Apparently, I am the only adult in my social circle who was not required to read The Giver in middle school. I stumbled upon the unabridged version of the audio book in my local library just last autumn and was dazzled and disturbed in equal parts. I found the story riveting and the characters compelling in a very refined way. The author seems to have envisioned and captured them like a warrior fighting with a very fine simple sword instead of a overdoing it with machine gun. There is no way to write this installment without spoilers so consider this fair warning. This post is filled with them. However, my initial reaction when I watched the movie this past week was mixed. The bottom line is that this movie departs so far from the book in so many major ways I can't really compare the two in more than a very general way.
THIS POST CONTAINS SEVERAL SPOILERS FOR THE BOOK AND THE MOVIE.
Image from www.rogerebert.com
That fine balance of sophisticated and thought provoking concepts and prose simple enough to make Strunk and White giddy made The Giver appealing to adults as well as children. However, that appeal is dulled considerably in the movie because the screen version only sideswipes the deeper subject matter, Nevertheless, the screen version still pulls the audience in with ramped up action, a touch of romance and increased tension that goes beyond anything seen in the book. The feel of the book is lost except in one or two scenes that hold true but with the different plot dynamic the scenes are not as powerful as they were in print due to lack of context. I won’t say the movie is bad because it isn’t. The cast is amazing and enough and the general plot themes are maintained enough that it is still an entertaining movie. Only, it is just an above average entertaining movie without most of the deep rooted philosophical nuances that make the book so powerful. To me it felt more like a mix of Hunger Games and The Giver instead of just an adaptation of The Giver.
So what was it like?
The Giver is different in some game changing ways from the very first scene. One of the things that makes the book a bit disturbing is that the children are entering training for their jobs at the tender age of twelve, NOT the more reasonable age of sixteen. On the page, a big part of the book is watching Jonas’s young sensibilities struggle against the very adult things he now has to contend with. In the movie it is not such a stretch and not nearly as unnerving. The issue of how awful it is for a child to have to fully comprehend the evils of the world and mentally handle them is supplanted with an onscreen starter romance with Fiona that flirts with evolving into a love triangle with the third member of the group, Jonas and Fiona’s friend Asher, but never quite gets there.
I want to make sure to give credit where it is due. The casting director deserves a medal for the adult cast. Alexander Skarsgard as Father and Jeff Bridges in particular as the Giver give really solid performances. The roles for Meryl Streep and Katie Holmes were both extended far beyond their scope in the book, presumably to make their participation more lengthy and noteworthy. In the book, the Chief Elder is only a leader in the society and makes no attempt to single out or later pursue Jonas. Also, in the book, Mother is not portrayed as an enemy in any sense. One of the creepiest aspects of the book is that no one is emotionally engaged with anyone else on any deep level. The whole concept of family is deconstructed to the point of Jonas’s family being more like roommates and coworkers than what most people consider the conceptual idea of family. On screen, with the parts of the chief elder and mother painted as inherently evil and therefore very much concerned and emotionally engaged, the entire concept is lost. On the page, oddly enough, them wanting to preserve the “sameness,” more than bothering with Jonas as he makes all his revelations and eventually leaves with Gabe gives them a much more sinister feel.
The whole point of the book was to highlight the generally frightening left over husks people would be if humanity with all its flaws were indeed stripped of all memory, diversity and emotional individuality and were made to be the same and emotionless. In changing that to an action based dystopia adventure for the big screen much of the point of the book is lost.
