Friday, September 12, 2014

The Giver

It seems like this happens every year, and I apologize for the long gap between reviews. Man, it's been a slow at the movie theatres since Guardians of the Galaxy came out at the beginning of August. Luckily a friend and I were able to attend Salt Lake Comic-Con last week, or else the time really would have dragged. While we were pre-registering for our tickets, however, we decided to watch a movie neither of us had seen. Since we'd already watched TMNT and Guardians, we eventually settled on The Giver. Having never read the book on which this film is based, I had to rely on my friend's expertise regarding the differences between the movie and its source material. I wasn't totally hyped for the movie, despite the praise for Lois Lowry's novel, mostly because of the lukewarm critical response. However the saving grace of this film for me was the fact that the YA dystopian trend all kind of started with this story. With that and the star power involved, I was hoping this movie would defy the negative word-of-mouth and actually be an entertaining adaptation.

In the year 2048, society has been crippled by wars and forced to adopt a strict uncaring attitude towards all things. Citizens are given curfews, uniforms, and even pills to eliminate color from their vision.  There's no allowance for lying, cheating, stealing, or violence of any kind. Everything is incredibly orderly and structured for each individual and the society at large. Jonas, a seemingly ordinary teenage boy, is about to receive his appointment from the society that will determine in what way he is meant to contribute. However, all of his friends and peers are chosen before him and he is singled out by The Chief Elder in front of the entire population. Jonas is thereby given the position as Receiver of Memory, which entitles him to daily instruction from the current Receiver and the ability to bend the rules that normal citizens must abide. However, once Jonas is taught about life before the wars that tore their society apart, he sees flaws in the system and begins to silently rebel against protocol... which triggers the unwanted attention of the brutal Chief Elder.

So, right off the bat it's pretty plain to see that The Giver might not be the freshest idea for a film adaptation in 2014. These kinds of ideas are everywhere in popular young adult fiction, not to mention those that premiere on the big screen every couple of months. It's sad that the source material was so fresh at the time and clearly inspired the works of many copy-cats to come (Divergent probably being the biggest offender).

Despite how revolutionary this story once came across, the overabundance of dystopian screen adaptations has really overexposed most audiences to the intriguing concepts presented in this story. The Giver deserved better than that, given its ground-breaking source material. It also deserved better than to be given a mere $25 million dollars (even Divergent cost $85 million to produce) as well as a director who clearly lacks the vision and the passion to make this anything more than a run-of-the-mill YA adaptation. Some of the directorial choices are nice to see such as the black and white film slowly transitioning to color as Jonas's meds wear off, but are also kind of obvious and not exactly revolutionary techniques in storytelling (see The Wizard of Oz).

Most of the problems I have with this film, however, is the way in which it was adapted from book to screen. When you look at the best on-screen adaptations of these kinds of novels (The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, etc.) the screenwriters take elements that wouldn't necessarily translate well to a movie and make them much more cinematic. There were so many missed opportunities to do this in The Giver, and instead they set out to make as literal an adaptation as possible rather than make an entertaining movie.

So many examples of this come to mind that I could write a whole separate post about it, but the easiest one is the character development. I get that the characters are boring by design and that the society making everyone become this way is one of the major conflicts. The problem is that with such bland characterizations it makes it almost impossible to invest in anyone's plight. I can see what Jonas looks like and try to relate to him on that level, but he behaves in such a childlike and uninteresting manner that I really have a difficult time caring what happens to him. In a book you're privy to the thoughts and feelings of the protagonist in a natural way, but voice-over narration while Jonas rides his bike is not a recommended tool for character development. It might be interesting to read about someone experiencing colors and bees for the first time, but it isn't very interesting to watch.

Another annoying thing about this movie is the casting. First off, this film was produced by the Weinstein Co. In other words, one of the most powerful names in Hollywood when it comes to Oscar campaigning. So it doesn't surprise me to see two Oscar-winning actors taking on key roles (though the film oddly doesn't feature them much) in a pandering attempt to get some kind of legitimacy from the general public. In all honesty, I thought Jeff Bridges was actually a really great choice for the role of The Giver, and I would have liked a story that focused more on his character. His immediate dismissal of the ridiculous social niceties Jonas tries to enact was a breath of fresh air, bringing much-needed levity to this otherwise joyless affair. Other than Bridges, however, no one else in the movie makes much of an impression. Their line-readings are so robotic that if they didn't look like different people I wouldn't be able to distinguish one character from the other. Even Meryl Streep is completely wasted as the authoritative Chief Elder, bossing people around and showing little to no emotion.

I also think the story can be a little manipulative at times, particularly when it's revealed what it means to be "released". The debates are so one-sided that I hardly even get a chance to contemplate the different sides before one is shown to be so heinous as to remove any sense of ambiguity. Good versus evil seems like an interesting conflict on paper, but only a handful of stories are actually able to do that conflict justice. Most of the time it's the philosophical debates and the morally gray areas that are more interesting to see play out. Even in The Hunger Games with such an undeniably corrupt government there are interesting moral conflicts that demonstrate the paradoxical nature of the human condition.

I've gone on a bit of a rant here, but I do think that despite its many, many flaws this still isn't a terrible movie. At the end of the day it's simply a bland, uninteresting experience that doesn't really have much to say that hasn't been said repeatedly - and frankly in much better ways. Perhaps this story doesn't naturally lend itself to a big-screen adaptation, to which I say they shouldn't have adapted it to the big screen. Lovers of the book will probably find something to enjoy here (if simply by watching their imaginations visualized), but there aren't many other reasons to seek out this film. While I don't recommend this movie, I actually do recommend checking out the novel, which I am going to do myself. I'm interested to see how much better this comes across on the page than it ended up on the screen. I give The Giver a generous two and a half stars.

THE GIVER is rated PG-13 for a mature thematic image and some sci-fi action/violence

**What did you think of The Giver? Let me know in the comments below!**