The Giver Movie: A Reader’s Perspective

The_Giver_posterAs a reader, I’m not sure if I went to the movies because I wanted to watch The Giver or because I wanted to hatewatch it.

I did a little of each. I’ll try to explain my reaction to the film, while also leaving out enough information to keep the movie surprising if you’d like to be surprised. That may leave this post incomprehensible until after you’ve seen the movie. I’m not sure. You’ll have to let me know. But be forewarned: this post either has spoilers or is impossible to understand.

I think your liking of this film will depend on how passionate you are about the book. I’m not someone who thinks movies have to stick to the book word-for-word; different media require different approaches. But I’m also not someone who likes it when a movie slaps a book title on its poster and does nothing else to base it on the novel. The Giver is somewhere in between, and it’s not really a bad movie so much as a film that suffers from the glut of dystopian movies, TV, and books and designed itself to be attractive to people just catching on to that genre, not people curious to see Lois Lowry’s beloved book come to life.

That’s not to say that readers won’t enjoy this film. The creators did a brilliant job of dealing with the colorless world. The slow transitions and back-and-forth from plain to color and back again, as Jonas learns new colors and as he goes back and forth between the colorful world of the Giver’s home to his own bland dwelling, is just perfect. The set design is spot-on, and the costumes and props are stylized but not too corny. This film has excellent trappings, but it didn’t do much to translate the power of the book to the screen. 

The GiverThe problem with The Giver, of course, is that there’s a lot you just can’t bring to life from the book. It’s not practical. It’s hard to find a bunch of 12-year-old actors who can carry the gravity present in the original novel, so I can understand the choice that was made when the filmmakers upped the age to 18. People don’t really like murdering children in any context, but it’s especially hard to stomach when you have to watch it, not just read about it. And I can understand, for financial reasons, why this movie was framed in its trailers, promotional posters, and even in the film itself, as another Divergent, though I think it does the movie and the book a disservice. Nearly every misstep this film makes is that it turned itself from a powerful children’s novel (not without its faults, especially if you reread it as an adult, but still an exceptionally well done book) that forces us all to confront our notions of childhood and humanity and protection into yet another movie about a teenager taking on the system and winning.

If you’d like a teen dystopia, this is a very good movie. There are still some important questions it asks, but in that insulting way that other dystopian stories for teens ask the questions and immediately push you toward an answer, this film assumes you need a lot of help coming to the right conclusion. Where the book is thoughtful and lets you mull over things by watching the result of Sameness and overzealous order, like Asher being beaten by teachers for misspeaking, or less healthy twins being euthanized for having the wrong kind of similarity, or puberty being instantly stopped at its first stirring (see what I did there) without discussion, or not even having the words to describe color, the film lets you see it and then instantly tells you, via the Giver himself or Jonas’ voiceover narration (an unfortunate addition that more firmly insinuates that the source material is a teen melodrama) or his worldly, deep phrasing when he tries to convince Fiona that she’s being duped. The way characters instantly come to terms with huge information that took Jonas a lot of training to understand, just because it’s convenient to the film if they can understand it right now, is obnoxious, if unsurprising. It’s like the movie relies on your knowing the book to fill in the blanks, while simultaneously wanting you to believe that this is a completely original story. And the entire quality of the film changes when it’s a teenager being given responsibility and having it taken away at the same time – that’s what adolescence is. That’s what we are used to thinking stories about teenagers are about. What is so chilling about the novel is that it’s children who are being put into these positions.

Then, of course, there’s the matter of the ending. This issue goes beyond the book and the movie, since you and I may be in very different camps as to how we feel about it. The film, because it takes what was an implied post-apocalyptic setup and makes it So Very Important (and yet so vague and uninteresting) that it needs to be printed at the beginning of the film, stated by Jonas as soon as the words are wiped from the screen, then spoken again by the Chief Elder at the ceremony, and then referenced again by the Giver, necessarily has a more hopeful and in-your-face, action-packed ending.

I understand that Lois Lowry herself is pleased with the movie and the changes that were made. Given her almost complete recanting of the traditional reading of the novel’s end, I’m not surprised. But I don’t agree with it. The curmudgeon in me thinks each of The Giver‘s subsequent sequels was a bigger and bigger mistake, and the student of literary theory in me is firm in her belief that authors have no business modifying and correcting the readings of their books once they’re out in the world. (The author is dead, after all.) It’s not that I take pleasure in bleak, depressing book endings (though I do think The Giver did it right, making it bleak and only slightly ambiguous), it’s just that I think instantly fixing the world is disingenuous, not to mention less interesting than prompting questions like “Was it worth it?” or “What is sacrifice?” or “Whom does Jonas’ journey benefit?” as the novel did.

If you want to get the same emotional hit you likely got from the book, you will not get it here. But if you want to see a movie that’s not bad, this is as good a choice as any.

What did you think?

–Hannah Gómez, currently reading Science…For Her! by Megan Amram

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Hannah Gómez

Hannah Gómez is a former independent school librarian and now works remotely as a librarian consultant/teacher. She also teaches fitness and writes things. She is on Twitter @shgmclicious