Let me preface this up front with saying that I have never read Lois Lowry's The Giver, not even in elementary school where books like this were a standard part of the curriculum. Despite that, I really wanted to like the movie adaptation. I knew it deviated fairly heavily from the original story, of which I was ignorant, and went into it knowing only the summary of the story. Let me repeat again: I really, truly wanted to like it.
And I almost really did.
But in the end, I came away from the movie thinking, "What just happened?"
It was the perfect set-up. A movie based on a beloved children's book which had the whole "teenagers are stripped of their individuality in an oppressive, dystopian society" thing down well before The Hunger Games and Divergent ever existed. An all-star cast that included screen legends like Meryl Streep and Jeff Bridges. And a young cast of up-and-coming it kids, with [Oculus](movie:1198571) and [Maleficent](movie:39352) star Brenton Thwaites in the lead role as Jonas.
But, as [The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones](movie:332173) and [Vampire Academy](movie:609357) have taught us, when the tone of your movie is a muddled mess, it's hard for the coveted YA audience to embrace it, no matter how beloved the source material.
For those unfamiliar with the book, [The Giver](movie:723657) tells the story of teenager Jonas (in the book, he is 12 years old; in the movie adaptation, 18), who lives in a futuristic community under the pacifying yoke of "Sameness," in which emotions like fear, pain, and anger have been eradicated in an effort to prevent tragedies like war, famine, and murder. Unfortunately, so have love, free will, and all the colors of the world.
Jonas is chosen by his community to become The Receiver of Memory, the only one in the entire community entrusted with the memory of the world past, able to see color and experience emotions - or, as one might call it, "reality". He meets daily with The Giver (Jeff Bridges, who tries his damnedest to make the curiously unenthusiastic script mean something), his mentor and teacher.
As you can guess, young Jonas soon decides that the dystopian society in which they live is wrong and must be changed, with the help of The Giver, his sort-of-but-not-really-because-love-doesn't-exist girlfriend, Fiona (a charming Odeya Rush), and best friend, Asher (Cameron Monaghan of the aforementioned ill-fated Vampire Academy movie).
This isn't to say that certain elements of the movie aren't beautiful, and really, you can clearly see what the filmmakers are going for. There are some shots of true artistry, with lots of close-ups that frame objects that appear almost as still photos. The use of color is cleverly executed, with the dystopian society appearing in black-and-white Pleasantville-esque tones, and the memories Jonas experiences coming across in vivid hypercolor. It is also a nice touch when the color starts ever so gradually filtering back into the society as the small seeds Jonas plants in the minds of others start to grow and take hold and his perception of reality expands.
But it was just too much. I found myself yearning for a wide-angle shot and an angle that wasn't canted. The filmmakers made the curious choice to film a large amount of the character moments from an extreme close-up angle, but one that is tilted so that you spend a lot of time looking up at the character's faces. What would have been an extremely effective tactic if used more sparingly instead becomes something that made me uncomfortable and unsettled. Similarly, I'm not entirely sure why some memories Jonas receives came through loud and clear and focused, whereas others were a rush of blurred, jerky color and movement.
To give credit where credit is due, the shots of the community and Elsewhere, the land beyond the borders, are beautifully done. Once Jonas escapes the community and sets out on his own, there are finally some sweeping, panoramic shots your eyeballs can drink up.
Unfortunately, there are also jarring moments of badly-rendered CGI that take you completely out of the movie. The best CGI feels like a natural extension of the movie - or just feels natural, period. This does not, and the clunkiness of it had the effect of pushing me out of the story rather than pulling me into it. It was telling that at moments that were clearly not meant to be funny, I could hear some snickers from the journalists sitting around me.
Character-wise, Thwaites is engaging as Jonas - at least, as engaging as a character can be when you're not given much connection to him. As an audience surrogate, Jonas isn't quite up to the task, but Thwaites certainly does as much as he can with what he has to work with. Alexander Skarsgard, in the role of Jonas' father, also shows glimpses of being a far more interesting character than he is fully allowed to be, compelling in the role of a Nurturer who has small moments of rebellion against the rigidity of Sameness. And Rush brings an earnest level of innocence to the role of Fiona. Katie Holmes, however, in the role of Jonas' mom, feels a bit like an unnecessary character. Meryl Streep, sad to say, is completely wasted. Instead of being complex and dynamic, she is reduced to the two-dimensional role of the Chief Elder, a character that will immediately draw comparisons to Presidents Alma Coin and Snow, Dolores Umbridge, and other rigid, fanatical autocrats from fiction.
Overall, it was hard to connect with any of the characters in a way deep and meaningful enough for you to truly care what happens to them. The Giver is the shining counterargument to the people angry with Peter Jackson for adding far more into The Hobbit films than ever was in the book. Sometimes, short novels should not be made into films for a reason - not without some extensive additions, in any case.
Jeff Bridges is by far the best thing about the movie, with his patented blend of gruff, cantankerous compassion serving him well in the role of the tired, heavy-hearted Giver. You connect with his desperation and his sadness, and he makes you feel the burden of his solitude.
Yet neither Bridges' prodigious talents or Thwaites' fresh-faced earnestness is enough to save this movie. It's a film that suffers from the "made too late" curse - the source material coming well before other movies to which it shares heavy similarities, which will inevitably draw misinformed accusations of copycatting. It has the feel of a movie that really, really wants to be something, and perhaps at a different time, or in slightly different hands, it might have been. I really appreciated what the filmmakers were trying to do, but in the end, it feels like a movie that can't quite figure out if it is an indie arthouse flick or a straightforward YA blockbuster.
Would I recommend seeing it? Yes, if you're a fan of the book, if only to compare it. And it's worth watching for the sake of appreciating what the film was trying to accomplish in and of itself.
But next time, please leave the Dutch angles at home.
[The Giver](movie:723657) opens tomorrow in theaters everywhere.