By Ed Symkus
More Content Now
If you’re tired of all of these futuristic, post-catastrophe movies adapted from books about hard-headed youth rebelling against convention, maybe you should give this one a try. “The Hunger Games,” “Divergent,” blah blah blah. They’re formulaic and predictable and, by the way, their authors – Suzanne Collins wrote “The Hunger Games,” Veronica Roth wrote “Divergent” – shamelessly “borrowed” from Lois Lowry, the author of “The Giver,” which was published way back in 1993. A variety of the usual problems (finding the money, getting the script just right, etc.) kept “The Giver” from being made first. Jeff Bridges bought the film rights about 18 years ago, with the thought of having his father Lloyd play the old man of the title. It’s ironic that enough time has passed that Bridges himself is now in that role.
What has resulted, after five tries at the script by different people, is a strong and mostly faithful adaptation of a good book – one that falls under the category of “young adult” fiction but is certainly accessible and of interest to adult readers. Same goes for the film, even though it’s been Hollywoodized to a degree. (Translated: The film has Meryl Streep playing a strong-willed villain in a part that has been overly and unnecessarily expanded from the book.)
The story takes place well into the future, “after the ruin,” when society has undergone some major changes. There are “communities” here and there that consist of “sameness.” The people in charge, referred to as the Elders, have made sure that there’s no room for any kind of nonconformity or spontaneity. Everyone is one color (actually there is no color, and much of the film is in black and white), everyone dresses alike, everyone acts alike, there’s no such thing as weather. One day is the same as the next. People are assigned to different jobs, based on whatever capabilities show through their uniform upbringing. But all is kept on an even keel, for everyone’s supposed betterment.
Because they know no other way of life, everyone is happy, or at least content. Even young Jonas (Brenton Thwaite) who, along with his younger (unrelated) sister, is living in a family unit with their designated “parents,” is fine. Until, when he reaches the end of his childhood (in the book it was age 12; in the film it’s about 18, yet that change works fine), he’s notified of his life assignment. But it’s not like any of the normal jobs that his friends are getting, Jonas has been chosen by the powers that be to become the community’s “Keeper of Memories,” and will be trained for his position and taught “the secret history of the world” by the longtime current Keeper, now in his new role as the obviously distraught Giver (Jeff Bridges).
This is a place where adults that aren’t in power act like robots, just doing what they’re supposed to do. There’s some warmth within the family units, but there’s no such emotion of or word for love. And youngsters moving into adulthood are strongly encouraged to act the same way, or they could be candidates for “release” from the community, after which they would go to live in a place called Elsewhere.
The movie zips right along, featuring simple, streamlined storytelling, just as the book does, and it exudes a quiet creepiness. Something is just not right about this village, but we’re not sure what, and the film continually grows darker, both for the innocent Jonas and for viewers.
At its heart, it’s a coming-of-age story, but demands are made of Jonas to grow up a lot faster than he ever expected to, or perhaps is able to. Newcomer Brenton Thwaites (recently seen as Prince Phillip in “Maleficent”) makes for an appealing protagonist, and he is quite good with a lot of wordless acting, requiring him to get a large range of emotions across with facial expressions, though he’s equally good when speaking. The best scenes involve him, as the student, paired up with Bridges, as the teacher. Bridges looks like he’s in emotional and physical pain from the moment we meet his Giver. He shuffles around, sounds exhausted, and nicely underplays the part.
It’s too bad that kind of praise can’t be given to Katie Holmes, who plays Jonas’ mom in such a flat manner as to become annoying whenever she’s onscreen. The question is not why Meryl Streep’s role is so expanded, or why she’s been given license to overact, it’s why does Holmes keep getting work.
Ed Symkus covers movies for More Content Now.
Written by Michael Mitnick and Robert B. Weide; directed by Phillip Noyce
With Jeff Bridges, Brenton Thwaites, Alexander Skarsgard, Katie Holmes, Meryl Streep
Movie review: The Giver’ is the original Hunger Games’
By Ed Symkus