Saturday, 7 July 2018

WATCHING: THE GIVER (2014)


With adaptations of young adult fiction at its height, the 2014 release of The Giver, 21 years after the release of the book by Lois Lowry, should of been a sure-fire hit. While still making more than twice it's production costs back, the film still feels like an empty interpretation of the book, and even within it's own right it seems at arms length of it's own themes, desperate to ride the teen-sci-fi wave. While still an enjoyable watch, this overall prosaic interpretation hinders what truly could be a fable for our times.

Set in a world that has forsaken history for "Sameness", therefore eliminating conflict, young Jonas is charged at the annual Ceremony of Twelve to become the new Receiver of Memory, a kind of societal carrier of burdens. He is allowed to break the rules, lie, read books, all the things everyone in his community can't even dream of doing - even see in colour! - but he isn't allowed to tell anyone about the history he sees, of which The Giver, the current Receiver of Memory, transfers over to him. Unable to fully understand love, war, or even snow, Jonas struggles with Sameness, but with the help of The Giver, he decides to give back to his community the chance to feel again, to experience again both the good and the bad things that make life complete.


Obviously, the film is different. The characters are aged up from 12 to 16, allowing for more chances of overt romance and the odd punch to happen. Jonas' shock, contemplation and growing defiance is replaced with open rule breaking and drama placed between love-interest Fiona and the villainous Chief Elder, both of who's role are significantly expanded for the film. While there is nothing overtly wrong with these changes (I suppose you would want to make a film exciting), it looses something of the essence of the book.

Watching The Giver, I couldn't help but be haunted by a different version of the film in my head, a version of the film that doesn't even exist. The books message may be simplistic, but it's a message that we should heed more than ever in our current age of alternative facts and fake news. The Giver presents a society fundamentally rotten and vacant because they deny themselves history, and when you deny yourself history, you deny yourself a chance to learn, to grieve, and to be inspired. I found myself riled up and fascinated by this story, but this particular adaptation fell short of the potential it could of reached.



For me, The Giver would make much more sense as an animated feature. To quote Roger Ebert in discussion about the works of Studio Ghibli, "[animation] releases the imagination so fully that it can enhance any story, and it can show sights that cannot possibly exist in the real world." In his review of Isao Takahata's Grave of the Fireflies, another film that deals heavily with grief, Ebert says "freed from the literal fact of real actors, we can more easily merge the characters with our own associations." With The Giver, we are meant to wonder how a child could ever exist without the explicit love of his parents, how the instinctive desire to protect a helpless baby could be wrong, but it is hard to do that when you're watching 25 year old Brenton Thwaites depict a 16 year old speaking the words of a 12 year old boy. Recognisable actors and bland stock footage only exacerbate distance between the story and the things I'm seeing on screen.

Animation belongs to the realm of the symbolic, and when things are symbolic, they are more easily understood and malleable. Jonas' community doesn't just become a sterile futuristic concept village, but an uncanny speculative 1984 for children. The transition from black and white to colour is not the ruddy cinematography of a self-conscious drama, but a revelatory awe-inspiring step into the sublime more akin to Dorothy traversing into Oz. The memories are not queasy, cutesy and generic, but overwhelming and frightening. An opportunity for children to learn about the importance of history and individuality in a world that increasingly demeans and exploits both was set aside for the flavour of the month.


Of course, this is all easy to say in hindsight. 2014 seems like a different lifetime. The Giver, the book, just strikes me as a meditative antidote to a lot of the overblown, action based children and teenage stories we see nowadays. Jonas does not fight for a girl or for honour, he fights, completely passively, for love as a universal right that everyone deserves. He takes on the care of an abandoned baby because that baby deserves to be cared for. He releases history for everyone because everyone deserves to know truth of which they descend from, whether that truth is comfortable or not.  

The Giver should be a parable for our uncertain times, a way to teach children not to be scared of the things that scare their parents. Realised with imagination, hope and sincerity, it perhaps could still be.

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