'The Giver' Review: The Dude Officially Abides Paycheck Roles

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'The Giver' Review: The Dude Officially Abides Paycheck Roles

By Dustin Rowles | Film Reviews | August 15, 2014 | Comments ()


In the universe of The Giver, everyone is injected with a shot each morning to ensure that no one experiences emotions. Everyone sees in only black and white. They have never heard music. They have never even heard of the concept of music. They have never experienced love. They have never kissed. Collectively, they also have no memory of a time before they existed. They don’t even understand death. People are simply “released.”

The citizenry lives bland, joyless existences with family units chosen for them, and when they turn 18 they are assigned one of a handful of occupations.

The only person allowed to have emotions is the Giver (Jeff Bridges), who stores all the memories of the world before their universe in his mind, which he passes along to his protege, Jonas (Brenton Thwaites). Jonas struggles with these “memories” because he doesn’t understand why his world would reject things like joy, and happiness, and love. And then, of course, he is given memories of war, and starvation, and loss, and he flips the f**k out.

But the idea behind this dystopia — as enunciated by the Chief Elder (Meryl Streep) — is that love, and faith, and all of those other things, are not worth it if it also means loss, and war, and those things. So, this dystopia has simply done away with it all, until Jonas decides to do something. In this world, if someone travels scores and scores of miles outside of the city and leaves the “memory boundary,” then memory is returned to everyone.

You can see where this is headed, I’m sure.

The themes are heavy-handed, but not uninteresting to a teenager who thinks, say, that Katy Perry lyrics are profound (and I say this as a teenager who thought “Something to Believe In” by Poison was the most profound song ever). Given the target audience, and the fact that The Giver is based on yet another dystopian YA novel, I’m willing to forgive that cloying, hamfistedness of it all, though I will note that there are plenty of movies, like Dead Poets Society or Pump up the Volume, that express similar non-conformist themes to teenagers in more subtle, intelligent, and entertaining ways.

The bigger problem with The Giver is that — like Divergent — the concepts are nonsensical, the sci-fi is lazy, and the dystopian civilization is incredibly generic. It’s a very dull movie, and it’s not helped by the fact that most of the characters are essentially living zombies. I did, however, appreciate that Katie Holmes plays a mother who gives her freedom of thought away to what is essentially a religious cult. Likewise, the genetically perfect (Aryan-esque) Alexander Skarsgård is suitable to his small part as a man who “releases” babies. Taylor Swift — in a very small role — does not embarrass herself, either (not is she given much opportunity to do so). Jeff Bridges and Meryl Streep could play their parts in their sleep, and for all I know, that’s exactly what they did here.

Ultimately, the point of The Giver is to demonstrate that war, and loss, and suffering are all worth the price of love, and discovery, and sleds and snow and babies crying, and in making that point, the film even manages to eke out a decent 30-second studio-manufactured epiphany montage in the film’s climax. It’s not worth the price of admission, however, because honestly, this free, four-minute and 30 second video of a goofy guy dancing illustrates the same point about our capacity for love, the largeness of the world, and our appetite for life far better than a nearly two-hour dystopian film.

That video never gets old, guys.

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • Dear Everyone Saddened by How Bad This Movie Was-

    They actually DID make this movie decades ago , and it was great. It's called Pleasantville, and I recommend it as a palate cleanser.

    Girl Who Loved This Book

  • duckandcover


  • denesteak

    omg. mind blown.

  • duckandcover

    "Given the target audience, and the fact that The Giver is based on yet another dystopian YA novel"

    Don't dismiss the novelization so exasperatedly just because there's been a rampant outbreak of the genre in the last five or so years. That'd be similar to making a comment like "Ugh, you know that The Lord of the Flies? Yeah. Another dystopian YA novel. I know right."

    The Giver is a Newbery Medal-winning must-read for all children. I kind of wish this review had a parallel of the book to the movie. I knew the movie would be pretty terrible, but it'd be nice to see how it holds up to the book in terms of scenes translating, etc.

