The recent film adaptation of The Giver (Noyce, 2014) has received a lot of rough reviews, for a variety of reasons, but I would argue that this is a movie worth a second screening. The movie begins with Jonas (Brenton Thwaites), the main character, narrating an opening sequence and introducing us to the colorless (black and white) and orderly world of “the community,” in which he lived, and where there were no differences to divide people. We are introduced to his friends Fiona and Asher, who with him are going to graduate the next day from childhood into the roles given to them by the elders of the community. While Fiona (Odeya Rush) and Asher (Cameron Monaghan), and all the other children are assigned “normal” jobs, Jonas is given the position as the next “Receiver of Memories,” which, he is told, is a high honor.
They begin working the next day, and Jonas goes to see the former Receiver in his house by “the edge” of the community, which is the physical edge of a cliff. From there, the Giver (as the old Receiver of Memories calls himself, now that Jonas is replacing him), who is played by Jeff Bridges, begins Jonas’ training. The Giver explains that it is the Receiver’s job to hold all the memories of the past, so that he or she can advise the elders in making decisions. The Giver’s cynicism and scruffy manner is refreshing against the conformity and “sameness” of the rest of the community. He knows the past as no one else does, and although he doesn’t come right out and say it, he knows that what the community does to erase difference is wrong. The Giver begins Jonas' training, having the young man come to his house daily to receive memories.
The way in which the memories are transmitted is, appropriately, through flashbacks. The first one is of snow falling, sledding, and a log cabin with smoke coming from the chimney. A low Christmas carol coming from the cabin. Despite my description, this is an evocative, visceral scene that exemplifies what it means to tell a story with pictures. Jonas is amazed, and filled with a wide-eyed wonder that persists for much of his time with the Giver, as he is overjoyed to discover color, music, dance, and, most importantly, love. As Jonas begins to see colors in the memories, different colors slowly enter the film, until by the end, it is in full color. Many times, the memories come in beautiful and compelling montages that tell of so much emotion and feeling in such short clips. He asks the Giver why anyone would want to get rid of those things. Then the Giver shows him a memory of poachers killing an elephant for its ivory tusks. He begins to understand greed, and death. And then one day, he goes to the Giver’s house and, finding him on the floor, and he tries to wake him. When he does this, he is brought into a flashback of soldiers fighting in what is presumably the Vietnam war. He learns from this memory fear, pain, sadness, and hatred. He awakens from this and is distraught. The Giver also shows him that the “release” of elders and defective babies is actually the institutionalized killing of them. This hits Jonas very hard, because his father is a “nurturer” of babies, but is also one of the people who releases them.
This is a major turning point in which Jonas starts to take action. He finds out from the Giver that if a receiver of memory passes through the “boundary of memory,” all the memories that the receivers had been holding on to would return to the communities (as would color, love, music, pain, confusion, etc.). He takes Gabe, the baby who his father was about to release, and runs off over “the edge” through wilderness, desert, over mountains, through many perilous trials, and at the end, he succeeds in his mission.
This is a story about love, essentially, and living beyond existence. It has many ideas and themes that are very important to think about in an age when digital existence asks “what is real life?” It is beautiful cinematographically, and it actually does establish the sense-of-world fairly well. It’s a highly symbolic world, which is not without its logical gaps, but a complex world no less. I would take the entire situation with a gracious sense of disbelief (nobody complained in the Lord of the Rings (Jackson, 2003) when the One Ring was destroyed and Sauron exploded and the earth swallowed up the hordes of Mordor, and this is comparable). An expanded edition, or perhaps a remastered edition would be nice to patch up a consistency issue or two, or elaborate on a certain plot point, but overall, The Giver is a movie worth seeing and pondering. Watch, perhaps, in the manner that Jonas watched the memories he received from the Giver—as a child—with the spirit of discovery and wonder.