In an age when film rights to young adult novels—particularly those centered around strong-willed children in a bleak dystopia—are optioned before a book ever even hits a shelf, it’s astounding that what is one of the most important, most popular, most cherished works of that kind from the past three decades took almost 20 years to hit the screen.
But maybe that’s because adapting The Giver into a film was always a fool’s errand.
In the course of two decades, Lois Lowry’s 1994 Newberry Medal-winning novel has sold nearly 12 million copies and become a classroom staple, the rare book that almost every American student was forced to read at a point in their lives and actually enjoyed reading.
It’s hard, too, not to see the work as a precursor to The Hunger Games or Divergent, among the countless young adult novels of that ilk. But it is the biggest difference between those modern books-turned-blockbusters that is likely the culprit for stalling its journey to screen for so long. Fittingly enough, that difference may also be the element that makes The Giver such a seminal, meaningful work of literature, whereas Veronica Roth and Suzanne Collins’ efforts are so often dismissed as pure pop: The Giver has no action.
In The Hunger Games franchise, children first battle to the death against each other, and then against the government. In the Divergent series, factions are at war with each other. The Giver is, oversimplified to a simple nut, about a boy who remembers things. In a brand new foreword to her novel that is being re-released with branding ties to the movie, Lowry discusses this. “‘Introspective, quiet, and short on action’ translates to ‘tough to film,’” she writes.
So in order to make this splashy, star-studded movie that is in theaters this weekend, The Giver’s screenwriters and producers added action. Lots of it. They made a quietly stirring novel into a loud and aggressive movie. The movie is quite good, if you can separate it from the novel. That’s a big “if,” however, and a hurdle that not many fans of Lowry’s words will be able to cross.
Book-to-film adaptations are always a precarious endeavor, and the changes that are made in order to make written words more cinematic are bound to upset those who held the source material dear and are unable to view a film version on its own merits. But we have a sneaking suspicion that the filmmakers behind The Giver, who employed a slew of crucial alterations to the novel’s narrative, underestimated the power and population of those who fall into that category.
So what’s different? First, a quick synopsis for the uninitiated.
At some ambiguous point in the future, Lowry’s novel begins by painting a portrait of a uniform society, one without color of any kind: in its visible palate, in its range of emotions, in its citizens’ ambitions or individuality. Jonas, a 12-year-old boy whose entire life to that point had been streamlined to conformity just like every one of his classmates’, is our book’s hero, though neither he nor we know that when we are first introduced.
A ceremony is held every year in which each age group of community members is assigned more responsibility, the most important group being the 12-year-olds, who learn what their job and function in society will be: teacher, birth mother, recreation director, etc. Jonas is selected for a special job. He will become The Receiver, which means he will, through training with The Giver, inherit every memory, emotion, and color that has been eradicated from the community. That incorporates all of the happiness—beaches, sledding, love—and pain—war, death, loneliness. Suddenly emotional for the first time, Jonas makes decisions (an act also new to him) that affect not just his future, but his entire community’s.
The major point in that plot description is that Jonas is 12 years old. This is important. For one, that is close in age to many of the readers the first time they pick up Lowry’s book, making it easier for them to relate to and empathize with Jonas’ confusing journey into adulthood and decision-making, as they are at the same point in life. But Jonas’ youth also makes every discovery he makes all the more terrifying and, at times, heartbreaking.
He is just a child, and his innocence is broken as he receives the memories of war and death, and becomes aware that there is a capacity for evil in the world. When his anguish over these realities, which have been shielded from the citizens of his community for decades, builds to the point where he sees no other recourse but to change the status quo, Jonas’ age makes the act all the more brave.
In the movie, Jonas is played by 25-year-old Aussie actor Brenton Thwaites. Because Jonas is aged to 16 in the film, Thwaites’ bonafide adult-ness isn’t as egregious as it initially sounds—though the decision to age the character at all certainly may be. We chatted with Thwaites about this choice, and his answer was thoughtful and almost convincing enough to have us believe it was a good idea.
“I always read him as an older kind of a guy on the cusp of finishing school and finding a job,” he said. “In our world, we do that when we’re 17, 18. When we’re finishing high school you go out and find a job or go to college. So the crossroads you find in a teenager that’s about 17 or 18 is the same Jonas is at.”
That is certainly fair. But aging Jonas also has the perhaps unintended effect of making his naiveté seem slightly imbecilic. Jonas is our window into this community where no one ever questions why everyone and everything is the same, and where everyone isn’t just complacent in their flatlined existence, but embraces it. Though none of the characters questions this state of being, it’s easier for us to understand why a 12-year-old never would. When a 16-year-old takes on that wide-eyed, touched-for-the-very-first-time role, it all comes off as a tad more…juvenile. Perhaps even silly.
Your heart bleeds for a 12-year-old who sulks after discovering the cruel realities of humanity. When it’s a 16-year-old, you can’t help but think, “Man up.”
Then, of course, there’s the visual element. Brenton Thwaites is a man. He is a very attractive man with a very nice chiseled jaw and a very pleasant smolder. Did anyone think, when they read The Giver for the first time, that they would ever be sexually attracted to Jonas?
