Review: Memory Meets Reality in ‘The Giver’

Imagine a world with no war. No hate. No jealousy or competition. Sounds great, right? But what if it came at a hefty price?

This is the world in which 18-year-old Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) lives, a reformed community ruled by Sameness. There are no memories of what life was like before. There’s no music. No art. No love. No color. No freedom to choose your own partner or even your own job. Instead, a committee decides for you.

It’s been more than two decades since the publication of Lois Lowry’s story about a young boy who learns that utopias aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. Thanks to an 18-year quest by Jeff Bridges, who plays the title role in the film, the story has finally hit the big screen.

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I’ve read “The Giver” a half dozen times over the years after first being introduced to it as part of the Massachusetts curriculum in the 6th grade. I was nervous about what a movie adaptation would do to the story, a fact made worse when I saw the cast. Katie Holmes? Alexander Skarsgård? Taylor Bleeping Swift?!

I was prepared to hate this movie. I’m so glad I didn’t have to.

There were some necessary changes that had to happen to bring “The Giver” to life and compete with the likes of “The Hunger Games” and “Divergent,” both dystopian YA mega-hit books made into movies. (And franchises that owe a tip of the hat to Lois Lowry for paving the way.)

Jonas is 18 years old in the film, about to graduate, get his assignment, and become an adult. But he’s still caught in the childish world of having fun with his friends. He doesn’t have a care in the world—that’s the point of Sameness, after all. Thwaites is wide-eyed and playful as the movie’s lead, aged up from 12 in the original story.

When Jonas is selected to be the Receiver of Memory, a great honor, he is immediately set apart from the rest of the community. He can ask people questions. He’s permitted to lie.

Jeff Bridges plays The Giver as an angry old man, shuffling around, hunched and stiff. He’s wonderful in the role, which he long imagined for his late father, actor Lloyd Bridges.

It’s The Giver’s job to transfer the memories to Jonas, the same way he had memories transferred to him. The transfer is abrupt and jarring, almost violent. In the book it’s so gentle and Jonas must remove his shirt to get the transfer of memories. Unfortunately for the target audience, Thwaite keeps his shirt on.

The Giver “accidentally” shows Jonas a map of the community, the outer edges marked by a Boundary of Memory. These are to keep the memories in. But what would happen if he were to cross it, Jonas wonders.

The friendships with Asher (Cameron Monaghan) and Fiona (Odeya Rush) have been amped up in the movie, especially the Jonas-Fiona love connection. But what would a movie be without a good love story? The YA genre is wrought with star-crossed lovers and this is no different. Jonas has the stirrings, and he’s got them for Fiona. She feels something warm, and that’s enough reassurance for him. They hold hands as he attempts to transfer the sight of a rainbow to her. They’re scolded by the omnipresent voice of chief elder Meryl Streep, a grey-haired big brother who’s watching their every move. No touching!

Katie Holmes, who plays Jonas’s mother, is sufficiently dead in the eyes and devoid of emotion – a perfect foil to her now emotion-laden son. (The casting department knew what they were doing after all.)

As he spends more time with The Giver, Jonas starts to see colors, hear music, and experience the world in a new way.

“The more I experienced, the more I wanted,” he says.

We see Muslims praying, babies being born, zebras playing. We also see war and destruction. Jonas watches in pain as an elephant is killed.

There was another Receiver before Jonas, named Rosemary, but when the job got too tough, she requested a Release (a nice way of saying “euthanized”), thus deeming The Giver a failure. Played by Taylor Swift, she shows up for just one scene, barely recognizable with dark brown hair and minimal makeup. We see her playing the piano and singing along in a hologram, something she mastered in a memory, as if she’s wearing a nametag that says “Yes that’s me, the musician Taylor Swift.”

The plot thickens when The Giver helps Jonas hatch a plan to flee the community and send all the stored memories back to the people. The action is amplified here for audiences thanks to futuristic drones, electric bicycles, and a group of police dispatched by the Chief Elder. With the help of Fiona, Jonas rescues a young child named Gabriel who shares a trademark birthmark with Jonas and The Giver and is scheduled for Release.

“The Giver” does what so many other good YA book/movie franchises do: it challenges the way we look at the world. It’s an excellent adaptation of the book that stays true to its themes and central plot line. It’s always hard to bring to life what so many have imagined in their heads already, but director Phillip Noyce does an excellent job.

For the countless fans of “The Giver” who feared the cruel hand of Hollywood, they have nothing to fear. And for those being exposed to the story for the first time, there’s plenty to love.