I went through a period from late high school through early adulthood where I had a certain fondness for dystopian literature. Brave New World, Nineteen Eighty-Four, and The Handmaid’s Tale were defining moments in my education that depicted three very different, but all very plausible, versions of a future where things could be incredibly bad for everyone, and they happened to all be books that I read as a senior in high school.
I carried my taste for the pessimistic forward into college, and while I didn’t dwell much on bad futures (the English literary canon doesn’t trend much towards sci-fi, although I did take a survey class one semester that included reading Snow Crash, so that was cool), I still kept them in my heart by being drawn to the American Modernist movement. Modernists wrote in the years following the first World War in a period when the future of the world was still pretty uncertain, especially following the economic collapse leading into the Great Depression. There’s something in that period that’s akin to what I liked about dystopia.
When I went back to school to become a teacher, I rekindled my love of dystopian fiction. I did a summer course where I read Thomas More’s Utopia, which is pretty dystopian in its own right. I become fascinated with the idea of building a unit around teaching dystopian fiction (in retrospect I realize that’s precisely what my own Literature teacher did my senior year, though I never realized because we were all so focused on prepping for our AP exam at the end of the year), and wherever I came across something new, I wanted to read it. That’s how I ended up reading The Giver in a children’s literature course that I took one semester (yeah, somehow I missed that one when I was in middle school).
The premise of The Giver is that in a future society that has eradicated communal problems by implementing Sameness and detaching all but one member of the community from any record of the complicated past. The protagonist, Jonas, is chosen to be the community’s new Receiver of Memories when he comes of age, and he spends time with the old Receiver (who refers to himself as the Giver, since there’s only supposed to be one Receiver at a time), who shares all his communal knowledge and memories both through explanation and some ill-defined form of contact telepathy. Jonas grows to see how the world used to be much more complex than it is in the present, and also realize that while the Sameness has protected people from intense pain and conflict, it’s also robbed them of genuinely fulfilling lives. You get some recapitulations of the fable of Plato’s Cave, where Jonas is the prisoner released into the light outside struggling to go back and explain to the other captives how limited their experience is, and you have a crisis that forces him to run away with his adoptive baby brother Gabriel, who is slated to be euthanized for not being fit enough to continue in the community. There’s some implication that Jonas’s rebellion was intended by the Giver from the start, with the ultimate goal of his escape breaking Sameness so that people can live the way they did before.
All of that stuff is still in this movie adaptation, so if you liked the book, then you get more of the same here.
And still, something about the movie feels off to me. It’s probably a combination of small things, like the aesthetics of community, the introduction of a few minor action sequences, and the fact that translating The Giver to a visual medium automatically weakens its strongest bit of storytelling. To elaborate on that second bit: Sameness made everyone monochromatic colorblind (meaning they only see the world in terms of light and darkness without any hue), but this isn’t apparent to Jonas until he starts seeing in color after he begins his training with the Giver and receives the memories and language to help him express how his vision is different; in a novel the reader isn’t aware the characters’ vision is different until it’s pointed out, but in the movie we’re clued in from the start with the gray scale visual palette. I get that it’s a necessity of the adaptation format, but it just doesn’t give the same sense of wonder that I got the first time I read The Giver.
On the subject of the film’s aesthetics, we have to back up a little bit and discuss the current trend in YA dystopian fiction. Hunger Games set off a small boom in the subgenre, and with its monetization into a big screen series we’ve seen it setting more trends in the way these sorts of stories get adapted. The thing I always liked about the older dystopias I read when I was a teenager was the way they all felt like they were set in sort of used up futures. Brave New World is an obvious exception with its bourgois fascination with consumerism as a mass opiate, but in Nineteen Eighty-Four and Handmaid’s Tale, you have a sense that the world is sort of lived in, with a scarcity of resources leading to the extremism that dystopias thrive on. The ugliness is barely hidden, if at all. YA fiction, especially post-Hunger Games, focuses a lot on image and the way the people in power cover up how bad it is for everyone else. This makes sense as YA stories very often involve a coming-of-age component (when a convention of the genre is a protagonist who’s not already an established adult, you naturally get a lot of this), and a very easy way to demonstrate a character’s realization of the complexities of adulthood is to have a system in place that hides all the ugly parts underneath a nice veneer.
Now, the Giver novel doesn’t follow this trend. Lois Lowry published it over twenty years ago, long before Hunger Games opened up the floodgates on young adult dystopian fiction. The novel’s dystopia is incredibly subtle, and it carries with it a lot of very real benefits for its inhabitants so that a reader could make a reasonable case for why the imagined world is more utopic than dystopic. The ugliness is so deeply buried that even its perpetrators don’t fully understand the weight of what they’re doing. It’s more a story about learning to grapple with the complexities of life as we get older than a real commentary on any existing oppressive system (Sameness exists more as authorial fiat that this-is-the-way-things-are than a fully thought out system of community management).
To contrast, the Giver movie adaptation borrows a lot from the adaptations of the Hunger Games novels. The community is steeped in polished near-future architecture and design, with mass surveillance heavily incorporated into the setting. It’s all about presenting a specific facade in the same tradition as Hunger Games‘s Capitol City. All the technology looks sleek and seamless, with floating holographic screens strewn about in many major scenes. It’s a far cry from the sense of quaint anti-technology that you get in the novel. The most advanced thing that I remember being discussed there are the community members’ bicycles, which I figured were more akin to an old Schwinn than the weird plastic things everyone rides around on in the movie. There’s even a subplot added where Asher, Jonas’s best friend, becomes a drone pilot (I don’t even remember Asher being a character in the novel, but Rachael assures me he was there); this change allows for a modest bit of action at the film’s climax (it’s a move marketed to teens, of course, never mind the people who read the book when they were younger and are now adults) and also elevates the technology level. A lot’s invested to make a formerly quiet story about a character’s personal growth and maturation into something more closely fitting the mold of mass market YA dystopian movies. Let’s not even start on the fact that Jonas and his peers are aged up from twelve to eighteen so the primary actors can be sexy young stars, or that Sameness doubles as a convenient excuse to make the cast entirely white when it would be easy to diversify, or that the story’s reworked to include the Chief Elder as a major antagonist (because audiences need someone to cheer against like President Snow).
Overall, I’d say that The Giver isn’t a terrible adaptation of its source material, which it’s fair to say isn’t the most revolutionary of works by itself. It suffers overly from trying to fit into the visions established by movies based on much more recent books instead of owning its roots as a story that hails from a mindset that’s twenty years old. There could probably be a whole essay written on the troublesome way the film treats gender, with most of its female characters acting as guardians of the status quo that a few men bravely rebel against for the good of everyone (this movie really seems to have no sympathy for Katie Holmes or Meryl Streep’s characters). It’s a deeply flawed work, but it’s very pretty in spots, and it’s on the short side, so if you have a hankering for a dystopian movie that’s a little less invested in having action just for the purposes of spectacle, you could do worse.