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Review: The Giver

Many people believe that if the film version of a novel contains all the original characters and plot points, it’s a good adaptation. Last year’s The Great Gatsby showed us that this was completely untrue, as it captured F. Scott Fitzgerald’s story, but lost the entire heart of the novel. The latest book-to-movie adaptation to hit the big screen is Phillip Noyce’s The Giver, based on the award-winning young adult novel by Lois Lowry. Like Baz Luhrmann’s Gatsby, Noyce misses the mark when it comes to his adaptation of Lowry’s beloved book.

In the film, Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) lives in a world – sometime in the future – where love, pain, war, and colour do not exist. In the bordered group of Aryan communities, each citizen’s life is controlled by the always-watching (and listening) Council of Elders. They tell you what job you will do, who your companion will be, and even select the children you will live with. The entire community is under the control of the Council, but since they know no different, they accept it. When Jonas turns twelve, the Chief Elder (played by a stoic Meryl Streep) assigns him to be the new “Receiver of Memory”. For his training, Jonas spends his days with the previous receiver (Jeff Bridges), as he transmits the memories – which are mostly made up of scenes from Baraka and Samsara – of the world before “The Ruin”. With new insight into the world, Jonas stops taking his daily injections, which prevent members of the community from getting aroused, and begins to see his world in an entirely different way.

One of the biggest problems with the film is that Noyce doesn’t seem to know whom he’s making the film for. At times the film dances around more adult-themes, like Jonas’ sexual attraction to his friend Fiona (Odeya Rush). Later, the film will show some pretty awful stuff being done to newborn babies. So people can’t hear about Jonas’ dirty dreams but they can watch a defenseless child being abused? There’s a reason why Lowry’s novel was banned from as many schools as it was made compulsory reading; it pushed boundaries. For the most part, the film plays it safe, losing much of what made the novel so great.

Another standout issue with the film is it’s young actors. Jonas is supposed to be twelve, so why is he being played by the twenty-five-year-old Brenton Thwaits? Jonas wasn’t a very complex character to begin with, but Thwaits’ ability to show only three different facial expressions doesn’t help. Don’t worry though; you won’t be thinking of Thwait’s acting skills once Odeya Rush shows up on screen. The people on the community are supposed to be a little light when it comes to showing emotion, but they’re not supposed to act like the walking dead. Each line of dialogue spoken by Rush feels so lifeless that it’s almost painful.

Bridges is passable as The Giver, but he’s not covering any new ground. Bridges basically took his character from Crazy Heart and gave him Rooster Cogburn’s voice from True Grit. Meryl Streep can play roles like the Chief Elder in her sleep. The role was a lot smaller in the novel, so it’s nice to see Streep given something to do.

One thing that does work quite well, is the entire look and feel of film’s universe. The black-and-white photography is beautiful, looking especially great when hints of colour begin to come through. Production designer Ed Verreaux has nailed the look the futuristic Communities and Diana Cilliers’ costumes look great.

While the script by Michael Mitnick and Robert Weide loses the magic of the novel, it does improve on the original ending. Lowry’s book shows everything from Jonas’ point-of-view. For the film’s final act, Mitnick and Weide show how Jonas’ action have affected the other characters, which helps break-up the novel’s dragging ending.

It’s been just over two decades since Lois Lowry published her hit novel, and now it’s become clear why it’s taken so long for the book to be adapted into a film. If you’re going to gloss over the themes of the source material, why even bother adapting it at all? You’re really in trouble if Meryl Streep can’t even save your film. Noyce nails the  few action sequences in The Giver, but that’s about it.

[star v=25]

Matt Hoffman

Matthew Hoffman is a Toronto-based cinephile who especially enjoys French films and actresses over the age of 50; including but not limited to: Isabelle Huppert, Meryl Streep, and Jacki Weaver.