Welcome to the next in our series of “Have You Watched a Good Book Lately?”
The series’ intention is to track a number of books’ progression from the printed page to the silver screen and assess how well or how badly the filmmakers accomplished each of the adaptations.
Today we’re going to be discussing “The Giver,” a novel written by Lois Lowry that was first published in 1993 and was adapted for the screen in 2014 by screenwriters Michael Mitnick and Robert B. Weide and Australian director Phillip Noyce (“Patriot Games,” “The Bone Collector,” “Rabbit-Proof Fence”). For those of you unfamiliar with the basic premise, here is a brief synopsis, first of the story (adapted from the book cover) and then the film (taken from imdb.com):
“Life in the Community is idyllic. Designated birthmothers produce newchildren, who are assigned to appropriate family units. Citizens are assigned their partners, and their jobs are determined, always appropriately by the Council of Elders, when they turn twelve. It is a precisely choreographed world without conflict, inequality, divorce, unemployment, injustice … or choice. Everyone embraces Sameness. Except Jonas.”
“In a seemingly perfect community, without war, pain, suffering, differences, or choice, a young boy is chosen to learn from an elderly man about the true pain and pleasure of the “real” world.”
From the Source’s Mouth
Let’s start our discussion with one of the main concerns of any story adaptation – how true is the film to the source material? In many ways the two versions are closely aligned. Each version starts with a boy named Jonas contemplating the upcoming change in his life. In the book, it’s the Ceremony of Twelve, where each twelve-year-old in the Community is given their Assignment – the job they will spend the rest of their lives performing – by the Committee of Elders, and they begin training for that position. Jonas has no idea of what his new position will be, but he knows he must come to terms with no longer going to school and playing with his groupmates, especially his two closest friends, Fiona and Asher, before he takes that on.
The Community is a self-contained entity governed by a very large number of rules. No one may lie. Everyone must apologise for any rudeness, rule infraction, non-precise language, or a host of other things the Elders believe will destabilise the specified order. In each case of an apology, the correct (and only) response is “I (We) accept your apology.” Also, every person has to take an injection before leaving the dwelling each morning, ostensibly to provide good health (in the film), or take pills to prevent Stirrings (sexual feelings in the book). People are grouped together in family units. Each family unit may have only two children, one boy, and one girl, although Jonas’ parents temporarily take in a newchild named Gabriel who needs more help than the Nurturing Center can provide and has been given a special reprieve from being Released pending his appropriate development.
The Ceremony is a holiday where each age group gets advanced in some fashion. The newchildren get both their names and their family units. The Sixes get jackets with pockets, indicating they are responsible enough to carry items around without losing them. The Nines get their bicycles. The Old People are Released to Elsewhere, though nobody is sure exactly what that means. Jonas’ ceremony, though, does not go quite as planned. All the new Twelves are called in order, but the Chief Elder skips over Jonas, giving all the others their new Assignments. It is only when she is through that she finally addresses him. He has not been assigned to any position, she informs the community; rather, he has been selected for a singular honour – to be the one and only Receiver of Memories. This is because he has shown intelligence, integrity, courage, wisdom, and the “Capacity to See Beyond.” But he needs to know that with the training will come isolation and indescribable pain, though Jonas can’t possibly understand what it all means at the time.
Jonas receives a list of new rules governing his training, including that he is exempt from rules regarding rudeness; he may ask any question of anyone and expect an answer; he may not discuss his training with anyone; and he may lie. The last one is perhaps the most puzzling to him, as precise language is so ingrained in the population that lying, intentionally or otherwise, is almost inconceivable. When he was a Four, he once claimed he was “starving,” and he was reprimanded. He was hungry, he was told; no one in the community ever was or ever would be truly starving, and so he had uttered a lie. He never repeated the mistake.
When Jonas reports for training, he is startled by the Receiver’s room, which contains thousands of books; dwellings only contain a dictionary, a description of Assignments and offices, and the standard rule book. The old Receiver (now called The Giver) tells him that “Simply stated … my job is to transmit to you all the memories I have within me. Memories of the past … There’s all that goes beyond – all that is Elsewhere – and all that goes back, and back, and back. I received all of those, when I was selected. And here in this room, all alone, I re-experience them again and again. It is how wisdom comes. And how we shape our future. … Without wisdom I could not fulfil my function of advising the Committee of Elders when they call upon me.” In the book, it is a true transfer, as The Giver loses the memories he shares with Jonas; in the film, both share in the centuries-old collective memories of the society.