  • annie

    It wasn't a total travesty? After all the other YA dystopian novels already made into films, it was fine. I loved the book as a kid and didn't totally hate this. The epiphany montage wasn't totally studio-manufactured, though! This video of a little girl experience rain for the first time and loving it was definitely included. That moment of sincerity was one of the few moments of the movie that actually affected me on any level.

  • Alicia

    This was a home video that was circulating for quite some time - did they actually use it in the movie?

  • annie

    Yes! It was one of my favorites, so I recognized it instantly. They used it during the big montage of memories flooding the people in the community. I'm sure there were tons of other clips sourced from the internet for that, too.

  • BobbFrapples

    I love those Where the Hell is Matt videos.

  • Alicia

    If only this were a paycheck role. Apparently, though, it was his pet project, as far as I've heard.

  • Long_Pig_Tailor

    It's depressing for someone to be so dedicated to a pet project and simultaneously completely miss the point of the story. Which is what I have to assume happened, because Hunger Games-ing it up for funding isn't something you do if you understand and care about the material.

  • Dulce et Banana

    I wonder if they overcame the "no one experiences emotions" problem that turned Equilibrium into a hot mess. If you can't experience emotion, jealousy and suspicion are off the table, which is OK because you're probably drooling on the table anyway.

  • Orleanas

    The Giver by Lois Lowry is easily one of my favorite books--and I read it for the first time a few years ago. I daresay it should be a must-read (in elementary or middle school) and rated highly as a modern classic.

    Having said that, it was with quite some disappointment that I saw the trailer of this film, because it made me have ZERO interest in seeing it. There was no tension and no hint of the greatness of the story. The trailer my student created for the book was more captivating than the movie trailer.

  • Ryan Ambrose

    Entertaining review, Dustin.

    I just hope the if-you-had-read-the-book-you'd-have-understood-this-movie brigade doesn't show up, because if there's one form of nitpicky criticism that tends to derail any insightful analysis, it's the notion that reading supplementary material should be a requirement in order to understand or even enjoy an adaptation of the original novel.

    That said, I should probably add The Giver to my backlog as soon as I finish my John le Carré read-a-thon.

  • Rebecca Hachmyer

    I think most people, myself included, are coming to the book's defense because we are encouraging Dustin (and everyone else) to read it, or to not judge the book's merit by the movie's poor quality, not because reading it adds any redeeming value to what was clearly a crap film. It was the "yet another dystopian YA novel" slander that raised my hackles.

  • Serpentlord

    This isn't like Twilight or the Hunger Games sequels which were based off crap to begin with. Reading the book here'd just make the reviewer hate the movie more.

    Shit adaptations are shit independent of people's knowledge.

  • Rebecca Hachmyer

    The Giver is not "yet another YA dystopia." It was one of THE ORIGINAL great middle grade dystopias. In the companion novels Lowry veers increasingly into the realm of fantasy (though Son offers a fascinating counter narrative and I suppose the transmission of memory in The Giver isn't easily explained but somehow Lowry pulls it off) but The Giver is a quiet, provocative work of science fiction in the vein of A Wrinkle in Time and The White Mountains. The thinking (wo)man's dystopias, if you will.

    The book draws in readers not through high stakes melodrama but because everything does at first seem utterly UTOPIAN. Peaceful, community oriented, environmentally aware, with an aim to identify and foster each person's particular passions and interests. (SPOILER) No injections to abolish all emotion. The people in the society feel happiness, sadness, apprehension. Instead, there are pills that are administered when you hit puberty so that you don't feel sexual arousal that might disrupt the assignment of partners. This is the first inkling that something is not quite right, but to the middle grade reader dealing with hormones, first loves, first heartbreak it might not sound half bad! Then Lowry carefully unfolds an alternative perspective by placing the reader on Jonas's shoulder as he navigates a complex buildungsroman.

    Of course they fucked up the movie. They almost always do.

  • duckandcover

    You said what I said, but gooder.

  • Wigamer

    I teach this to 11-12 year olds and the pills to eliminate the "stirrings" (ha!) and the explanation of the birth mother situation is tricky depending on how aware they are of the birds and the bees. It's fun, but a tightrope to walk with the parents sometimes. The part that ALWAYS freaks them out is Jonas bathing the old woman. They cannot wrap their minds around that.

