The notion of our dystopian future is a popular one in young adult fiction. Unsurprisingly so, speaking as it does to the sense of exclusion and otherness that we all traverse in early adolescence. Novels talking directly to this vulnerable/valuable market are being optioned before they hit book shop shelves – with mixed results. Even Stephenie Meyer’s sparkly vampire credentials couldn’t indemnify The Host against its meh reception. But Hollywood’s ravenous appetite for the next Hunger Games delivers a real gem to youth audiences this week. Based upon sterling source material (Lois Lowry’s sci-fi bestseller is now regularly taught in US middle schools) The Giver refreshes the genre with a cerebral story which packs a pessimistic punch.
Sixteen year old Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) lives in a perfectly harmonious world. His community conforms to an ordered, homogenised way of being: Sameness. Observing the boundaries of personal space and utilizing “precision of language”. Considering each word and its impact on others. Family units exist only to raise an assigned child until the day its place in society is determined. There is no crime, no envy and no want. Through the sacrifice of history and colour, the burdens of war and suffering have apparently been eradicated.
Jonas approaches the vocation assignment ceremony with the same trepidation and pride as his childhood friends, Fiona and Asher. But, though their numbers are called, he remains standing on the stage. His integrity and unusual perception have caught the attention of Chief Elder (Meryl Streep) and she bestows upon him the position of Receiver of Memories. The role will cause him great suffering and draw upon all his reserves of personal strength as he takes on the memories of the past to offer the elders guidance in the future. A heavy burden indeed. Though one that comes with unique permission to question authority and deceive. The opportunity to be different in a world of same.
Embarking upon training with his Giver (Jeff Bridges) – the incumbent memory keeper – Jonas is assailed by flashes of colour, sensation and sound. The first tangible emotion he excavates from their exchanges though is one of euphoria. The rush of a sledge ride through gasp-cold snow. Later a zoetrope vividly illustrated by Bruegel or Renoir is thrust into his monochrome world as he glimpses a raucous celebration. Fiona (Odeya Rush) and Asher (Cameron Monaghan) lack the vocabulary, the imagination, to understand the things Jonas is desperate to share. So he emulates the rush with a death defying slide on a dinner tray – an exuberant display of joyous defiance which highlights how little each lived the childhood they relinquished. All too soon the training takes on a darker cast as the pain of the human condition is revealed. A breadth of pain that caused the last potential Receiver to be released from her role.
The strong visual identity of The Giver plays a big part in the unsettling tone. And director Phillip Noyce capitalises on our discomfort by dialling up the attention to eerie perfection from early on with a backdrop that is part Pleasantville and part Silicon Valley Campus. Foregoing the injections which ‘help’ inhabitants to conform Jonas begins to reconsider everything he has been taught. The admiration and trust he held for the couple who raised him are thrown into sharp relief by his Receiver’s reeducation and he swiftly realises that the community hasn’t eliminated cruelty and murder at all. They have simply sanitised and rebranded it. In a particularly chilling scene Jonas observes his Father (Alexander Skarsgard) at work and determines to bring The Giver’s knowledge to the community to help them all find another way.
Recent YA adaptation Divergent relied upon pretty people and artfully choreographed combat to quicken pulses, delivering an exciting dystopian roller coaster for younger teens to ride. The Giver – while also introducing the unknown quantity of romantic love to its protagonists – is more demanding of its audience. It exposes them to seeping colour of equal ugliness and beauty and refuses to tie the narrative up in a jaunty happy ending. Justifying the 12a certificate with a frank, unwavering look at the nature of brutality and impactful use of real news footage. Interestingly Jeff Bridges literally gave life to The Giver – pursuing his dream of taking the book to the big screen for 20 years. He acts as producer on the film in addition to his gruff avuncular turn as The Giver.
Meryl Streep is efficiently chilling in the role of Chief Elder. While Katie Holmes and Alexander Skarsgard lend effective support as Jonas’ misguided Mother and Father. But it is the young lead who really impresses – holding his own in dramatic exchanges with Bridges and strumming empathy from heart strings as he stumbles out into the unknown in search of a way to release truth back into the world. There are some problems with pacing but a stirring score by Marco Beltrami irons out the worst of the wrinkles. Overall this is a bold and astute coming-of-age story with much to recommend it.