Sameness, the conformist plague that afflicts the futuristic citizens of Lois Lowry’s celebrated and scorned YA novel, “The Giver,” might also be the name given to what ails the movie adaptation — the latest in a seemingly endless line of teen-centric dystopian fantasies that have become all but indistinguishable from one another. A longtime passion project for producer/star Jeff Bridges, “The Giver” reaches the screen in a version that captures the essence of Lowry’s affecting allegory but little of its mythic pull — a recipe likely to disappoint fans while leaving others to wonder what all the fuss was about. Any hopes by co-producers the Weinstein Co. and Walden Media that they might have the next “Hunger Games” (or even “Divergent”) on their hands look to be dashed by lackluster late-summer box office.
Originally published in 1993 (six years before “The Matrix”), Lowry’s novel was itself a patchwork of ideas borrowed from Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, Jack Finney and Ray Bradbury in its depiction of totalitarian groupthink masquerading as peaceable utopia. The setting was an unnamed anywhere known only as “the community,” whose residents had achieved a post-Platonic, post-Marxist ideal of a classless, conflict-free (and, though not explicitly stated, seemingly race-free) society through the chemical suppression of emotion and the erasure of all suspect stimuli (including books, colors, weather, and sex) from the historical record. Exempt from this rigorous burning of the past was one man: the Receiver of Memory, a grizzled community elder charged with keeping all human experience from time immemorial catalogued inside his own understandably addled brain.
If Lowry’s ideas weren’t anything new to genre buffs or sociology majors, what made her book so compulsively readable was the lucid simplicity of its prose and the surprising complexity of its arguments (especially for a novel aimed at children). Unlike a lot of speculative fiction, “The Giver” wasn’t a cautionary tale about nuclear or environmental apocalypse, but rather an envisaging of the even greater horror show we might effect through our ostensibly best impulses: to rid society of war, famine and other forms of suffering. It was a highly adaptable metaphor for any form of organized rhetoric, be it that of the religious right or the bleeding-heart left. And, taking a page from J.D. Salinger, Lowry didn’t just suggest that most adults were duplicitous phonies, but that they were capable of secretly murdering babies and the elderly without batting an eye. (Little wonder that “The Giver” was said to be banned from almost as many schools as made it compulsory reading.)
In bringing the book to the screen, director Phillip Noyce and screenwriters Michael Mitnick and Robert B. Weide have stayed reasonably faithful to the plot and characters while jettisoning much of the philosophical weight and making other, perhaps inevitable concessions to commerce. A mere 12 years old on the page, Lowry’s nonconformist hero, Jonas, is here played by the 25-year-old Australian actor Brenton Thwaites, while the incidental character of the community’s Chief Elder has been padded out into a ghoulish, Nurse Ratched-esque villain role for Meryl Streep (who appears alternately in real and holographic form, and seems equally disembodied in each). And with only partial success, Noyce, who’s long been one of the best action directors around (“Patriot Games,” “Clear and Present Danger,” “Salt”), tries to turn Lowry’s elegant, open-ended climax into a large-scale setpiece involving speeding motorbikes, drone aircraft and storm-trooper thugs rounding up dissidents into a Guantanamo-like prison.
The movie begins well enough, with our introduction to the community and its functional “dwellings” where Jonas lives with his dutiful but distant parents (Alexander Skarsgard and Katie Holmes) and younger sister, Lily (Emma Tremblay). Working on a modest budget, production designer Ed Verreaux and costume designer Diana Cilliers have given the film the spare, modular look of mid-century modernism — a feeling further enhanced by Noyce’s decision to shoot almost the entire first 30 minutes of the movie in low-contrast black-and-white, with color only gradually seeping into the frames as Jonas learns to “see beyond” (a variation on the technique employed by the 1998 “Pleasantville,” which itself may have been influenced by Lowry).
From there, “The Giver” goes on to chart the developing bond between the Receiver (Bridges) and Jonas, who has been selected to inherit the great storehouse of memory and carry on the older man’s legacy. The Receiver is Bridges in full-on stoner Buddha mode — a routine the actor has done so many times now (most recently in “Tron: Legacy”) that it should have descended into self-parody. And yet, Bridges is the most affecting thing in the movie — a man physically and spiritually exhausted by having to carry the emotional weight of the world on his shoulders. The same, unfortunately, can not be said of Thwaites, who barely registered as the young prince in “Maleficent” and makes even less of an impression here. As Jonas takes on ever more of the Receiver’s wisdom and experience, he’s meant to be shaken and stirred, pushed to the very brink of psychological endurance, but Thwaites plays it all with the same unwavering expression of sleepy, dumbstruck awe, more Harry Styles than Harry Potter.