As it turns out, such confusing feelings—“stirrings,” to use Lowry’s terminology—may have been intentional. “You can really enhance the love story,” Thwaites told me, talking about the advantages, cinematically, of an older Jonas. “I think it’s more believable that a young adult would have stronger feelings of love for a woman opposed to a 12-year-old boy, who might have a crush.”
Yes, you may remember that in the book, Jonas does feel “stirrings” for his classmate Fiona. It’s a small portion of the book used to illustrate how the community has managed to manipulate and suppress even natural feelings of attraction through the use of a pill. That anecdote is blown out into a full-blown love story plot in the film. “Romantic” may not be a word anyone would ever have used to describe Lowry’s book, but it’s certainly a major element of the movie. I can’t say that a fleshed out romance between Jonas and Fiona is anything I was ever missing in the book, but it adds something that is, at the very least, extra and interesting (if annoyingly conventional and unnecessary) to the movie.
Also ramped up in the movie is the role of the Chief Elder. In the book, Jonas’ selection as The Receiver is treated as an honor by his community, but then he is essentially left to his own devices and personal self-discovery with his training. Almost from the start, however, Jonas’ training with The Giver in the film is treated as some sort of suspicious activity, with everyone from the Chief Elder down to Jonas’ mother and his friends looking at him and The Giver with a raised eyebrow.
Perhaps to give Meryl Streep, who was cast as Chief Elder, more to do or perhaps to add more blatant strings of dramatic tension to the film, Jonas and The Giver are treated as if their work is nefarious, like they’re up to something, for most of the film. So while their decision to actually defy the order of the community in the narrative’s climax comes as a very moving, noble surprise in the book, you’re hardly startled by it at all in the movie. Meryl Streep’s incessant meddling tips you off to it from the start.
And it is that climax where the book and the film diverge the most, and which will probably upset the most people.
The changes at first seem slight, but become vastly important by the finale. They start at that ceremony where the 12-year-olds receive their job. In the book, Jonas’ best friend Asher is named recreation director. His crush Fiona is assigned to a caretaker to the elders. The film, however, makes Asher a pilot and Fiona a caretaker to the newborns—seemingly innocuous decisions that become meaningful.
You see, by the end of the first year of training in the book, Jonas and The Giver decide it is time for the community to have their memories back. That society hasn’t been helped, but actually harmed, by eliminating them in the first place. It is explained that, should Jonas leave the community and go to “Elsewhere,” all of the memories he has received—the great ones and the brutal ones—will then be released to the community, no doubt causing mayhem at first as they grapple with the new emotion, but hopefully creating a better society in the end.
Their plan is altered slightly when Jonas learns that a newborn named Gabriel who has been staying with his family under the care of his father, a caretaker of newborns, will be “released.” Just prior to finding out this news, he learns what “released” actually means. The community claims to release its elderly and its malnourished newborns frequently, saying that these citizens are sent to Elsewhere, where they will live out fruitful lives outside of the community. The Giver, in a pivotal moment, tells Jonas that releasing is actually a form of euthanizing. These citizens are being killed, and Gabriel is next.
Enraged, Jonas kidnaps Gabriel and rides his bike outside of the community’s borders, both to rescue the infant and release all of his memories so that the citizens will realize that it is wrong to be killing its weak in the name of conformity and order and end its practice.
The third act of the book, however, turns this sequence into a major action setpiece. Gabriel isn’t simply scooped up and placed on a bike like in the book. He must be kidnapped out of the nurturing center, where he is under Fiona’s care. There is an adrenaline-packed, torturous moment where Jonas must convince Fiona to help him save Gabriel, though she’s confused as to why. And Jonas doesn’t pedal out of the community, he rides a slick jet-like motorcycle, and is chased out by security guards in hot pursuit. His friend, Asher, is sent up in a drone-like airplane to tail him, too, and an air-and-land cat-and-mouse game between former best friends ensues.
Both end in the same vein, with Jonas and Gabriel circling back to the first memory Jonas received from The Giver and sledding to safety at a cute-looking cottage in the real world outside of the community, which they had to trek days of precarious terrain to get to. But the breathlessness you feel as they get there is out of pure emotional and intellectual turmoil in the book, versus explicit, special-effects driven tension in the film.
These are just a few of the differences between the book and the movie versions of The Giver, but they’re important to flag, as they change the entire experience of the narrative. Given that this whole story centers around the crucial idea of “experience” and what it means to all of us, it seems fair enough to obsess over how such things differ in the movie, doesn’t it?
But again, it needs to be said that The Giver isn’t a bad film because of these changes. On the contrary, it’s a solid, engrossing film with great performances. It’s also a film that many people will find difficult to appreciate given the effect that the experience of reading the novel has had on their lives.
“A book is such an individual and private thing,” Lowry writes in her new foreword, musing as to whether the film will be as powerful as her book has been for so many people. But she goes on: “The important thing is that a film doesn’t obliterate a book. The movie is here now. But the book hasn’t gone away. It has simply grown up, grown larger, and begun to glisten in a new way.”
The question is whether we’ll let it.