‘The Giver:’ Freedom’s Just Another Word for People to Act Like Fools

If Buzzfeed ever puts out the list “17 Signs You’re a Fascist!” the No. 1 bulleted item should be: “I saw The Giver, and am not sure who the bad guy is.”

From a 1993 Newbery Medal-winning novel of the same name by Lois Lowry comes what is certainly the oddest sci-fi movie you’re likely to see this year. Directed by Phillip Noyce from a screenplay by Robert B. Weide and Pittsburgh native Michael Mitnick, The Giver takes place in a dystopian future where human happiness hangs on the shoulders of one young man.

But is it dystopian? That’s the issue I’m struggling with since seeing the flick.

Here’s the set-up: Way high up in the clouds, on top of what we assume is a mountain, is a place called The Community. It is peopled by folks left over from what we are told was The Ruin. It seems that humanity pretty much did itself in, and these people are all that’s left.

The Community has been planned down to the absolute smallest detail, not just the physical space but the way people are born, live, and die. This place is so incredibly regulated it makes those suburban subdivisions look like Woodstock.

It’s all very 70’s cube architecture with excessively manicured lawns and Swedish airport furniture. Everything’s the same, ruthlessly the same, and thanks to selective breeding and a daily injection of mood stabilizers, people look and act as similarly as science can make possible.

So ya got polite people in a pretty landscape where everyone’s happy all the time, and life is a warm, comfortable hug. Doesn’t that sound so awful?

According to The Giver, it’s perfectly dreadful. And we know this because it’s filmed in black and white—like Kansas in The Wizard of Oz—so it must be a horrible place. But think about it: Would you rather live in an Ansell Adams photograph or a painting by Francis Bacon?

Not everyone, however, sees only black and white. Color has begun to creep into the vision of a young man named Jonas. One day, while looking at his childhood friend, Fiona, her hair seems to turn from its normal gray to red. Never having seen color before, Jonas doesn’t know what is happening. And right then we know that something special is in the cards for Jonas.

Career Choices

In The Community, on the eve of your 18th birthday, The Elders decide what your career is to be. Is that another bad thing? Think about the 18 year olds you know and the career decisions they’re making: Acoustic musician? Barista? Fine arts major? The wisdom of allowing cooler heads to pick cannot be overstated.

Jonas is selected for a special honor; he is to become The Community’s new Receiver. As it turns out, along with color and love and free will and Victorian architecture, The Community has sacrificed memory. Nobody remembers the past … except for one person, who holds memories of all times in his head. Previously the Receiver had been Jeff Bridges, but he’s an old man now and will pass on his memories to Jonas.

If The Giver has been merely mildly loopy to this point, here’s where it leaves the planet entirely.

In a world without memory, no one knows of pain or war or brightly colored dirndls. They also don’t remember that people die. It’s not clearly explained how or why, which is confusing, and since the memory of death figures so heavily later in the plot, it renders much of the ending incomprehensible.

Learning the cruelty people can visit on other people (which never happens in The Community) can—as it has in the past—destroy a newbie Receiver. Can Jonas, as Jack Nicholson would say, handle the truth?

He can, but it changes him. As the Receiver, he sees everything in living color and decides that the happy people who don’t know misery must regain their collective memory to be legitimately happy.

I didn’t follow that either.

Listen, I lived through the fashions of the 70’s, the politics of the 80’s, the avarice of the 90’s …. and Justin Bieber.  Anyone who feels they don’t have enough memories is more than welcome to most of mine.

Chief Elder Streep

Jonas, Jeff, and various compatriots plot rebellion, which brings Meryl Streep playing the Chief Elder into the picture to put a stop to all the nonsense.

Meryl Streep? Yeah, it surprised me, too. She does spend most of the movie as a hologram; she’s such a huge star these days, you can’t really expect all of her to be there all the time.

Meryl has the smarts to realize that if Jonas and his plan succeeds, The Community is doomed. Give people a choice, Meryl says, and they always make the wrong one.

Amen to that sister! I mean, fight a Revolutionary War so people can have Freedom of Speech and what do they do? Invent reality television. Give people Freedom of Expression and what happens: Kim Kardashian.

Anyway, Elder Meryl’s a hoot with her ice-cold civility and working a long, straight gray wig like Peggy Lipton from “The Mod Squad” as a septuagenarian. One of the downsides to The Community is that they kill people who don’t conform, even though no one admits doing this: Elder Meryl is quite chilling ordering executions with a smiling concern on her face that barely hides the fangs behind the smile.

Jeff Bridges, who also serves as one of the film’s producers, is starting to look and sound like Wilfred Brimley, and his character is saddled by an odd backstory that the film’s writers haven’t fully fleshed out. How he got to where he is seems arbitrary and at odds with the central ethos of the film. There’s three kids playing the young heroes, and while they’re as adorable as a box of kittens, I don’t think I could have picked them out of police line-up 30 minutes after leaving the theater.

I do want to mention Marco Beltrami’s very evocative score and Ed Verreaux’s pitch-perfect production design. It’s my understanding that Bridges worked 20 years to bring this novel to the screen; I’ve always been a big fan, so I’m happy he achieved his dream. Why he bothered, unfortunately, is a question that never gets answered. The only thing I left the theater knowing for sure is that, deep down, I’m a fascist.

Ted Hoover is a Pittsburgh-based writer and critic.