So we find ourselves back in ‘adaptation of a beloved young adult novel’ territory with the long-in-development movie of Lois Lowry’s 1993 novel. I like to think, in the mad scramble to snap up every halfway popular young adult novel after “Twilight” hit it big, that there was some executive who greenlit this in the hope of another smash hit overwrought, angst-ridden tweenage romance only to end up instead with an implacably anti-communist philosophical sci-fi allegory.
In the future, following a mysterious cataclysm, humanity resides in an idyllic, peaceful commune. There is no lying, war, pain, suffering or hunger. Choices are controlled or eliminated and even colour has disappeared from the world. When Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) is chosen to apprentice to the Receiver Of The Memory (Jeff Bridges), a lone figure who retains memories of what the world was like before, he begins to question everything he has been told as he uncovers the true price of the peace and prosperity the city enjoys.
I haven’t read the original novel, so I can’t comment on that but the film, directed by Philip Noyce, certainly wears its influences on its sleeve. The parallels to “Logan’s Run” are unmistakeable, and if you’ve seen that film, you’ll guess some of the dark secrets of this paradise quite early on. In the design there are also visual elements of Pixar’s “Up” – especially The Giver’s house, some of the visuals evoke “Aeon Flux” and the palpable sense of mystery has a taste of the Dharma Initiative about it. There’s a clever use of colour throughout the film to reflect the characters’ perceptions, a trick lifted from the book but the pacing often feels off, some scenes seem hurried and incomplete while others are languished over in great detail. At a relatively lightweight 97 minutes, it’s hard not to think there have been some savage cuts to the original story or film to make it into a multiplex-friendly running time, and robbing some of the weightier revelations of their impact as they’re touched upon briefly before the film moves on.
Jeff Bridges is great as the surly, haunted and rebellious Receiver Of The Memory, eager to pass on his knowledge but wary of past mistakes while Brenton Thwaites does a creditable job as the young boy raised to obey the bland rules but given a glimpse of something more. Katie Holmes has the unenviable job of playing one of the most hateful characters, the overly controlling ‘mother’ of Jonas’ family unit – a role which must have brought back a lot of unpleasant memories of her time in thrall to Scientology and sort of emerges as the villain of the piece. Meryl Streep, the actual villain of the piece, filmed her role as The Chief Elder in the midst of doing a couple of other movies (including Disney’s forthcoming “Into The Woods”) and unfortunately it shows through in her performance which, unusually, feels disconnected and at times unfocussed. Taylor Swift’s much heralded appearance is, in fact, little more than a cameo and I suspect her back story was one of the victims of the final editing process.
A competently made, if largely unoriginal sci-fi tale, the movie of “The Giver” is entertaining enough but it’s hard to see why it’s so beloved unless it lost a lot in translation. It certainly feels like a story better suited to a book, as the film never has time to really explore the themes and ideas it brings up in its compact running time. Rather than have the courage of its convictions, this movie has decided in both marketing and production to chase the coat tails of “The Hunger Games” and “Divergent” and ends up all the poorer for it.