Films based on dystopian novels have become wildly popular in the last few years. Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games hit the big screen two years ago starring Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson, with the sequel The Hunger Games: Catching Fire following in 2013.
Earlier this year, Veronica Roth’s Divergent found new life in a film featuring Shailene Woodley and Kate Winslet, and next month James Dashner’s The Maze Runner also will hit theaters.
But well before any of these books were written, there was Lois Lowry’s The Giver, a short, but profound novel that many of us read in the early ’90s when it was first published. After re-reading the book over 15 years later, The Giver is more brilliant, horrifying and important than I remembered. If it weren’t for The Giver, we may not have gotten some of these other fantastic novels in the last few years.
The film version of The Giver focuses on 16-year-old Jonas (Brenton Thwaites), a boy who lives in a controlled, colorless community where there is no fear, pain or feelings. He lives with his Mother (Katie Holmes), who works for the judiciary committee and his Father (Alexander Skarsgard), who takes care of the newborn. In the community, the Elders, led by the Chief Elder (Meryl Streep), assign jobs to everyone at age 16 (it was age 12 in the book). The Elders monitor the children as soon as they are born and assign a job they think would best fit their characteristics and benefit the community.
The Elders control everything in the community so that peace and contentment are kept in order. The Elders even assign spouses and then children to families that apply.
Jonas and his friends Asher (Cameron Monaghan) and Fiona (Odeya Rush) are assigned their jobs early in the film. When the Chief Elder announces that Jonas has been selected to be the new Receiver of Memory, Jonas is confused, but he is told the job is a great honor.
On the first day of his training, Jonas meets the current Receiver of Memory, who asks Jonas to call him the Giver (Jeff Bridges). The Giver’s job is to transmit memories of the past to Jonas and, by the end of his training, Jonas will have all of the memories that he will use in counseling the Elders when advice is needed. What Jonas learns from the Giver and the past world is that memories, both the beautiful and painful ones, are what make life worth living.
You may not know Brenton Thwaites, but we should see more of this Australian actor following this movie. Thwaites perfectly captures Jonas’ innocence and thirst for knowledge, and his chemistry with Bridges is beautiful. Bridges has had several memorable roles over his lengthy career, and this one will go down as one of his best. Not only does he have the physical attributes of the wise Receiver of Memory but he also captures his softness, relentlessness and love for young Jonas.
In several ways, director Phillip Noyce’s (2010’s Salt) film is more fleshed out and detailed than Lowry’s book. We get to see more of Jonas’ mother and father, played stoically by Katie Holmes and Alexander Skarsgard, respectively. We see flashbacks of The Giver’s first Receiver Rosemary, played by Taylor Swift, who delivers a memorable performance in less than ten minutes of screen time. And on that final page of the novel, when Jonas ponders the thought that it “could have only been an echo,” Noyce gives the audience a comprehensive exploration of that final scene that has been toying with our imaginations since we first finished the book.
Bridges was born to play the Giver, while Brenton Thwaites is equally admirable as his prodigy. Fans of Lowry’s beloved novel should be more than pleased to see this story come to life on screen, while those who aren’t familiar with the book will appreciate seeing one of the best and most thought provoking films of the year.