By: Dan Tomasik
Dystopia. Most of you probably know what that is, but for the few who have never seen an actual definition, a “dystopia” is the opposite of a “utopia”. Utopias are worlds where everything is perfect. Translated literally, utopia is “no-place”, because no place is perfect. As a result, most utopias are revealed to be dystopias. A dystopia (translated as “bad, hard place”) is a world where everything is wrong.
For this reviewer, The Giver holds personal sentiment as my first encounter with both utopias and dystopias. Also the first novel to make me pass out. This world is far more distinct and unique than other utopias/dystopias. It’s not just the government or the lifestyle that’s changed; there have been changes made to fundamental alterations of the world as we experience it. Color, elevation, weather, organic life; all have been eliminated from society to create an endless cycle of sameness. Then there are the changes to the humans within: emotion, love, choice, freedom; these people are living in a watered-down version of the world and have no idea there is or ever was anything more. These alterations are so essential to the story that their absence in marketing and trailers raised concern from fans. Have these defining elements been forsook for a quick cash-in blockbuster that more widely appeals to the teenage demographic?
The answer is no. Not only have the elements been preserved, they have been molded into the backbone of this masterpiece, just the way they were meant to be. In doing so, they have reached a level of artistic filmmaking I thought went extinct before I was born. This is a true epic. The Giver is where art meets teen blockbuster. Not content to just put the words on the screen, the filmmakers have realized the world of the book in ways I could have never fathomed. It’s not just meeting the requirements, it’s going beyond the bare minimum, beyond adequacy, and exploring how far they can go into bringing this world and this story to life.
The word “art” is used because there is a lot of experimental filmmaking. Cinematography, editing, sound, set, costume, even the acting is customized to put the audience into a different world. At the same time, this is not one of those art films that is ungodly dull to sit through. There’s no pretension, no hint of a condescending filmmaker watching us squirm in our seats as we struggle with whatever artistic message they’ve hidden within the movie. Everything contributes to the realization of this world, an exploration of the human experience. A journey uncompromising in its depiction of utopia, dystopia, sameness, innocence and what we abandon to create it.
The movie starts off in black & white, introducing us to this idyllic Community without war, hunger, hatred, or suffering. A few rules written in clear & simple prose are read. Rules such as “use precise language”, “do not lie”, etc. There’s clearly more to what keeps this society going, but those rules are enough for an introduction. The citizens are akin to the actives of Dollhouse; blissful, childlike, and content in their simple view of the world. It borders on silly at times, so carefree and emotionally vacant. Our main character Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) is no exception. He follows the rules without question like everyone else, notable only for a moment of curiosity when he sees something he can’t quite describe now & then.
Everything falls perfectly into place all the way up to the moment when Jonas’s future is to be decided. The skipping of his name is the first error or mistake we’ve seen, which catches us off-guard as a result (to say nothing of how Jonas must have felt). It’s right there, plain as day, staring every character and audience member in the face for an uncomfortably long period of time, but no one questions it. Such is the strength of the conformity to this system. Finally, the Chief Elder (Meryl Streep) tells Jonas that he has been selected for a unique responsibility, he is to be the new Receiver of Memory. A letter is the only introduction he is given to this great honor. In a few short sentences, Jonas is instructed that he may ask as many questions as he wants, tell no one about the work he does, and lie. In the space of a minute, Jonas is told he may break the rules that have governed everything in his life since his birth. It effectively calls into question everything he thought he knew about the world.
The current Receiver of Memory (Jeff Bridges), is an old man who lives on the very edge of the Community in a strange house. A house unlike all the others, filled with shelves of strange things called books. With Jonas taking over as Receiver of Memory, that makes him the Giver of Memory (hence the title). The Giver is the one person who doesn’t sit with the vacant, blank, shallow expression of cheery conformity everyone else in the Community wears. His job, and thus soon Jonas’ job, is to hold onto the memories of the world before sameness, so that he might offer guidance in difficult times. The Giver transfers memories into Jonas so that he can experience the world back when it was different. When there was more.
Receivers of Memory are the only ones who can see the world for what it once was. Thus they must bear the weight of mankind’s greatest triumphs and worst failures. What is it like for someone to suddenly understand that there is more than what he knows? Imagine experiencing The Wizard of Oz back in the days of all black & white movies, but not just experiencing color for the first time. Imagine experiencing music for the first time as well. Then imagine the spectrum of human emotion flooding in for the first time, too. Joy, excitement, happiness, laughter, wonder, love, passion, suspense, concern, nervousness, worry, fear, pain, loss, desperation, suffering, and even death. Could you ever go back to a world without such things, once you’d experienced them?
