From Book to Screen: “The Giver”
The Giver is a 1993 young adult novel written by Lois Lowry which won the Newbery Medal. It’s been on many schools’ required reading lists, but has also attracted controversy resulting it being taken off the shelf at some libraries.
Both the film and book have the same basic plot. The hero, Jonas, lives in the Communities a group of settlements where everyone is equal and everything – from who has children, what your occupation is, and how you behave – is governed by a set of strict rules.
While there is room for error and mistakes, continual disregard for the rules will eventually lead to you being ‘released to elsewhere’, some area beyond the Communities. Once citizens become too old they are also released, as are babies who for one reason or another are not suited for life in the Communities.
When Jonas comes of age he is assigned his occupation. He is given the special task of being The Receiver of Memory, the one person in the Communities who will hold all the memories of humanity’s past. The old Receiver, now The Giver, imparts these memories to Jonas over a period of time. From the memories, Jonas learns what humanity has lost to live in their ideal world including family, home, love, hate, war, death, and loss.
From Book to Screen
The first, most obvious difference between the book and film is the age of Jonas. In the book, he is twelve years old whereas in the movie he is eighteen. This feels like an attempt on the film’s part to cash in on the recent popularity of young adult films, particularly dystopia stories such as Hunger Games and Divergent.
However, a non-annoying child actor is notoriously hard to find – let alone one who can carry a whole film. So even if the older age of the character is an attempt to cash in on the success of other movies, it wasn’t a terrible choice. There is something a little lost in the decision though: the bravery required for a twelve-year-old to do everything the character does in the book is awe-inspiring and quite moving. It’s still unquestionably brave from an eighteen-year-old, but does lose some of the emotional punch.
The film also features a romance. In the book, Jonas does have a friend called Fiona who he has some feelings for. However, she is a small character and Jonas’s main concern is the safety of his baby brother. The movie expands on the romance, making Fiona a much bigger character, and makes her a large motivator for Jonas during the final sequence.
This is something of a disappointment. Jonas’s absolute devotion to his baby brother in the book is both unique and moving. In the film, it is overshadowed by his love for Fiona.
While the book is short, the movie is a little over an hour and a half (including the credits). The shorter run-time is refreshing, but without the added plot points it probably would have been closer to an hour.
Meryl Streep’s role as the leader of the Communities is also expanded to add to the film. Her character has one scene in the book, but in the movie is made into a much bigger threat.
Something unique about the story is that neither the film nor the book have a real villain. Yes, there are people who wish to stop Jonas, but they are as nearly as ignorant as the rest of the population. The leaders know of the existence of the memories, but they know no more than anyone else what they mean.
The film’s strongest components are the visual elements of the plot. In both the book and film, what sets Jonas apart is his ability to see color. Yes, in the Communities there is no color. Jonas himself doesn’t see color all the time when the story starts, rather he sees a flash here and there. In the book, you’re not sure what this flash is; all you know is he sees something odd in an apple or in Fiona’s hair. Since he has no concept of what the color ‘red’ is, he doesn’t know what he’s seeing and neither does the reader. You naturally assume color is present in the world and wonder what Jonas sees. The reader starts to understand along with Jonas.
In the movie, the lack of color is represented by filming in black and white. The element of surprise is taken away, but it’s visually powerful to have color slowly inserted into the film as Jonas receives more and more memories and learns more about what his people have lost. It gives a visual way to connect to Jonas’s journey and a visual way to show what the Communities has been missing.
The power of visuals also come into play when Jonas receives memories. Visuals and music both have a lot of power to invoke emotion and the movie uses both of these to create the memories and give the audience the same rush of feeling Jonas experiences. Oddly however the film is less effective at portraying the negative emotions. While we see a scene of an elephant being poached and of war, it lacks the impact of the positive, inspiring and beautiful memories.
The film does have an impressive cast, Jeff Bridges being particularly sympathetic in the role of The Giver, showing the deepening friendship between himself and Jonas. None of the teen actors did a bad job and they all won me over throughout the film while Jeff Bridges and Meryl Streep build a complicated and intriguing relationship between their two characters.
Both the book and film leave a lot unexplained. There’s no explanation as to how the memories are transferred or how color has been removed from the world. Is it science? Is it magic? Is it some combination of the two? It’s not clear. This stands out more in a book, where you have more time to think about it as you read.
There is a simplicity in the book which the film loses whenever it tries to fit in more with the young adult film genre. The book represents a real, unselfish love. There are less dramatics, but not less at stake.
The movie doesn’t live up to the source material, largely because it loses that simplicity, but is still worth watching. It tells the story and tells it pretty well. The number one reason for watching it is to see how the visual elements of the book translate into film.