The film version of The Giver, based on Lois Lowry’s Newberry Medal-winning 1993 novel, moves at the speed of syrup. Make that the speed of syrup from a clogged spout. That’s no way to carry a philosophical message to young adults. But what is? The current onslaught of movies excreted from dystopian teen fiction would make any YA yak. So far, The Hunger Games franchise is working. But catch Divergent, The Host, Ender’s Game, and The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones and see if you don’t hear yourself scream: Make. It. Stop.
Still, I harbored a faint hope for The Giver because Lowry’s novel pretty much got there first and it wasn’t half bad. She wrote of a futuristic society that terminated pain, starvation, suffering and war by stifling emotion and making everyone and everything worship as the altar of Sameness. Sounds like Hollywood Philosophy 101 in the here and now.
Yet The Giver comes to the screen radiating earnestness. Aussie director Phillip Noyce (Dead Calm, Rabbit-Proof Fence, The Quiet American) is far from a hack. Even his paycheck films (Clear and Present Danger, Salt) show little patience for bullshit.
The Giver is also a passion project for its Oscar-winning star Jeff Bridges, who optioned the rights in 1995 to star his father, Lloyd, who died three years later. Now the reliably soulful Bridges, 64, takes the title role of the crusty old guy who gets to hold memories of the past in all their beauty and terror. Meryl Streep, in a very scary wig, show up as the Chief Elder, a villain who gets rid of anything old or in the way and makes sure that what The Giver knows won’t leak out. Except, of course, to his replacement. That would be Jonas, a child of the new society (raised by parent figures played by Katie Holmes and Alexander Skarsgård) who is ready to take whatever assignment he’s, um, given. It’s a humdinger. Jonas’s burden is to be The Receiver of the Giver’s knowledge.
Let’s stop here a second. In the novel, Jonas was 11 years old. Onscreen, he’s played by Brenton Thwaites, 24. The givers in Hollywood know that the leads in movies need to be swoon worthy. So his friends, Fiona (Odeya Rush) and Asher (Cameron Monaghan), are now played by actors past jailbait age. Whew! Pop star Taylor Swift, 24, has a cameo as a pre-Jonas Receiver who didn’t work out. What? I’ll never tell.
As Jonas receives memories of color, art, music, literature, fashion, fun and sex, the film’s palette replaces dull gray with rainbow oomph. I’m not kidding. The Giver is obvious like that, also dull and remote. The biggest culprit is the script by Michael Mitnick and Robert B. Weide, who are clearly Receivers of every cliché in the Hollywood book. Lowry took chances with her novel. The movie of The Giver takes none. It’s safe, sorry and a crashing bore.