Reading List

08.12.14

A Trailblazer in YA Dystopian Fiction: An Interview With 'The Giver' Author Lois Lowry

Before Hollywood went adaptation-crazy for Divergent and The Hunger Games, Lois Lowry wrote The Giver, the story of a boy named Jonas stuck in a society without individuality.

When it comes to dystopian, young adult fiction, Lois Lowry was the trailblazer. Before Divergent, before The Hunger Games, there was The Giver. Most of us millennials remember the 1994 Newbery Medal winner as the standout book on our junior high’s required reading list.

It made us question the dangers of conformity, and whether stifling the urge to stand out from the pack was really such a good idea. In a community that honored sameness over individuality, a boy named Jonas learned the truth—and quickly became our hero. What’s more is that the story hits that sweet spot where both kids and adults can identify with its themes. One of the American Library Association’s most challenged books of the ’90s, The Giver has become an indisputable classic.

The upcoming film touts an all-star cast. And if the trailer is any indication, Meryl Streep plays a chillingly accurate Chief Elder. But as the hype surrounding the movie heightens, many are curious about the writer behind the story. Where did the idea for The Giver come from, and how involved was Lowry in the screen adaptation? Above all, most readers have one particular concern in mind—does the film do the book justice?

Lowry was kind enough to weigh in. Read on for a glimpse of her writing process, her role in the film, and what she thinks of Jeff Bridges.

Growing up, your books were among my favorite. The Giver was one of those books that I read as a kid and then re-read again as an adult and found that I was still just as moved by it.

I hear that often from people who read it as kids. And now sometimes they’re reading it again as adults because they have kids who are reading it. And other times, just like you, they come across it again when they’re all grown up. And they seem to get different things out of it at different ages.

“I find that if I outline a book and know exactly where it’s going in every chapter, which is a very orderly way to go about writing, then when I sit down to write it, I’m bored with it because I’ve already put my creative imagination into the outline.”

No other reading affects you in quite the same way that the reading you do as a child does. As a writer writing for a younger audience, do you ever feel a sense of pressure knowing that what you’re writing is sort of shaping them?

Not pressure, but I feel a sense of responsibility. So I don’t do what I do lightly. I’m aware that it affects some kids very profoundly. But as somebody who has also written for adults, I have a greater sense of responsibility to the young reader because of how profoundly their lives are sometimes affected by what they read, which is a good thing.

When you were setting out to work on The Giver, what planted the seed for this dark, utopian society?

I never as a reader have been particularly interested in dystopian literature or science fiction or, in fact, fantasy. I had been writing for young people for a long time at that point and most of them were realistic fiction, a couple historic fiction. But what happened was that my father was very old and was beginning to lose his memory and I was thinking a lot about memory, the importance of it.

And in fact, memory is something that has always interested me, as well as something that sort of goes into the same category—and that is dreams. And I have written a book that focuses on dreaming, but in this particular instance I was thinking about memory and what would happen if we could manipulate human memory. And of course when I set out to write about that, I realized that it had to be set in the future. So that threw it into a realm of sort of science fiction, but that had never been a realm I had ever had an interest in before.

It sounds like it was more of an organic journey in terms of where the story took you. Are you a writer who sits down and outlines things beforehand? Or do you just let it take you?

I’ve never been able to do that. I know people who do that very successfully. But I find that if I outline a book and know exactly where it’s going in every chapter, which is a very orderly way to go about writing, then when I sit down to write it, I’m bored with it because I’ve already put my creative imagination into the outline.

I prefer to surprise myself as I’m writing. I’m not interested in it if I already know where it’s going. So I have only the most general sense of what I’m doing when I start a story. I sometimes have a destination in mind, but how the story is going to go from Point A to Point Z is something I make up as I go along.

People who have read The Giver either say it’s one of the most powerful books for kids ever, or it’s inappropriate and should be banned. How do you feel when you hear these types of things?

It’s rarely been banned. It’s often been challenged, and the two things are different. When a book is challenged that means a parent has made an objection to the book and there are procedures that one has to go through. But most often, it’s reinstated. It’s very rare that a challenge is upheld and a book is removed from a school. But in either case, I’m always still surprised by it.

How so?

Certainly now when here are, in the aftermath of The Giver, a number of dystopian novels, which involve a great deal of violence. And The Giver does not. So I think it falls into a realm that’s fairly mild in comparison to today’s literature for young people. And I think it’s less often challenged now, of course it’s been around for a long time.

But I think that people who have challenged it sometimes are kind of vague in their reasons for the challenge. But I think it probably stems from the fact of a child, a 12-year-old child in the case of The Giver, standing up and fighting the authority of the adult world. And that feels threatening to some parents, I think, that a child should take that role and challenge the authority of the adult.

With it coming to film, how long has that been in the works?

The making of the movie of The Giver has been in the works for close to 20 years, although the actual filmmaking process didn’t start until a year ago. But Jeff Bridges bought the rights to the book, I think it was 18 years ago. He intended at first to use it as a movie to star his father in the title role. His father was an actor, of course. And then his father subsequently died and time passed and it was never made, never made. And now, of course, he’s old enough to play the role himself. And he does it very beautifully.

Were you involved at all in the screen adaptation?

I was not. There was nothing in my contract with the filmmakers that gives me any control whatsoever. And so theoretically they could have gone out and made the film without ever being in touch with me. And legally, that would have been okay. However, they showed I think an enormous amount of courtesy toward me and did include me, and sought my advice again and again and again.

In what ways?

In the early days, when they were still casting it, they sent me clips of screen tests for one of the actors to get my opinion. They sent me clips of music when they were hiring a composer. And they brought me to South Africa to be on the set when they were filming. And since that time, I’ve been down in New York to the editing room and I’ve had a private screening, so those are all courtesies that they were not required to extend to me, and I’m very grateful that they have. When they’ve asked my advice, I’ve given them my opinion. And they haven’t always taken it but that’s as it should be. They’re the filmmakers, I’m not. But I’ve enjoyed the process of being able to peek in at what they’re doing.

Was that surreal to you, to see the story playing out and to see the characters with your own eyes in a private screening? What was that like?

Well, I saw a screening of the whole film [in May], but along the way before that, I’d seen it in bits and pieces and I’d seen part of the filming of it. So it wasn’t surprising. It was nice to see it all put together. And no, it wasn’t strange because I’d been part of the process for the past year, and so it was gradual.

And I was well aware that they had had to make some changes. The book is not very visual, there’s not a lot of action. And so I knew from the get-go that they would have to add action, which they have. So there are some things that are different, but the basic elements of the book are there and they’re well handled, I think. And they’ve tried very hard to represent the themes of the original book. I think Bridges himself, from the beginning, it was his kids who had brought the book to him. And he saw it for what it was and for what it meant and he’s tried to maintain that even though they’ve had to make some changes.