Photo from theGiver.wikia.com
The actor’s and actress that play the movie's leading trio are Brenton Thwaites (Jonas), Odeya Rush (Fiona) and Cameron Monaghan (Asher). These characters are all turning sixteen in opening scene of the movie but in real life Brenton/Jonas is twenty-six, Fiona/Odeya is eighteen and Cameron/Asher is twenty-two. Odeya comes off as a teen because she is one and Cameron pulls it off with some careful grooming and some fine acting. However, for me, the twenty-six year old Brenton just did not manage a convincing portrayal of a teenager. It seemed forced to me. The actor on screen was more than double the age of the Jonas on the page and the gap was too much for me to bridge as my brain tried to sync the two. Book Jonas is fresh and naive and struggles to stave off childish wonder and fear. The biggest things that moved me as a reader are lost as a viewer watching a grown man trying to pull off the same naivete. If you haven’t read the book you won’t miss it, but if you have, the incongruity will likely become readily apparent.
If you have not read the book and don’t have the expectation that accompanies the books pivotal themes Thwaites delivers a very good performance. Odeya carries Fiona very well. It is hard to compare the page and screen as far as the interaction with Jonas and Fiona. In the book, Jonas does see her red hair but instead of a romantic attraction culminating in a kiss, then her ultimately risking her life to help Jonas. In the book, she remains oblivious to his attraction and largely disappears for the later part of the book. On the page, Jonas feels a few “stirrings” and wonders what it might be like to have her as his wife in the way little kids would, not knowing what is involved in an adult marriage. He also never tries to share any knowledge with her. The rules given in the beginning of the movie and mostly ignored thereafter are pivotal in the book and mostly followed and extremely important to young Jonas. On the page, Fiona tends the elderly, not the young, and is not involved with Gabe. On paper there is no grand escape, only Jonas taking Gabe and riding his bike off into the night with no pursuers or wild chase and certainly no jumping a motorcycle off a cliff. All of that wild action was for the benefit of the moviegoer and serves its purpose well.
Photo from en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Giver
Students everywhere will be bummed to learn that The Giver writ large is so far from the written version that watching the movie in lieu of reading the book for reports is not even an option. Some other major differences change the tenor of the movie as well. In the book once the Giver shows Jonas a memory it is given to Jonas in earnest and the Giver no longer possesses it. Also, in print Jonas spends over a year with the Giver and when he is given a painful memory it is done carefully with buildup. Jonas does not accidentally get bad memories. The Giver on the page would not have allowed that sort of careless mistake and if he is tired Jonas is released to go home for the day.
How the Giver and Jonas interacted physically made a big difference for me. In the book, to transfer memories Jonas has to lie down and the Giver places his hands on Jonas’s back. Then he shows Jonas the memory much like the movie depicts. It may just be my overly analytic, highly caffeinated brain, but the symbolism and connotation of a young child face down and helpless receiving memories that may or may not be painful was quite different from Jonas and the Giver sitting face to face in chairs a few inches apart grasping each others wrists. The feeling of those scenes in the book is quite different due to the utterly helpless and submissive posture and mental state of the child. In the movie, that powerful subtext does not carry over with the older actor. The adjusted scene blocking making the exchanges seem almost like an equal interaction.
When I read the book, I did not get any sort of child molester vibe but more of a clearly non-sexual dominant and submissive dynamic. The transfer of memory was not nearly as active on both parts as it was onscreen. It was the Giver transferring memories, as if it was a medical procedure to implant them into Jonas's consciousness. It was not originally presented as the exchange in the movie where Jonas seemed to have some choice or control most of the time.
Another big difference was that on the page the kids had completely different jobs which would have made much of the onscreen plot unfeasible. Jonas was the Receiver of Memory, but Fiona’s work with the elderly instead of the young would have taken her completely out of the final third of the movie. In the book, Asher is a recreation director in training and had nothing to do with Jonas’s actions in the later parts of the book. He is certainly not a drone pilot, does not have a falling out with Jonas over his relationship with Fiona (again that is an onscreen only add in), does not get punched and neither Fiona nor Asher sees or is even aware of Jonas leaving with Gabe. On the page, neither is involved with Jonas after he leaves town so none of those aspects are comparable.
