between the characters that is heartwarming.

But I digress. Overall, the movie felt rushed, and the viewer barely has time to soak in the captivating emotions and experiences of Jonas before being rushed off to another scene. Its simple execution and no-frills filming will never hold up to the smashing-and bang special effects and action of The Hunger Games or Divergent; it’s like comparing Altoids to elephants. And, of course, the ending is rather contrived and so confusing that I’m sure many a theater custodian has had to pick up shoes that furious patrons flung at the screen. It leaves too many questions unanswered. What happens to Fiona? To Jonas’s family? To Asher? And does the presence of a real log cabin in the woods in the final scene mean that there are still people out there who haven’t been brainwashed in a Community?

Too many loose ends for a 97-minute film.

Regardless, however, the film does have its charms, and I would recommend going to see it, even if you haven’t read the book. If nothing else, you’ll be supporting a positive Hollywood message, and you might even find yourself blushing at Thwaits’s antics (he is pretty darn cute).

Aloha, Baby.

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