‘The Giver’ is a torturous, misguided bore

By Nathan Frontiero

(Courtesy of the Weinstein Company)
(Courtesy of the Weinstein Company)

Jeff Bridges spent 18 years trying to film an adaptation of “The Giver.” I wish he had succeeded earlier. One thing that became achingly apparent while watching the film is that it would have been far more subtle and affecting 10 or 15 years ago. Lois Lowry published her Newbury Award-winning novel in 1993, and in the two decades since, the literary and filmmaking worlds have pumped out young adult dystopian narratives at nauseam. That dirge of YA adaptations has washed the cinematic palette of anything fresh and new.

Director Philip Noyce and Bridges (who produces and stars in the title role) have taken a children’s novel and spit-shined it into a young adult adventure. Here, protagonist Jonas is supposed to be 16 instead of 12, and is played by hunky 24-year-old Brenton Thwaites. Thwaites is not a bad actor and even though his performance is just as stiff as everyone else’s, he shows commitment to his role. The problem is that he feels out of place as Jonas. Additionally the film behind him quickly becomes its own worst enemy.

It would have been great to see a subtler version of this film, a translation as quiet as the source. Alas, such a film will never see the light of day. Nearly every single shot in “The Giver” is gorgeous, but all that beauty glows with a loud, heavy-handed sheen. Citizens live in a painless, symmetrical “Community” that would make Walt Disney shiver. They know nothing of the world before “the Ruin” and receive injections from glistening wall-mounted pads (in lieu of the book’s pills) to repress “the stirrings.” Those stirrings, which were once so slightly implied on the printed page, are now blatantly romantic on the silver screen. Michael Mitnick and Robert B. Weide’s script is not only unsurprising and cliché-addled; it’s also stunningly condescending.

Not a single logical connection is left for the viewer to reason out. Title cards at the beginning introduce the setting, and the Community’s rules appear in onscreen text over the frame for the first few minutes. The writers also tie up the ending so neatly it robs the film of that enigmatic charm so essential to Lowry’s book. “The Giver” thrived in its simplicity and its vagueness, and the chilling ambiguous silence left at the book’s close was an essential element to the story’s success. Noyce’s film is all flying drones and single-beat characters, signifying nothing. That isn’t to say that the book contains stunning depth and dynamics, but the film adheres to the Community’s rules so strictly that it barely provides its cast room to breathe.

Bridges’ Giver spouts pontification about the old ways in a mumbling voice so distracting you’re practically begging him to stop moping and clear his throat. Even Meryl Streep is so egregiously one-note that she becomes a walking idea instead of a character. The same can be said for the supporting cast, which includes Odeya Rush as a gratingly shoehorned love interest and Katie Holmes as a frowning false mother whose only line of dialogue very well may be “precision of language.” The stifled cast plays their respective beats with admirable conviction, but the script they’re acting from is damnably wooden.

Although it was not the first literary work to speculate on the extremes of social order, “The Giver” did prove the viability such stories could have with an especially young audience. It troubles me deeply to know that Lowry gave her blessing to the filmmakers’ entourage of cosmetic updates. It calls into question whether or not the author really cares about this work anymore. The film adds sound and fury where none existed and none was needed. Frequent horror film composer Marco Beltrami turns in a decent effort, but his score, like so much else throughout the film, is overbearing and out of place.

Noyce partially includes Lowry’s detail of the Community citizens’ literally black and white vision. But he allows cinematographer Ross Emery to throw the colors seen in the Giver’s memories across the remaining half of the film in bleeding bursts. As Jonas starts to share his newfound knowledge with other characters, the film jumps between sympathetic palettes. When Streep’s Chief Elder takes the fore, to black and white we go. When rebellious spirits arise, to living color we return. Adding to the ridiculousness is Noyce’s bizarre insistence on stock footage in his memory montages, some of which is very evidently ripped from internet videos. A great deal of talent went into making this film and nearly all of it is misplaced and wasted.

Maybe we should all put aside the memories created while watching “The Giver,” so that one day we can forget the time in our history when compelling cinematic storytelling fell away into didactic, supersaturated derivative drivel.

Nathan Frontiero can be reached at [email protected]