Review: YA-adaptation ‘The Giver’ is both ridiculous and morally suspect

I hardly know where to start.

So far this year, “Winter's Tale” remains the gold standard for pure unmitigated batshit hubris, and it's the scope of the folly that impresses me most. But if we're ranking films by how dopey they are, then “The Giver” may actually be a contender for some special honors this year.

It is a firm belief of mine that you do not need to read a book in order to review a movie. I've never read Lois Lowry's novel, which is evidently fairly well-liked. Originally published in 1993, the book has been controversial, and it's also been enormously popular. In reading about it tonight, one thing becomes clear: the dumbest idea in this very dumb movie appears to be an invention of the film. We'll get into that later, but first, the broad strokes.

The film opens with a vague title about the end of the world, the birth of the Communities, and something about a border.

Are you loving Hollywood's recent love affair with onscreen dystopias? Good news! “The Giver” will give you plenty of that. They live on what appears to be a very large island in the sky, in identical houses laid out in a sort of high-tech mandala, surrounded above by sky and below by dense clouds. And when the film begins, Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) tells us all about his perfect world that he lives in, built by the elders in the days after the old world ended. Everyone lives in harmony. Everyone lives the same way. Babies are assigned to parents. Everyone gets a daily injection that gives them everything they need. And when you reach a certain age, they pick your job for you and that's what you do. No one lies.

Oh… and the world is black and white.

Again, I haven't read the books (it appears there are four of them altogether), I have no idea how color was used. In the film, the world is in black and white from the very start. And then as Jonas moves closer to his fate, he begins to see colors. And then he begins to see combinations of colors. And then the world itself seems to fill in all around him in color. But for everyone else, the world remains black and white.

Ultimately, the journey Jonas undertakes in the film is to turn the world into color. It's a visual representation of what's actually happening, and here's where I just can't buy into the world or the story because it doesn't make any sense to me. The job that Jonas is chosen for is a very rare position. Jonas is going to get to carry all of the memories for his entire world. Because in addition to taking all of the color out of the world, these daily injections also somehow erased all memory. Except for one person, but that person didn't retain just their memories but, somehow, every memory ever.

The last person to do the job is the one tasked with passing the memories along. If Jonas is to be the Receiver, then it is up to this other person, played by Jeff Bridges, to be The Giver. They start to have sessions where The Giver just randomly causes Jonas to see rivers and snow and Dervishes in the throes of religious ecstasy and games shows and war. I guess if that was the one big buy-in, I could have rolled with the film more easily, but it's not. Instead, the film is asking you to buy a complete restructuring of the world, along with all of these ridiculous rules, and it's all so completely unexplained in terms of mechanics that I just gave up.

How do you steal both color and memory from every single person in a community? And how does driving through a shimmering wall suddenly restore those things to everyone, even though they've all been dutifully taking their daily drugs? I understand that Philip Noyce and the screenwriters wanted a big image for the end of the film, but it's nonsense. It's such a radically nonsensical way to wrap things up that I felt insulted for having given them my two hours. It is insulting instead of uplifting, and it feels like the worst kind of artificial epiphany.

There's so much wrong with this movie. Pity poor Alexander Skarsgard, who gets the cheery task of murdering a baby onscreen, or Katie Holmes, who seems to exist merely to snarl “Precise language!” at her kids, or the great Meryl Streep, playing President Buzzkill or whatever the hell her name is, or Odeya Rush, a lovely young actress saddled with the thankless role of the girl who Jonas loves, even though love doesn't technically exist anymore. Here's how upside down and backwards this whole thing is: I think I can make the case that in their scenes together, Taylor Swift gives a better performance than Jeff Bridges.


Earlier this year, I flipped for “Snowpiercer,” a film that works as pure metaphor, where I don't believe I'm supposed to take anything at literal face value. I buy that world. I buy the big metaphor. I roll with it because the filmmaker makes that possible. Philip Noyce tackles “The Giver” with all the subtle finesse of a grizzly bear trying to make love to a hamster. He's the wrong guy for this kind of a gig, and his tin ear for the material resonates through every terrible choice, every awful scene. There are some actual big ideas bubbling around somewhere below the surface of the film, but it's so ham-handed, so unable to grapple with the full implications of any of those ideas, that it actually becomes offensive. I don't mind if you want to make a morally challenging piece of work, but I do mind when I'm fairly sure you have no idea what you're trying to say. It comes across as sensationalistic instead of carefully observed, and it made me switch from apathy to hate on this film.

Do yourself a favor. Watch “The Hunger Games” and “Pleasantville” back to back, and skip this one. With a glut of similar material already on screens, there's no excuse for something this pedestrian, and it really does make me question the judgment of anyone who thought this worked.

“The Giver” opens in theaters everywhere tomorrow.