It’s hard to pin down just what went wrong in the process of adapting Lois Lowry’s 1993 bestseller, “The Giver,” the science fiction novel that arguably spawned the young adult literary boom that led to culture-defining hits like “Twilight” and “The Hunger Games.”
Perhaps it was the casting of up-and-coming star Brenton Thwaites in the role of Jonas, who almost literally describes himself in the film’s opening voiceover as the only special boy in the film’s world. Unlike everyone else in the collectivist utopia in which he resides, he is the only one with the capacity for creative thinking, a trait bestowed upon him at birth and made evident by the ashy birthmark on his hand.
While Thwaites is a perfectly capable actor and sure to rustle the jimmies of tween girls the world over, there is a problem when his character’s two best friends, played by the very likable Odeya Rush and Cameron Monaghan, are more expressive despite giving performances that are deliberately lacking emotion.
Alternatively, it could be that the plot simply does not translate very well to the screen. With Lowry’s involvement and the direction of accomplished filmmaker Phillip Noyce (“Salt,” “Rabbit-Proof Fence”), it is not easy to dismiss this adaptation as careless and slapdash. However, changes and omissions leave glaring plot holes and inconsistencies that are easily recognizable whether one is familiar with the original material or not.
This is even more distracting as the film’s themes beg viewers to question everything and to not take their ability to pay attention to detail for granted. Unlike the book upon which the movie is based, “The Giver” simply unravels as soon as the finer details of its premise are scrutinized.
It does not help that the film barely works on an emotional level. The film rests most of its emotional heft onto its more accomplished actors, namely Oscar winners Meryl Streep and Jeff Bridges, as well as “True Blood” alum Alexander Skarsgard. In what can only be described as an absurd waste of talent, Streep’s role as the closest thing the film has to an antagonist is given so little to do that you might wonder if this is her first genuinely phoned-in role.
Bridges, who is given top billing for his supporting role and also serves as a producer on the film, is the emotional core. His role is enhanced from the novel, giving Bridges an arc that allows him to be captivating whenever he appears on screen. His personal conflict is undercut by the transparent stunt casting of musical wunderkind Taylor Swift as his daughter who, despite her best efforts, deflates every scene she is in with her hysterical high school theater overacting.
Even after all this, the most egregious element of the film is its manic misunderstanding of tone, both visually and thematically. The monochromatic and color cinematography are very pretty, but the film uses this conceit with wanton abandon, gutting it of any emotional payoff.
In fact, every time “The Giver” attempts to pull the viewer into feeling a certain way, it ends up proving to be tone deaf. When depicting the spectrum of human memory and emotion through the use of blurry, MTV-style montage, the lack of harmony between image and sound creates a numbing feeling that differs from the outpour of joy or disgust from the characters. When a character literally murders an infant with gleeful charm, the dissonance does not come off as unsettling and creepy. It just seems gleeful and charming.
It is a shame that “The Giver” truly does not work as a movie. At least, not in this form. Unlike many of the smash-hit films based on stories “The Giver” inspired, this is a story worthy of thoughtful consideration. Instead, this is the kind of movie where a studio-mandated romance occurs between a hormonal boy and a girl mentally incapable of understanding romance, let alone the meaning of the physical kiss he suddenly plants on her.
That is the all-encompassing problem here. Above all else, “The Giver” is a grossly misguided movie.
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