  • Serpentlord

    I'll contest that. Most of the things that needed to be in The Giver movie were already in No Country for Old Men. Both movies also had comparable budgets, and No Country's material didn't at all prevent it from making a ton of money and winning a bunch of awards.

    This is entirely the fault of the director and producers. This was far from a guaranteed failure, this was active incompetence.

  • Rebecca Hachmyer

    Okay, I'll qualify my statement. Of course they fucked up the movie adaptation of an award-winning work of fiction categorized as children's literature. They almost always do.

  • denesteak

    Dustin, have you never read The Giver? I read it as a pre-teen and it's one of my favorite YA books... so I don't know whether to be insulted or amused by what you say. (It's also literally the only gift my father has ever given me that I have legitimately loved.)

    But maybe you're right. I wasn't that knowledgeable about the dystopia genre, so yea, maybe my mind was blown because of that. Lois Lowry wrote it using very simple language and grounded it in very present, recognizable, almost boring settings. The genius of it is that you're lulled into this false sense of security that it's a typical coming-of-age story -- "Oh, this is a story about a young boy who's afraid to grow up" -- and then it does a bait-switch, and you realize that it's really about a crazy society. So, just like the characters in the book, I didn't realize I was being "tricked" until a little later.

    I think this might be a book that benefits from NOT being visually presented. The thing with the color, for example, was another thing that blew my mind. I mean, you take away the science of it ("How do they get pigments out of EVERYTHING???") and just focus on trying to wrap your mind around the WHY, and it can take your mind down a strange path. Also, color (and shape and feeling and sense) is so focal to every thing that comes to mind -- what I mean is that right now, as I try to picture an apple, I cannot picture it without a color -- so once you realize how that detail is not even a part of your daily consideration, it made me see quite how far gone this society was, and I was impressed by the fact that I didn't see it from the very beginning.

    You should read the book. The movie sounds like shit.

  • Idle Primate

    i've heard the book is more nuanced. i don't know why so many of these youth franchises are so abyssmal, but they really are. the hunger games films are no different. Again, i haven't read the books--maybe there is a vibrant book culture being flattened by the hollywood bean counters. or maybe we are feeding our children crap. i dinna know.

  • Wigamer

    The Hunger Games trilogy really isn't terrible. It's no Harry Potter, but it's pretty solid. I'd sure rather girls read that series than friggin' Twilight.

  • Vangie13

    When I'm having a bad day, "Where the Hell is Matt?" makes me feel better. Sometimes it makes me cry. Not sad tears, but relieved ones.

  • kbenton

    I haven't seen the film yet, but one of the things that's disturbed me from the first is that The Giver (the book) is really more MG than YA… teenagers are already a bit too savvy of subtlety (and perhaps were even less so 2+ decades ago when the book was new and there was no Hunger Games, or any of the other similar, but descendent, works).

    Whatever the errors of execution, perhaps the biggest error they made was in conception, targeting the Hunger Games set, when they ought to have been targeting their younger siblings. Or maybe, alas, the ship sailed.

    As an adult, looking back, The Giver ends a bit too abruptly, and doesn't satisfy as there isn't any real *resolution*, but as a parable for 10-12 year olds, to examine the limits of acceptance of authority and the complexity of things like Right and Proper and Good… yes, that's what it ought to be. If the movie isn't that, well, I can say it's failed without watching it at all.

    & P.S. b/c I'm old, hells yeah to Pump Up The Volume. Talk Hard.

  • e jerry powell

    Are there any teenagers out there into anything but dystopian vampires? In my junior high and high school lit classes, we were all about The Chosen and A Separate Peace. I'll grant that we did read Fahrenheit 451 and Alas, Babylon, but it seems what the kids are assigned these days...

  • duckandcover

    I was assigned A Separate Peace in high school circa 2002. I was all about Myers' Fallen Angels, though, circa 2001.

