Let’s begin with the film’s single greatest obstacle: the culture Philip Rieff described as “the death culture” is not likely to assemble en masse to pay for viewing a morality tale. A central message in this film is that we have become “shadows.” Indeed, those immersed in our death culture do not likely have ears to hear and eyes to see the hollow selves we currently are. In a time such as ours, where very little if anything signifies, it is not probable this movie will be understood. At one key moment The Giver declares, “we are living a life of shadows, of echoes.” This sentence captures the essence of the death culture. Add to that the following minor problem of our nearly national obsession with spectacle, as evidenced in news shows and recent popular YA movies such as The Hunger Games and Divergent. It is clear our current death culture is taken with the dystopian novel and dystopian movie version of said novel as long as it provides the story at break neck speed and as long as the actual neck breaking and other acts of violence are done with high levels of blood and guts and are absolutely absent of thought.
A first rate cast including Jeff Bridges as The Giver of memories, Meryl Streep as the ominous, and yet at times, vulnerable Chief Elder, Brenton Thwaites as Jonas and Odeya Rush as Fiona portrays the ideas and emotions in Lowry’s important novel. The Giver offers a solid movie adaptation that insightfully captures the spirit and sensibilities of the novel. Our family did the bookish thing and re-read the novel before we went to see the movie. I already had to tell my college students that the novel was released in 1993, so do not ignorantly say, “this movie is a rip-off of Hunger Games and Divergent.” It is the other way around. As a matter of truth, the knowledgeable reader and movie goer should see The Giver as the grandmother of our current fixation with all things dystopian. However, the themes and spirit of the book are more humane and call for both an engaged mind and heart. All of this was fresh in our minds when my wife, oldest daughter and myself went to see the movie. We anticipated some changes in terms of elements dropped and some added or expanded, and this occurred. In addition to the characters of Fiona and the Chief Elder having more fully developed roles, there were other minor adaptations that did not distract from the message of the novel.
The slower pace of the movie perfectly mirrors the predominately docile feel of the novel. It is clear that one item that sets The Giver movie apart from other dystopian novels and movies, is that the community is portrayed as a tranquil setting for everyone, not just the elite. One masterful move was filming the first portion in black and white to convey the colorless lives of these people.
There are numerous moments of startling beauty that convey the truth that even in a fallen world beauty will save the world. The dialogue is rich with humane truths and several instances of the highest goodness we humans are capable of as image bearers of the divine. As in the novel, when Jonas comes to the realization that life has become meaningless and he takes action to protect the most innocent, such heroic transcendence is all too rare in contemporary culture. Sadly, many more religious Americans will turn out in droves to see the newest sports movie which it is highly probable that seeing this movie will be urged by preachers and priests for the sheep to go feed upon. Actually, such maudlin amusement should be avoided.
The movie and the novel, The Giver, exalt life as a gift to be treasured and to be fully lived. It reminds us what we forget all to easily when we are “sunken in our everydayness” (Walker Percy). Human freedom is a joyous burden. All of life is rife with risks. For all of its rewards there are perils. One cannot finish the novel, or see the movie without being reminded the greatest truth that pain and suffering, our happiness and our choice, are woven together into the tapestry of human existence. One is reminded, this world—fallen, and in need of redemption—is a marvelous unfolding drama that should move the soul to celebrate our very being and its very existence.
The Giver helps us call to memory an all-too-forgotten truth that “with love comes faith and hope.” Yes, and the greatest of these is love—love of God, love of neighbor, love of the innocent, love of the infirmed, love of life in all of its glories and frailties. While it is highly improbable Walker Percy’s The Thanatos Syndrome will be made into a film, the novel contains an impassioned plea from Father Smith to Dr. Thomas More to love life. Smith also makes the astute observation that we in the modern world have lost the azimuth, we have lost our lone star. In the death culture we no longer have a fixed reference point to inform our convictions about what matters the most (Section two, chapter six, The Thanatos Syndrome, 114 ff). Without giving away the ending of the movie version of The Giver, which is very similar to the novel, when Jonas approaches a particular house, he hears singing—we hear singing, we hear hints of hope. Listen very carefully and rejoice. Here is the azimuth, the lone star faintly manifested, faintly, but clearly. It has become common now at the end of movies to stay and get that extra treat. While there are no upcoming teasers of a possible sequel, there is the song, Ordinary Human by Onerepublic. Listen again and hear a popular song with a message that is a step above the usual mundane noise in theaters and on our radios.