The Giver – Does Subtlety Even Work on Film?

Uh, the girl doesn't even have that big of a role in the book...

Uh, the girl doesn’t even have that big of a role in the book…

With the adaptation of Lois Lowry’s beloved children’s classic The Giver launching in theaters this weekend, we reread the book to set some perspective before we see the movie. Is it going to be a hit, or just another in a string of high-budget dystopian young adult adaptations? 

What did you think of the book? Did you read it as a kid?

Cait: I remember reading it in middle school and being frustrated with the ending. It was really the first book I read with a cliffhanger end, and that really changed what I thought of as good literature. I loved the ride of the book – I remember the horror slowly developing in subtle ways until the big reveal, and just getting sucked into it.

Re-reading it, I felt the same way. I read it all in one sitting – the story creeps up on you in a subtly disturbing fashion. You can tell something isn’t right, but you don’t know how bad it is yet. It’s great suspenseful storytelling.

The other thing I loved about it – especially as a kids book – is the way it gently teaches lessons about choice, individuality and society. The book is told through Jonas’ eyes – he’s just a kid, so he has a kid’s understanding of how his community works. Once he’s introduced to the idea that things could be different, he analyzes it from an un-tainted world view. Prime example: When he discovers colors, he can see how choices are good – like deciding what colors to wear – but how too many choices can lead to civil unrest. It’s an interesting perspective on society and controls.

Also – I know that this gets to be one of the major clues regarding the underlying problems in the community (like the scene where Jonas asks if his parents love him), but I kind of wish that precise language was more prevalent in our world. The kids are taught the value of words – to say “I’m hungry” instead of “I’m starving,” or taught to analyze situations and find the correct word to describe them. For a kid reading the book, it’s an interesting lesson in grammar. For me, I’d just like to see a world where the word “literally” actually still means “literally.”

Erin: This was my first reading of The Giver, but I distinctly remember hearing about it from friends and classmates all throughout my childhood. Kids literally (lol, just kidding, Cait!) would not shut up about this book. Now I understand what all the fuss was about, and why Lois Lowry is still getting fan mail (and hate mail) and movie pitches and whatnot twenty years after publication.

I don’t know if I would have liked this book when I was an adolescent, mostly because I would have been majorly pissed off at that ambiguous ending, but I’m glad I finally picked it up as an adult. I loved everything about this book, really – from the details of a faux-perfect society that is disturbingly plausible, to the way every character has depth and development, even in such a short work of children’s literature.

What do you think the movie is going to be like?

Cait: Watching the previews, it looks like the movie is barely based on the book. It appears that they took the basic premise – a futuristic society with a dark past – and turned it into an epic thriller. You know, like the Hunger Games or Divergent. Hardly any of the previews give a recognizable feeling of the book. It seems like they are trying to make the story more epic by adding an uprising. I guess subtlety doesn’t make for a good flick.

One of the things I found most captivating in the book was the way that Lois Lowry depicts the community’s emotions. She even explains at one point that they aren’t capable of deep feelings. I think it’s a balance between the pills the adults are given, the strict upbringing of the children and the genetic modification that is alluded to early in the book. It’s still all part of the subtly disturbing way that the society is fucked up – it’s not like the people who perform the release ceremonies know or feel exactly what they are doing. I doubt even the community elders have the capacity to feel how their society is disturbed. From the previews, it appears that they are going to really dumb that down to getting shots to reduce emotions (I think this is going to be more like Equilibrium than the book it was sourced from).

Maybe at the very least we’ll get a flashy action flick.

Erin: I thought about Equilibrium while I was reading this too! But my thoughts were also of the this-is-so-much-better variety. Lois Lowry hasn’t created a stifled society of mindless drones controlled by an evil big bad – her futuristic imaginings are much more nuanced and thought provoking, and I understand how the movie teasers might be cause for alarm that the subtle creepiness and horror will be overshadowed by overblown action filler.

Perhaps the marketing team is highlighting Meryl Streep’s role in the hope that such a well known actress will draw more ticket sales, but I’m definitely not impressed with the urbanely evil villain she portrays in the trailers. The horror of the story is not that despotic leaders with a twisted view of a perfect society are subduing the population – it’s that this community has evolved into something so insidious that, as the Giver tells Jonas, no one knows anything truly meaningful anymore.

But aside from those concerns, I’m still remaining cautiously optimistic until I see the film. I recognize plenty of aspects of the book in the trailers, and I’m totally OK with any adaptation that elaborates on the subtle tone of a book and adds a little more energy and excitement. I don’t expect an inflated action film to affect me as much as the quiet heartbreak and horror conveyed by Lowry’s novel, but it could still be decent in its own interpretation, as long as it doesn’t entirely lose the themes of the book. And as long as Jeff Bridges’ mumbly voice isn’t too infuriating.


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