  • Wigamer

    Trust me, high school English classes are still Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Shakespeare, Orwell, etc. Most of the dystopian fans are junior high kids, and honestly I'm just happy they'll read, period.

  • denesteak

    I was always a reader as a kid to high school (I actually read less as an adult because I just don't have the time and mental capacity since I consume so much news on a daily basis) and I just don't understand it when people say kids don't read. It makes me sad. How can one not read as a teen? That's like the best time to read -- you have SO MUCH MATERIAL. and you're discovering so much... just mind-blowing.


  • e jerry powell
    I'm just happy they'll read, period.

    There is that, certainly.

  • Idle Primate

    that's the kind of sentiment that Ayn Rand relied on.

  • e jerry powell

    Joe Manganiello reads Ayn Rand. That makes me sad.

    At least I could use his tits to stand a book on. Just nothing Rand.

  • So it's like that little-known Christian Bale movie Equilibrium? Only without that movie's action and gun fights and Bale kicking ass?


  • Idle Primate

    it's also like that little known flic, THX-1138. oh and some passing similarities with the sadly neglected 1984. what's with dystopia and being unable to make words for titles? Good thing we will never be reduced to memes, iconography and condensed netspeak, I'd be afraid our world was descending into a dystopia.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    I think the whole thing with dystopia and being unable to make words for titles has to do with the idea that individuals become bits rather than unique beings. You can go back to the book We or the movie Metropolis for that.

  • Megan C Hammond

    The book is actually the first of a quadrilogy. The final book ('Son') was published a year or two ago (20 years after the original). I'm mentioning this because I had no idea there was more to the story until the advanced reader copy of 'Son' showed up on my desk (I'm a librarian). The following books give more insight into the rest of the universe, but 'The Giver' remains one of my top 5 favorite books of all time. I'm disappointed the movie sucks, but I'm going to see it anyway.

  • solafidex

    The Giver is one of my favorite books too. The first time I read it was as an undergrad - I was profoundly moved by Lowry's writing, especially her ending. The Giver is easily one of the best American science fiction/fantasy every written.

  • denesteak

    I know! I found out there was a second and third book only just last year and I was, seriously, floored. Like, WHY DIDN'T I KNOW THIS BEFORE???? I still haven't read it yet, because I'm sort of married to The Giver's open-ended ending -- I've only held that with me for like almost 20 years.

  • Wigamer

    Son is a directly tied to The Giver, but the other books are more companion books rather than prequels/sequels. They don't really expand on The Giver's plot.

  • Wigamer

    I just got Son last week!

  • Serpentlord

    I still can't believe how much Jeff Bridges fucked up the Giver. It was a bad enough sign when he stupidly aged the characters up by a decade and thus killed the whole point of the book, but even by that standard, he fucked things up.

    The original book had no romance subplot. It's completely incompatible with a soundtrack until the very end of the story. No solution was ever offered for the problem. There were no clear cut good guys or bad guys. And the ending was ambiguous. In other words, the closest thing there is to a film version of the giver was the No Country for Old Men adaptation. That movie also had the same budget as this turd, and they didn't need to turn the damn thing into Hunger Games to get it made.

    Why couldn't you've called the Coen Brothers to be your co-producers, Jeff Bridges? You were the Dude? Now the Giver's been fucked because you just had to bait some of that sweet YA money.

    It's fine for any actor to star in shit: but when you're the producer like Adam Sandler, you don't get the benefit of the doubt.

  • Lennon Simpson

    At least Equilibrium had gun fights and Taye Diggs.

  • Idle Primate

    man, Equilibrium was not just dumb, but committed the worst sin--it was dull as dirt.

  • Claus

    Aw, I liked Equilibrium. Despite it being dumb I didn't find it boring. That said, I'm with Lennon Simpson, this review definitely sounds like Equilibrium without the redeeming bits.

  • Serpentlord

    Gun fights? In the Giver? Please don't give these people any ideas lest the stupidity of this film sends a hole in the fabric of spacetime and they get the chance to attempt and make it shittier.

