Lois Lowry’s 1993 classic, “The Giver,” is a novel set in a deceptively utopian society where everything is literally black and white. People have a perfectly genial demeanor but there is no depth to their emotions. The society is controlled by the enforcement of “Sameness” that removes all traces of complexity and conflict from life. Nothing ever changes and no one ever grows or evolves—except, of course, the special few required to absorb and contain memories (of an era prior to conformity) in order to prevent them from reentering the public consciousness. Because of his uncommon mixture of gifts, 12-year-old Jonas is assigned the role of “Receiver,” yet once the elderly “Giver” shares his visions and knowledge of the past, the boy’s eyes are awakened to the hypocrisy and corruption of the world in which he was born.
These are richly provocative themes well-deserving of being brought to the screen, and they were five years after the book’s release, with Gary Ross’ wonderful 1998 satire, “Pleasantville,” in which two contemporary teens bring color (and enlightenment) to the black-and-white world of a 1950s sitcom. It’s ironic to consider how Ross ended up being the same man who put Hollywood’s current dystopian craze into motion with his 2012 adaptation of Susanne Collins’ compulsive page-turner, “The Hunger Games.” After that film’s smashing box office success secured the position of Collins’ series as a lucrative Hollywood franchise, endless copycats (such as “Divergent”) have followed in its profitable path. Suddenly, the controversial, oft-banned “Giver” looked like a potential moneymaker, as long as certain alterations were made. A project that had been sitting on the shelf for two decades, all the while passionately backed by Jeff Bridges, was finally on its path to cinematic infamy.
Alas, Phillip Noyce’s new, heavily marketed film version is little more than a shallow, disposable product of Hollywood’s latest pervasive brand of “Sameness.” This picture shamelessly conforms to every test-marketed, studio-approved trope imaginable, while rendering Lowry’s poetic parable utterly indistinguishable from its own third-rate rip-offs. Upping the protagonist’s age from 12 to 16 is crucial, since it allows the producers to target the same teenage demographic that routinely turns up for the latest “Hunger Games” installment or anything that remotely resembles one. Poor Aussie pretty boy Brenton Thwaites was 24 when he tackled the role, and it’s flat-out laughable to watch him strain to convey a youthful innocence in the film’s early scenes, gawking at the lens like a drugged puppy.
Despite its young characters’ older age, the pedestrian script by Michael Mitnick and Robert B. Weide is surprisingly tame in its depiction of Jonas’s sexual awakening. One of the most notorious moments in Lowry’s book occurs when Jonas recounts a dream to his parents involving a girl that has become his budding crush. “I wanted her to take off her clothes so I could bathe her,” he confesses. Of course, in Hollywood’s infinite prudish wisdom, this key sequence is removed entirely from the movie, replaced instead by several awkward prolonged glances between Jonas and Fiona (played by Odeya Rush, who happens to be eight years younger than her co-star). Only Thwaites and Bridges (as The Giver) have any tangible romantic chemistry. I’m already anticipating the inevitable “Brokeback”/”Giver” mashups on YouTube splicing together the scenes where Bridges insists on touching Thwaites, pulling him close to profess his love, while the boy thrusts back his head in a daze.
Perhaps inspired by Kate Winslet’s gusto in inhabiting the thankless villain role in “Divergent,” Meryl Streep plays the icily calculating Chief Elder, and it’s the first performance in the acting icon’s legendary career that not only appears to have been phoned in but beamed in. Many of Streep’s scenes require her to materialize amidst the action in the form of a formidable hologram (which was written into the script after the actress was unable to be onset for the entire shoot), and though she is still effortlessly watchable, she has never exuded such listless detachment. It also doesn’t help that her wig looks like it was ripped off Gandalf’s head or that Bridges sounds as if he swallowed Sean Connery’s dentures or that Thwaites and Rush resemble genetically modified miniatures of Chris Pine and Mila Kunis. I’m sure these kids are capable of proving themselves as individuals with a distinctive screen presence, but not when Hollywood is determined to cloak their originality in a commercialized façade. Speaking of miscasting, who thought Taylor Swift would register as anything other than a glaring distraction in her scenes as a piano-playing Receiver? Her line delivery is so stilted that the camera hops out of the way, as if to shield itself from the agony.
In fact, as directed by Noyce (whose action-packed credits include “Patriot Games” and “Salt”), “The Giver” never stops moving. This sort of rapid-fire pace makes sense in a Jack Ryan flick, but not in the case of Lowry’s nuanced allegory, where much of the action is psychological. Nothing in Noyce’s film is lingered on long enough for us to care about it in the slightest. The biggest casualty here are the “memories” themselves, which are as bland and generic as the filler imagery on an erectile dysfunction commercial (side effects include acute depression and reddening of the face). That’s why I couldn’t have been less surprised when the cast indicated during their recent Comic-Con panel that the production was rushed. This 90-minute trailer-esque montage is the textbook definition of a half-hearted throwaway. The saddest sight of all at Comic-Con was Lowry herself, who praised the film for relieving her book of its pesky ambiguity (particularly in regards to its ending) and stressed her eagerness in writing sequels as long as the film performs well. There are few things more distressing than watching an aging artist willfully sell out. Who does Lowry think she is—Nicholas Sparks?!
To the considerable credit of Thwaites and Rush, I must report that they seemed as exasperated as I was at the very notion of “The Giver” becoming a franchise when I interviewed them one sunny morning in Chicago. When I asked the pair what would motivate them to make a sequel, Rush quipped, “Our contracts.” When I asked if they could see the story continuing, Thwaites immediately replied, “Only if [this film] makes a lot of money and the producers get greedy.” Rush shared his sentiments, saying, “I’m scared of continuing the story. I don’t want to hurt it.” Not only was Thwaites thoroughly exhausted from what was evidently a taxing shoot, he expressed remorse over being branded an overnight success in Hollywood, having just appeared in Disney’s mega-hit, “Maleficent.” “I guess my break in America came a little too early,” said Thwaites, sporting more honestly than the typical starlet prepped with junket-ready soundbites. “It would’ve been nice to have a few more years to find out what I’m like as an actor without a camera on my face.” Here’s hoping the young man’s wish is granted.