“The Giver” possesses all the right ingredients for a young-adult blockbuster success: a beloved and award-winning source novel, an A-list director in Philip Noyce, and talented veteran actors populating the supporting cast (most notably Jeff Bridges and Meryl Streep). It’s also proof that the right ingredients don’t always result in a fulfilling meal.
The problems begin with Michael Mitnick and Robert B. Weide’s screenplay, which mistakenly operates under the premise that the viewer’s belief in the main theme—that social diversity is what gives life its vitality—will keep them invested in the narrative. This is not so, especially given that the pair have reduced all the nuance of Lois Lowry’s book to my one-line description.
What Mitnick and Weide fail to recognize is that characters bring themes to life, not the other way around. Instead of focusing on protagonist Jonas’ personal arc, the screenwriters are consumed with the details of the utopian-society-gone-wrong that he inhabits. It’s a place where, to put an end to all conflict, citizens are provided daily injections that suppress passion, opinion, and the ability to see in color.
But Jonas, made privy to society’s secret uncontrolled past when he is appointed the new Receiver of Memory (effectively the sole historian and record-keeper), soon recognizes the beauty of difference. Thus, the movie’s substance should rest in his character development as he comes to terms with what it really means to be human. Unfortunately, Mitnick and Weide treat Jonas’ transformation as a binary — one moment, he’s a sheep among the herd and the next, he’s an anarchist. Brenton Thwaites’ performance doesn’t lend the character any dimension that isn’t on the page, either; he’s the kind of handsome-but-vacant leading man that young-adult properties have regretfully come to bank on.
But the movie’s issues aren’t limited to the script and the lead performance. Noyce’s visual illustration of what’s special about a “colorful” society is no better, relying on a couple montages constructed entirely from inspirational stock footage of humanity’s past, seemingly straight out of an iPod commercial, to convey what the people of the Giververse have been missing out on. His overall direction is similarly uninspired, beholden to the same kind of dystopian aesthetic as other recent young-adult properties like “The Hunger Games,” “Ender’s Game,” and “Divergent,” with the mostly black-and-white cinematography standing as its sole distinguishing element. The sheer mediocrity of execution is enough to make one question where the part of director that made “The Quiet American,” “Rabbit-Proof Fence,” and even serviceably slick action blockbusters like “Patriot Games” and “Salt” was paralyzed during production.
All this goes without mention of the air-headed changes that have been made to the source material to make it more palatable to mass audiences. Most notably, Jonas has a full-fledged romance with Fiona (they’re 16 in the movie rather than 12) and a crucial “uplifting” development is added to the conclusion. These alterations only compound the film’s larger failings, reminding the viewer of how thoroughly ill-conceived it is.