  • George

    Kinda weird that this review implies that this storyline is a generic rehash. The Giver is the original YA dystopian novel.

  • Wigamer

    Yeah, but everyone unfamiliar with the book is gonna think the same thing. The Hunger Games and Divergent (and many others) owe a lot to Lois Lowry, but the time for the movie version of The Giver had probably long passed by the time they decided to jump on the dystopian movie train.

  • Ryan Ambrose

    I'd have taken a third-act giant mechanical spider, had this trainwreck of an adaptation been made in the late '90s and produced by John Peters, over this focus-grouped take on what appears to be a nuanced and smartly written novel.

    If anything, I now just want to go the nearest bookstore and read the original book since everyone has been recommending it.

  • George

    Very true. They should have done the film version years ago.

  • Serpentlord

    This film'd be appropriate for any era if done right. A film done wrong'll always be out of place, even released on time.

  • denesteak

    that could really be said about a lot!!! I think movie executives should just start rejecting shit by saying, "Not of this time -- not now, not ever!!!!" One can dream.

  • Wigamer

    I'm a JH English teacher & we usually teach The Giver in sixth grade. It's not a terrible entry into dystopian fiction for the 11-12 year-old set. Sparks a lot of interesting discussion, because no one feels more oppressed than 11 year-old girls. It was also written waaay before Divergent and The Hunger Games.

    That said, the movie looks like a piece of shit.

  • pajiba

    Oh, and I just looked up the Wiki entry, and it says that it was about a utopian society that gradually appears more and more dystopian. That would've been more interesting, too, but I never really got the sense that it was anything other than a dystopia from the outset (though perhaps I have been conditioned by The Hunger Games and Divergent).

  • Serpentlord

    The original book couldn't be more different from the movie. It has no clear cut good guys or bad guys, no romance, no solution to the problem, an ambiguous ending, and no soundtrack.

    In other words, they should've aimed for No Country for Old Men, not Hunger Games. If I'm not mistaken, No Country was a huge commercial and critical success without the assistance of One Republic and Taylor Swift.

    There was no reason for this movie to go in this direction other than stupidity on the part of the producers and director.

  • Ruthie O

    One of the biggest changes seems to be the age shift; the kids are eleven when they embark on the careers, intensifying Jonas's realizations about his society by coupling it with his coming of age. The innocence of an eleven year old makes the transfer of dark memories so much more intense. Once I realized that Jonas was basically an adult in the movie from the trailers, I vowed to not see the film.

  • Wigamer

    The book doesn't spend a lot of time on how the community evolved, which is one of its weakest points, actually. It's a blast to teach because we do a lot of research on real-life utopian societies, then the kids create their own utopias. I enjoy it.

    After we read it last year, I showed the trailer to my kids and every one thought it looked like a Hunger Games rip-off designed just to make money. This age group got screwed with the movie adaptations of The Lightning Thief series as well.

  • Lizzie Long

    Oh, the Percy Jackson movies are so bad! Such a disappointment.

  • Long_Pig_Tailor

    So wait, does that mean the books are good? Going off the movies, I've never felt much urge to check out the books.

  • Wigamer

    They're definitely YA-aimed at an upper elementary demographic, so I'm not sure of their wider appeal. They are amazing as a painless introduction to Greek mythology for kids, though.

  • pajiba

    That's interesting, because I really did feel like the themes would've been fun to explore in junior high, and that the book probably would've blown my mind. I don't think most of what it's trying to demonstrate translated well onto screen, or Phillip Noyce simply doesn't understand how to translate it.

  • Ruthie O

    The book is short and a quick read, and one of those stories that is smart and nuanced enough for adults to dig. I recently re-read it when teaching it in a college class, and my (adult) students and I both loved it. Definitely worth picking it up for a lazy afternoon.

  • Serpentlord

    A guy who's main experience with adapting literary works was done for Tom Clancy movies is just about the worst choice a film like this could've had. It's like picking Michael Bay to adapt Saving Private Ryan.

    Well, that and the other eight million things they did to fuck this movie. I love Jeff Bridges, but I'm so pissed at him for ruining this movie.

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