The main theme of Lois Lowry’s classic book The Giver is “sameness.” The Giver takes place in a dystopian society — disguised as a utopian one — without change, without choice, and without differences. Everything is identical, and no one has any emotions. The story shoots down the idea of sameness as an ideal. The movie adaptation accidentally embraces it, resulting in a film that tries too hard to be similar to YA adaptations with vaguely similar premises. It tries to force emotions out of its viewers, tries so hard that it becomes laughable. As a book-to-movie adaptation, The Giver is terrible. Even just as a movie, well, it’s still pretty bad.
To be fair, The Giver is a tough book to adapt because it’s a largely introspective novel. But its basic themes and the visuals it conjures have basically demanded the film treatment forever (it was stuck in development hell for years; I do believe if it had come out earlier, it would have been much better). As expected, there are plenty of adaptation problems to gripe about, ranging from the trivial (making the characters older, including drones) to the egregious (shoving a ham-fisted love plot into a story about a society where love is an antiquated word and a nonexistent emotion). The novel’s ambiguous ending is cleared up because Hollywood demands happy endings. Hollywood demands clarity, and love triangles, and carbon-copies of other successes, even when it takes away from the necessary bleakness and intelligence of the origin story. But even if you haven’t read the book or choose to ignore its existence, the film fails in its own right.
It is awkwardly paced and races through the necessary build-up, failing to establish any of the relationships between characters — which means it will later fail to achieve the emotional resonance it desires. When it is supposed to be inspirational, it is eye-roll-inducing. There are boring speeches about the power of love. There are small moments of humor that fall flat. By the third act, The Giver has turned into a shitty futuristic action movie, but it never feels suspenseful. The acting is OK but generally forgettable — Katie Holmes doesn’t need to do much to become a Stepford-esque wife, Meryl Streep is wasted as a President Snow rip-off (but her hair looks fantastic), Taylor Swift simply proves she is capable of playing the piano and saying words.
In a visual sense, it’s definitely interesting (even somewhat stunning at times) and, thankfully, a large portion of the movie is in black and white. That’s the best part of The Giver: Watching the color slowly overtake more and more scenes as Jonas (Brenton Thwaites, who is either very good at playing bland or just very bland and bad at acting) learns more about the world’s history. Other times, however, the visuals are unintentionally hilarious.
Sometimes when the titular Giver (Jeff Bridges, one of the few highlights of the film) transmits his memories to Jonas, we’re treated to super-cheesy montages of stock footage and video clips that could’ve been culled from YouTube or lazily googling “inspirational events” and landing on a video from Tiananmen Square. Toward the end, The Giver feels like the Upworthy of movies: Jonas Was Picked To Be The Receiver — What Happens Next Will Warm Your Heart!
Then there’s that sort-of romance between Jonas and Fiona (Odeya Rush), which is utterly pointless and seems to be a result of the idea that people (teens) will not watch a movie unless there are characters to ship. There is also an underwritten conflict between Jonas and Asher (Cameron Monaghan, who deserves much better), as though the writers (Michael Mitnick and Robert B. Weide) knew that there is no logical way to create a love triangle but felt like they had to find something just to fit in.
The movie is less awful than it is disappointing. It’s disappointing to see such a great story — and one that was very important to many people, including me — sanitized to fit in with the glut of YA films. It’s especially disappointing because The Giver is what came before, and perhaps inspired, book series like The Hunger Games and Divergent. But the book’s inspirational legacy is the movie’s downfall. The Giver forgoes any originality to instead play copycat to those adaptations, falling victim to the sameness that the story tries to eradicate.