The Giver (2014) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
16Aug/144

The Giver (2014)

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Jonas is one of many boys who lives in The Community.  Some time ago, there was a calamity that convinced the ruling parties of the world to erase all differences and force the human race into equality.  There is one person exempt from this, The Giver, who holds all memories of what came before the calamity and he has chosen Jonas to carry these memories to the next generation.  The Giver is directed by Phillip Noyce (The Quiet American, Rabbit-Proof Fence) and stars Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep, and Benton Thwaites.

Act of givingThis is the second time in recent memory that the advertising for a film thoroughly misleads the audience to its style and content.  Previously we had Brett Ratner's Hercules adding a lot of mystical elements to the visuals of the trailer that were completely absent from the finished product.  With The Giver, we have a trailer presented in color while fans of the book screamed in protest about the film needing to be in black and white.

I come bearing news both good and terrible.  The good is that The Giver does not turn its back on black and white footage and a large part of the film is done in those shades.  The bad news is that The Giver does little to differentiate itself between those two differently colored worlds, leaving the tough job of changing the emotional texture of the film with a black and white filter, and then leaving the rest of the job to the hands of dull performances and a script that insists on scenarios that tell you what is going on instead of showing.

Some novels seem ripe for cinematic adaptations.  Tom Clancy has made a nice side-career getting his books out for feature-length films, but his writing consists of cloak and dagger operations with the government constantly on high alert against whatever foreign menace shows its head.  The Giver is nearly the exact opposite of this with the primary action coming from the conversation between young Jonas (Benton Thwaites) and The Giver (Jeff Bridges).  While adaptations of young adult novels, along with whatever comic book you read last, are the hip things to make into films now they are both descending into a stream of mediocrity.  Considering the importance of emotions in The Giver, mediocre presentation brings it from a so-so effort to a bad film, one that I nearly had to slap myself to stay awake through.

The concrete structures are eventually filmed upside down, tilted, nearly on the side, and just about every angle but straightforward. There is not nearly enough emotional or logistical confusion going on among all the characters to justify the concrete roller coaster the camera seems to be on in the last half-hour.

The concrete structures are eventually filmed upside down, tilted, nearly on the side, and just about every angle but straightforward. There is not nearly enough emotional or logistical confusion going on among all the characters to justify the concrete roller coaster the camera seems to be on in the last half-hour.

The Giver should give students of cinematography an example of what not to do when lighting a film.  The film hinges on how the act of sharing memories and discussing the past brings out Jonas' ability to see in color and tell the difference between people in a world that has forced sameness on everyone.  As Jonas' experiences grow he begins to see slivers of color in the world and eventually can see in color where everyone else is stuck in black and white.  The problem here is that both the black and white and color perceptions are lit the same way, with little emphasis on creating shadows or contrast between light and dark.  So as the color filters into the world it looks just as drab and samey as when it was in black and white.  There's the occasional scene that pushes for a bit more, like when Jonas and The Giver are out for a walk and we get some lens flare, but this addition doesn't add anything to the conversation that they are having.

That blandness in visual tone also affects the way that Jonas learns emotions.  In the sessions that they share, The Giver guides Jonas through the memories that he has which are primarily through stock footage.  I liked this touch, because of course an all-white society would have its memories of other cultures preserved not through experience but through someone else's lens.  But the recreations, such as when Jonas jumps into The Giver's mind as he is dreaming about Vietnam, are muddled as to the emotion they are trying to invoke.  In the Vietnam flashback young Jonas takes the role of a soldier while a grain filter covers the screen and the camera whirls back and forth.  It's not anger or fear this shot conveys, but confusion.

The problem is, as with many of these young adult adaptations, that the creative team is going for a sanitized approach to the emotional awakening of Jonas.  They don't show anger and fear, and instead have to tell us that is what Jonas is feeling.  His awakening love and attraction to Fiona (Odeya Rush) is particularly sanitized and made me wonder if the only memories The Giver has to share of attraction are of the Middle School "keep at arm's length and kiss only for a second" variety versus the intense physical longing that comes with teenage exploration.  With all these dulled emotions it is difficult to get caught up in the sense of urgency that overtakes Jonas as he decides to free the world of its sameness.

It's a good thing that the dialogue explains what I should be feeling about these scenes afterward, because I'd land on the side of confusion versus anger and sadness with how they are handled.

It's a good thing that the dialogue explains what I should be feeling about these scenes afterward, because I'd land on the side of confusion versus anger and sadness with how they are handled.

I've focused a lot on how the film looks because it highlights just how ill-suited The Giver is to a cinematic adaptation, or at least one by this creative team.  Most of the crucial information that is shared between Jonas and The Giver is done not by showing us the emotions that he is supposed to be feeling, but by going through long-winded exchanges of, "What is this feeling?"  "This feeling you feel?"  "Yes, this warm feeling!"  Film is the most evocative medium for conveying emotional development through time, and these scenes where emotions are explained feel like a long game of Simon Says with happiness, sadness, and all the stopping points in between.

This being a prestige project of a sort, some top-tier talent was attracted for the more prominent roles.  But instead of what they are able to do with the roles once cast, Jeff Bridges and Meryl Streep coast more on the easygoing or authoritarian personas of their earlier roles.  They aren't bad exactly, just familiar in a way that does not feel unique to the world.  Our teenage leads don't fare better as they don't have the experience or natural talent to express the emotional blankness of their characters without it coming off a bit comical.  Alexander Skarsgard, as Jonas' father unit, does a superb job though, combining the empathetic necessity of his role as a Releaser with an oblivious authoritarian streak.

The Giver is not far from young adult adaptations that we've endured these last few years.  It even seems to take design queues from the same modernist architect that designs the dystopian worlds of The Hunger Games or Divergence.  I'm tired of concrete blocks and tortured teenagers.  My challenge to Hollywood would be to take a risky young adult novel, like Robert Cormier's After the First Death which is sympathetic to terrorists, and make a film about that.  Sadly, I'm sure that in whichever bizzaro universe America gives that film the green light, all the characters would be wandering through the same blocky world.

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Tail - The GiverThe Giver (2014)

Directed by Phillip Noyce.
Starring Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep, and Benton Thwaites.
Screenplay written by Michael Mitnick and Robert B. Weide.

Posted by Andrew

Comments (4) Trackbacks (0)
  1. Good review Andrew. Yeah, I didn’t care much for this one either. Although I loved the book, this one still didn’t live up to the expectations it created right from the start.

    • Thanks for the comment Dan. I haven’t read the book, and didn’t even see a trailer before watching The Giver, so I went in with as blank a slate as possible and came out disappointed.

  2. seems completely forgettable.


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