Elsewhere, Israeli newcomer Odeya Rush flashes an entrancing come-hither stare, but otherwise sets off few sparks as the unrequited object of Jonas’ proscribed affections (or “stirrings,” as they’re known in community-speak), while country star Taylor Swift feels like the equivalent of human product placement in a thankless walk-on. But it’s hard to know what exactly to feel for Holmes, who’s casting as exactly the kind of dead-eyed Stepford wife the tabloids proffered during the TomKat years seems like someone’s idea of a cruel joke.
This year at the movies has given us two superior dystopia tales — “The Lego Movie” and “Snowpiercer” — rich in the kind of real emotion “The Giver” talks about a lot but never achieves. Instead, the more vibrant experience supposedly flows into the movie, the more canned everything seems. In the novel, Lowry conveyed the Receiver’s transmitted memories as indelible fragments of primal experience: the feeling of sun and snow against bare skin; the suffering of an innocent animal; the aftermath of a bloody combat. Noyce gives us those sensations, too, but he isn’t content to stop there, amping up Jonas’ visions into frenetic montages of global chaos and togetherness that feel like a cross between a Microsoft ad and a Save the Children infomercial. Skydivers plummet from dizzying heights, river rafters navigate raging rapids, the Berlin Wall crumbles and Tiananmen Square revolts. All that’s missing is a Peter Gabriel song.
Film Review: 'The Giver'
Reviewed at Dolby 88, New York, Aug. 11, 2014. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 97 MIN.
Production: A Weinstein Co. release presented with Walden Media of a Tonik/As Is Prods. production in association with Yucaipa Films. Produced by Nikki Silver, Jeff Bridges, Neil Koenigsberg. Executive producers, Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein, Dylan Sellers, Ron Burkle, Alison Owen, Ralph Winter, Scooter Braun.
Crew: Directed by Phillip Noyce. Screenplay, Michael Mitnick, Robert B. Weide, based on the novel by Lois Lowry. Camera (color, widescreen), Ross Emery; editor, Barry Alexander Brown; music, Marco Beltrami; music supervisor, Dana Sano; production designer, Ed Verreaux; supervising art director, Shira Hockman; art director, Catherine Palmer; set decorator, Andrew McCarthy; costume designer, Diana Cilliers; sound, Nico Louw; supervising sound editors, Philip Stockton, Paul Hsu; re-recording mixers, Paul Hsu, Michael Barry; visual effects supervisor, Robert Grasmere; visual effects producer, Paul V. Molles; visual effects, Method Studios, Mr. X Gotham, UPP, Crazy Horse East, The Molecule, Ensemble; ;stunt coordinators, Cordell McQueen, Frank Bare; line producer, Janine van Assen; associate producer/assistant director, Noga Isackson; second unit director, Robert Grasmere; second unit camera, Michael Swan; casting, Mary Vernieu, Venus Kanani.
With: Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep, Brenton Thwaites, Alexander Skarsgard, Katie Holmes, Taylor Swift, Cameron Monaghan, Odeya Rush, Emma Tremblay, Jefferson Mays.
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Lois Lowry's 1993 bestselling novel enters the YA-movie marketplace
An agreeable YA riff on Orwell — via Logan's Run — topped with the kind of magic-transformative baloney that passes for an ending in too many otherwise-fine Hollywood adventures, Phillip Noyce's The Giver greets a man-made Utopia with the eternal question: "If you can't feel, what's the point?" Lois Lowry's 1993 Newbery Medal-winning source novel has been substantially altered here, mostly in ways that nudge it toward other chosen-one teen fantasies set in restrictive futuristic worlds (Divergent being one of the most recent). The changes, which include making the book's 12-year-old hero old enough to make tween viewers swoon (he's played by 25-year-old Aussie Brenton Thwaites), surely enhance marketability, even if they sand some edges off a tale that has won many hearts over the years. The presence of Jeff Bridges and Meryl Streep in supporting roles will help draw some attention from grown-ups who don't know the book, but while the film may see enough success to justify follow-ups (Lowry has written three sequels), this franchise won't come close to competing with The Hunger Games and other more epic series.