As to the ending...in the book Jonas simply sneaks Gabe out of the city and rides out into the desert and then the cold and eventually does find the sled on the hill. However, there is no high speed chase, no drones, no triangular stones and no being dropped into a river. In written form, a few helicopters from the community buzz around doing passes during the day the first few days, but it is not an intensive search. Once they leave the community, the later parts of the book are about how Jonas and Gabe survive. On screen, in Jonas and the Giver’s last moments together the Giver simply says “Let me give you the memory of strength” and all the hardship on the road is wiped out by an array of moving photos of people struggling, and the memory of how to be strong and endure. I thought that was a pretty colossal plot cop out. Then the movie flashes back to Fiona’s release ceremony which plays like any standard movie lethal injection scene. None of that happens in the book. On the page, the community is left far behind and does not reappear after Jonas and Gabe leave.
Photo from www.ala.org
Though the book is a Newbery Medal winner it has one of the most notoriously ambiguous endings in middle grade fiction. On paper Jonas and Gabe find the sled and see a light in the distance that is most likely a town, Jonas hopes…The End. Frustration and cursing ensued. On screen there is actual closure, which I loved but that was one of the most central aspects of the books and the movie was completely unfaithful to it. Instead, Jonas finds the Barrier of Memory (another on screen only addition) and once he finally crosses it everyone in the Community instantaneously gets their memory back. One of the plot pillars of the book is the community has lived without historical memory and valued “sameness” for centuries. The Giver and Jonas talk at length in the book about going back and back and back with memories and talk of there having been many receivers. They only mention it once in the movie and it is not elaborated on at all. So if back and back and back is supposed to be in place in the onscreen version (which it is, they say it) that means the current people in the community would have no memories to come back to them. Those people would be a blank slate like an amnesia victim, not an insta-culture full of remorseful fully aware people. That was another toughie for me to swallow.
I really liked the book as far as the author’s voice, the premise and the absolutely artful way she handled the point of view character and the eventual plot point reveal that being “released” means being euthanized. In the book it sneaks up on you. In the movie, you see it coming well in advance. The two are very little alike. Where most often I see movies and books being alike as I would imagine identical twins that have grown to look a bit different, these two are more like cousins or good friends with only a few ties in common.
So how did the movie compare to the book?
I can’t really give comparison numbers this post because past the general premise and the cast the book and movie pretty much went their separate ways. The book is amazing if you don’t mind the inconclusive ending. I did mind it but the rest of the book was so well written I decided I didn’t mind enough to dislike the book on the whole. The movie was fair but I found the older Jonas discordant and distracting and I also kept trying to reconcile the two plots. Had I not read the book I imagine I would have liked the movie far better. The concept is just as interesting even though it is expressed in a completely different way. As far as onscreen appeal, the addition of villains (the Chief Elder/Streep and Mother/Holmes), the love triangle between Asher, Jonas and Fiona and the addition of motorized bikes and motorcycle chases made for a much more visually engaging and suspenseful show. So was it better on screen or off? If I had to recommend one, I would recommend the book.
A few months after the DVD release and a zillion movie goer reviews later how does it rate?
If the movie goer hasn’t read the book then this is tailor made to appeal to Hunger Games and Divergent Series fans so it has rated out well overall with highs and lows instead of mostly middle ground reviews.
Fandango: 4 out of 5 stars
Rotten Tomatoes has it with 51 viewers throwing fresh tomatoes and 92 throwing rotten ones, with an overall 3.5 out of 5. RT also had the best overall critic’s consensus I came across, “Phillip Noyce directs The Giver with visual grace, but the movie doesn't dig deep enough into the classic source material's thought-provoking ideas.”
Movies.com low balls it a bit I think, with 0 out of 5 stars from the staff critic, but it gets back onboard with 3 out of 5 stars from the general site followers.
Roger Ebert has given it 2 out of 3 stars.
Thanks for checking out The Page and Screen! Until next time, happy reading and don't hog the popcorn.
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