Jonas spends the next year absorbing memories about that past so he can become an efficient Receiver. It starts with his ability to see colours, not just the grey sameness of everything within the community. It grows to include memories of snow and hills and sailing on the ocean (made obsolete by climate control and planned, level communities), of hunger and pain and war and love. He learns about all the things that the Elders did away with long ago to ensure the blissful peace of tranquillity and Sameness. Only the Receiver holds the memories of those things now. And Jonas learns about Release. He watches as his father releases one of the newchildren – he injects the infant with a drug that kills him and then disposes of the body like so much trash. Murder, it turns out, has not been done away with, it’s just that the people, without emotions, don’t understand the nature of what they’re doing.
Jonas, plagued by the emotions and events he now carries within him, tells The Giver (played by Jeff Bridges) that he can’t just stand by and let the world continue in its heedless way. He snatches Gabriel, who, despite his stay with Jonas’ family unit, is scheduled for Release, and he makes his way past the community’s border. In that way, he releases the memories he carries back into the community and escapes, we suppose, to a safe, loving place that The Giver showed him in a memory.
Despite the two media’s similarities, there are a number of small (and some not so small) differences that, when added up, make for a very different telling of the story. The first is something common in speculative fiction movies – the main character’s narration at the beginning of the movie about all the important things we need to know before moving on, such as the structure of the society, the rules, the Ceremonies, etc. This is, not so fondly, called the “information dump,” and it allows the filmmakers a convenient way to avoid the need to develop the story effectively.
The second change is a more positive one. In today’s society, 12-year-olds are somewhat young for the status and responsibility they are given in the book; no matter how well-versed the children were in the community’s rules and procedures, audiences probably wouldn’t buy them graduating to “adult” status. The writers therefore changed the graduation age to 16.
The third change is a big one. In the book, Jonas, Fiona, and Asher are friends, but they all acknowledge and accept the change in their circumstances with the Ceremony of Twelve. Especially after Jonas becomes The Receiver, by definition an exclusionary position, the others treat him with respect and courtesy, but it does not go beyond that. The filmmakers, though, wanted a love story, as well as a story about undying friendship in the face of hardship. Here, Jonas is extremely fond of Fiona, and when he stops taking his daily injections to curb the Stirrings, he feels a closeness to her that The Giver shows him is love. He repeatedly violates the rules of his position to try and explain to her the nature of emotions, even getting her to stop taking her own injections to experience them. And when he tries to escape the community, against the advice of The Giver, he enlists her aid in kidnapping Gabriel and asks her to join him. When she refuses to leave, Jonas swears he will come back for her, saying cryptically that things will be different when he returns. The end result of helping him escape is that she ends up in jail, fervently preaching about the need for emotion, especially love, even when she’s censured and scheduled for her own Release.
In addition, in the book, Asher is an awkward kid, often speaking in non-precise language, and violating minor rules such as forgetting to park his bicycle in its charging slot. He eventually gets Assigned as Assistant Recreation Director, which suits his outgoing personality. In the film, though, he’s sharp and focused and is Assigned to be a drone pilot. It is he who goes looking for Jonas after he escapes, but when Jonas begs for his help, he lets him go. In conjunction with this act is a strange turn from the Chief Elder (played by Meryl Streep). In the book, she is unknowing about Jonas’ plans (and The Giver’s insistence that Jonas must return love to the people) and would have had to consult The Giver for advice in this unprecedented situation, but, in the film, she becomes the easy villain. She knows the dangers that memories will bring and knows that if Jonas gets far enough to cross the “Boundary of Memory,” all the memories and emotions of the past will somehow magically come back to the community, something that threatens her position. She tells Asher to find Jonas and then “lose him,” making it very clear what she means. When Asher tells her he has found Jonas, she then tells him to “finish the job.” Unlike the rest of the community, the Chief Elder seems to know about, understand, and condone the act of murder, a crime supposedly buried in the past.
The Final Cut
So, how did “The Giver” as a movie fare as a novel adaptation overall? While the book was lax in describing how such a society would have arisen and was too insistent that all emotions should be returned just so that love could be present, the movie was even worse. It changed characters and plot seemingly on a whim, and relied on easy clichés to make a not-very-convincing point. It was “Hollywood” at its worst. I’d give it a D+.
What do you think? Do you agree? Disagree? Please add your comments in the section below.
– Miriam Ruff, Content Creator, PoetsIN
DISCLAIMER: The opinions discussed in this blog post are solely those of the blogger and do not necessarily represent any thoughts, values, or opinions of PoetsIN and any of its affiliate groups.