Thwaites plays Jonas, who lives in a black-and-white world. Literally. Color, unpredictable weather and interpersonal conflict have been carefully excised from the society he was born into — an unnamed city-state, set on a mesa ringed by clouds, where identical dwellings house family units whose members aspire to perfect Sameness. Daily injections of passion-inhibiting drugs help in that quest, as does a total ignorance of history. Memories of mankind's unruly past have been erased, known only to a single Receiver of Memory (played by Bridges, who appears to have filled his cheeks with cotton in search of the perfect grumbly-gruff Voice of Experience).
Upon their ritualized graduation from childhood, the Chief Elder (Streep) doles out appointed roles to Jonas and his peers. Good buddy Asher (Cameron Monaghan) will pilot one of the many flying drones that watch over citizens and politely inform them when they're breaking a rule; sweet Fiona (Odeya Rush) will work in the Nurturing Center, caring for newborns until they are sent off to be raised by host families. Jonas, who already secretly realizes he sees things others can't, will inherit the Receiver's role, studying with his predecessor until he's ready to advise the Elders in their decision-making.
If much of Ed Verreaux's production design has a deliberately generic feel (check out those chunky white bicycles!), the Receiver's home office lives up to the revelations that will transpire there. An atrium-like library in a small stone bunker, it's built on "The Edge": It looks out on the cloud bank separating this world from Elsewhere, the place (ahem) that old folks go when they have reached the end of their long, productive careers. Here, Bridges' Receiver becomes the eponymous Giver, sitting in mind-meld sessions with his pupil and allowing the young man to experience all the sensations and knowledge denied other citizens. This process of eye-opening is easily the film's highlight, and Thwaites is appropriately awestruck by his first telepathic encounters with color, excitement and love. (In a much-hyped, flashback-ish cameo, Taylor Swift helps introduce Jonas to music.)
If he doesn't see enough to grasp the depths of human experience the Elders have sacrificed for the sake of order, Jonas learns of more direct cruelties. When he realizes that a not-physically-perfect baby with whom he has bonded is due to be "released" from the burden of existence, he decides he must save this child from death, and this community from its own perfection.
Noyce is unsurprisingly capable in the short action sequence during which Jonas confronts his old schoolmates and makes his escape, and while his ensuing trek through Elsewhere is barely a shadow of the journey Noyce chronicled in Rabbit-Proof Fence, it makes good if quick use of daunting landscapes. But while Noyce is building suspense, cutting between Jonas' flight and the peril of his loved ones back home (Streep is wasted as the heavy, enforcing conformity on those tempted to follow Jonas), the screenplay (credited to Michael Mitnick and Robert B. Weide) is preparing to let him down. With the exception of the psychic sessions between Jonas and the Giver, everything about this scenario is grounded in the physical world; order is maintained not by some ancient magic, but by technology, pharmaceuticals and old-fashioned authoritarianism. But (no spoilers here) the hurdle Jonas eventually faces is more akin to the enchanted object that a wizard-battling hero can simply smash to break the spell enslaving his kingdom. Wham-bam, no need for feel-good scenes of the peace he has brought to his fellow peasants.
This easy out should go over especially badly with readers attached to the novel's much more ambiguous end — though to be fair, audiences by now are so used to this type of nonsense that it hardly even registers. Like Jonas' father — Alexander Skarsgard, who more than anyone in the cast finds a way to embody Sameness while being unmistakably human — we moviegoers tend to accept what we're told, never knowing the peaks of feeling and intelligence we should really be demanding.
Production companies: As Is Productions, Tonik
Cast: Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep, Brenton Thwaites, Alexander Skarsgard, Katie Holmes, Taylor Swift, Cameron Monaghan, Odeya Rush, Emma Tremblay
Director: Phillip Noyce
Screenwriters: Michael Mitnick, Robert B. Weide, based on the book by Lois Lowry
Producers: Nikki Silver, Jeff Bridges, Neil Koenigsberg
Executive producers: Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein, Dylan Sellers
Director of photography: Ross Emery
Production designer: Ed Verreaux
Costume designer: Diana Cilliers
Editor: Barry Alexander Brown
Music: Marco Beltrami
Rated PG-13, 96 minutes