The glimpses of memory are somewhat akin to a documentary of human culture around the world. Bright and colorful, they put us right into the middle of a hundred moments of mankind experiencing life in all its various forms. The more Jonas dives into this world, the more he brings back with him. With each transfer, more color returns to the Community in Jonas’ eyes. It’s a wonderful way to show audiences the world of filmmaking they don’t normally pay attention to. There’s also the acting. Watching Jonas’ transformation into a real boy surrounded by dolls is a fantastic sensation.
But for all that is beautiful and magical, there are also moments of harsh reality. For a PG-13 movie, it goes to some pretty dark places. War, murder, senseless violence, as well as the secrets of the Community. No one dies in the Community, when they retire or reach a certain age they are “released to elsewhere”. The same applies to twins or individuals that can’t be properly cared for so as not to cause conflict within the society. For fans of the book, the “release to elsewhere” scene is perfectly intact, with no censoring in any way. Honestly, it may even be more unsettling here. Reading is one thing, but watching something like this is a whole different animal. We can’t help but inflect emotions when we’re reading, which means that it’s hard for us to comprehend what is really being described. It’s only when you see someone who acts and reacts differently than you performing the deeds that the full impact is achieved. The complete emotional detachment of the people within the Community is put on display, and it is unsettling to say the least. Entire concepts they simply do not grasp because they’ve never experienced them. And in that ignorance, it takes away what’s human in them, leaving blank slates with no connection to anyone or anything. Blank slates that can euthanize a baby, put it in a box, and slide it down a disposal hatch. The disposal hatch was what really gave me a kick in the gut. I didn’t pass out this time, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say it unsettled my stomach.
The acting is strong across the board. Granted, it’s hard to expect anything less from Meryl Streep or Jeff Bridges, but the supporting cast is also perpetually putting on an act. The empty shell of true emotions they display in everything they say or do, it requires absolute commitment at all times. They pull it off, as do the younger actors. Brenton Thwaites has been in two other films from this year (Maleficent and Oculus) and has failed to impress in either. This time, though, he does a great job. Oddly enough, my favorite scene is him making faces to help Gabe go to sleep. It’s goofy and silly, but it feels so sincere. He handles the rest of the movie’s emotional requirements well, particularly the slow transition from blank slate to eager young man exploring the new world he’s discovered.
Another performance worth mentioning is Taylor Swift’s brief appearance as Rosemary, the previous Receiver of Memory. Miss Swift has a few small roles under her belt, but nothing quite like this. Most fortuitously, the filmmakers found a way to bring out the best possible performance from her. A little scene at the piano, where Rosemary pieces together a melody from one of the memories the Giver has shared with her. It’s definitely the place where Swift will be the most sincere and convincing. An intimate little musical piece with the experienced Bridges nearby for comfort and guidance while making it seem like she’s the one guiding him. It stops feeling like watching a celebrity cameo, which is exactly what the filmmakers were after.
More than anything, it must be said that this film is a triumph not just for entertainment, but for filmmaking as well. In realizing a world so drastically different from our own, clichés we think we know don’t apply here. The fabled (and dreaded) love triangle, for starters. It can’t work in this world. Jonas can feel love, but it cannot be received by someone who doesn’t know what it is. Even when Jonas tries showing her the world she’s missing out on, she simply cannot comprehend it. Furthermore, once she does start to experience things, she does not like it. Nor can his rival become emotionally involved, he has no emotion. His aggression stems only from Jonas’ rebellion against the established conformity of the world. This movie is not afraid to let its characters fail to meet heroic standards.
The ending is where a few changes have been made. As happens with most novel adaptations, we leave Jonas’ viewpoint at times so that other characters can fill things in, as opposed to him narrating everything at all times. Jonas flees the Community and is tracked down by his friend, who pretends to dispose of him while actually buying him time. Is it conforming to the action movie stereotype of other teen dystopian adaptations? A little bit, but think about it. The hoverships are clearly mentioned in the book, and how much of a chase would it have been if Jonas never actually encountered one of them? Given the dedication to realizing a true odyssey comparable to Odysseus, Lawrence of Arabia, or Walter Mitty; would it have been believable that he could travel all that way without ever having to run from a hovership? No, it really wouldn’t have. One last big change is Jonas’ age. In the books, he just turned 12. Here, he’s 16. Let’s be honest, that change had to be made. There’s just way too much for an 12-year-old to shoulder with a convincing performance.
The last scene, however, is perfect.