The Movie Waffler New Release Review - <i>The Giver</i> | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review - The Giver

Latest screen adaptation of a young adult sci-fi novel.

Directed by: Phillip Noyce
Starring: Brenton Thwaites, Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep, Alexander Skarsgard, Katie Holmes, Odeya Rush, Taylor Swift

Frustration, thy name is The Giver. Based off of Lois Lowry's book of the same name - which I should add that I have read several times - The Giver has plagued us with terrible marketing and bizarre casting long before its release. I sat in my chair, waiting for the movie to start with intense dread. With so much love for the source material, how could I possibly enjoy this movie that was supposed to be unfilmable? And then the movie starts. And it's surprisingly not awful. In fact, it's rather good. Unfortunately, at the start of the third act, the movie whips its head around, gives you a mischievous wink, and seems to do its best to tarnish any goodwill you directed at the film beforehand. This is not a bad film. This is two-thirds of a good film, and one-third of an awful one.
It would pain me to give you the plot synopsis, as it requires spoiling some brilliant plot twists from the book that are actually established fairly early on in the film (some within seconds). So, despite the fact that the trailers have already spoiled the best twist from the book, I will instead give you a brief summary of the premise. The Giver takes place in the year 2048. Everyone lives in highly regulated "communities," and everyone acts the same. No one has opinions, and no one is allowed to be different. You are not allowed to be rude, not allowed to pursue your own career, as everyone has a lifetime job assigned to them at the age of 18. Our leading protagonist, Jonas, is given a very special job, one that is unique and different from any other. One that will change his life, and everyone's around him.
It is difficult to avoid talking about the book when discussing the film, so I will only do so when necessary. Just bear in mind that if you haven't read the book, I sincerely believe you will like the movie significantly more than if you have.  
The first two-thirds are competently done. The story moves along at a nice pace that doesn't feel too fast, nor too slow. The premise is explained efficiently, and while changes are made from the book, they generally work in the film well enough. In fact, many expansions to the culture of the community greatly enhance the world of the film.
The most impressive aspect of the film is the visuals. A crucial element of the book and film is color. As such, color is handled remarkably well in this film. I won't spoil how it is used, but it is done highly effectively. Had The Giver garnered the attention it was likely hoping for, there might have been hope for Oscar nods in the Visual Effects and Art Direction categories.
Unfortunately, the last third is dreadful. The Elders of the Community, who are in charge of reinforcing the laws they create, were neither intentionally bad nor good in the book. In the film, all ambiguity is traded in for bad-to-the-bone villains that are not complex, nor interesting. In addition, the brilliant ambiguous ending of the book is changed into a stereotypical Hollywood happy ending that reeks of commercialism, and destroys much of the integrity of the novel. The book contained an aura of uncertainty, though the film turns everything (pardon the expression) black and white.
The adult actors in this film are surprisingly good. Jeff Bridges - who has wanted to make this film for many years - portrays The Giver. His character is a bit more smug than the fatherly persona that the book suggests, but he retains many likable qualities, and ultimately makes the character every bit as delightful as his novel counterpart. Meryl Streep plays the Chief Elder, and her performance is surprisingly nuanced, despite portraying a bland character. Unfortunately, one her long speeches at the beginning seems to have been severely edited, eliminating a lot of its potency. On a less satisfying note, Katie Holmes as Jonas' mother is gratingly bad, though this is almost entirely due to the script, as her dialogue is obnoxious.
And then there are the teen performances. In the book, Jonas and his friends are 12 years old. In the film, they've been aged up to 18 (and their real life actors are a few years older than that). Now, there are two reasons for a film to increase the age of their leads:
1). Because child actors are difficult to work with, and don't always produce satisfying performances.
2.) Older teens have more appeal to teenage girls (the primary audience of most YA novel adaptions).
It is clear that this age change was for reason two. My evidence for this is that Jonas (portrayed by Brenton Thwaites) and the love interest, Fiona (portrayed by Odeya Rush), are nauseatingly attractive. My other evidence is that neither one can act a smidgen. Neither of their performances feel genuine (a problem that likely could have been avoided with younger actors), and the kissing scenes that occur cheapen the film and de-evolve the production into your run-of-the-mill YA film. These are puppy-dog performances with no substance, no charm, and no talent.
The score, by Marco Beltrami, is actually quite beautiful. There are several moments where otherwise ordinary scenes were transformed into something wonderful because of Beltrami's work. The score is graceful and melodic, two phrases that can rarely be applied to the music in YA adapted films. The use of a (somewhat repetitive) piano theme played by some of the characters also produces an occasionally haunting effect, though it's in desperate need of development.
The Giver is an uneasy mix of genuine art and corporate product. The film is a watered down version of the book that replaces its challenging questions with cheap answers. The Giver tries to duplicate the success of the source novel, but without taking risks, a challenge that proves ridiculous and fatal to the film. Had the film followed the book through the last third, and relied on the strength of the first two acts, The Giver could have been a successful adaptation. As it is, however, The Giver fails to give audiences a film that intrigues beyond the closing credits. With all the answers right in front of you, where's the discussion? Where's the relevance? Where is there room allotted for audiences to actually use their brains and think and develop their own opinions and theories? If The Giver truly wanted to be a smart film, it wouldn't spoon-feed the audience. And that's why I can deduce that The Giver was not made as film, but product.

Joshua LF Mitchell