IT’S A sweet, sweet irony to have Katie Holmes star as a cold-as-ice mother and Director of Justice in Lois Lowry’s version of an ordered, utopian society. Among the many professions the Elders assign its young here is being a ‘birthmother’. How the ex-Scientologist would have loved turning the knife in!
Irony is otherwise much in need in this tale about an Orwellian world, which the young adults it is meant for are more likely to identify with The Hunger Games or, to be more precise, Divergent. The Giver by Lowry actually predates both the latter bestsellers by more than a decade.
After ‘The Ruin’, there are ‘Communities’, led by ‘Elders’, who supervise every action of the inhabitants through cameras and speakers. In the film, it is also done through holograms wherein Chief Elder (Streep, in creeping grey-black streaked hair) materialises in homes when matters require her personal attention, which is often.
The ‘Rules’ dictate babies who have passed the test of geneticists (a departure from the book again) will be named by Elders and placed within ‘family units’, and will thereon get their new clothes, bicycles and jobs as per set order. The ‘Rules’ also dictate that all children get just a first name, and that adults be known only by what they do, or as ‘Father’ and ‘Mother’.
The idea is to impose ‘Sameness’ in the world, to rule out differences and hence the feelings of hate, envy, jealousy born from it. That translates into a colourless, music-less world. ‘Sameness’ also stretches to the landscape, which translates into no changes in climate, so no snow and, apparently, no Christmas. As it is explained, man has brought this upon himself by his constant wars and his tinkering with the climate, as well as increasing food requirement that can only be met if conditions were conducive to farming.
The situation, so to speak, is ripe for the changing.
That task falls upon the strange shoulders of Thwaites (as Jonas), who hasn’t done anything impressive so far for such a career jump. The Giver is a much-talked-about award-winning book that went from being universally liked to controversial when Americans hyper sensitive about such matters stumbled upon its few scenes of child cruelty.
Jonas is the moral centre as it is he who is chosen to be the new ‘Receiver of Memory’ of his community. As part of that job, he is transferred memories of the past by the old and tortured existing Receiver (a suitably mildly-sozzled and solemnly-robed Bridges). Since Jonas is the new Receiver, the latter now calls himself the Giver. It should be evident though why Lowry went with the title The Giver.
As ‘Receiver of Memory’, Jonas is given memories of the world as it used to be, and he starts questioning the new order. What drives him on most are fears regarding the fate of a weak baby, Gabriel, his family has been ‘nurturing’, and his friend Fiona (Rush), who is about to find out what really happens when people such as Gabriel are ‘released to Elsewhere’.
Adding heft to the otherwise lightweight cast are Bridges as well as Streep, who gets in substantial screen presence thanks to fleshing out of the Chief Elder’s part from the book, as a worried if spooky mother hen. The other adults in contrast are quite emotion-less beings, not the impression you may carry from Lowry’s version.
There are other departures. Lowry, after all, did find a way to get across her imagination of a 1984 or Fahrenheit 451 to 13-year-olds, on which account one can forgive some of the linearity of her deductions. Under Noyce (more known for action-filled Salt, Clear and Present Danger), a 12-year-old Jonas gets transformed into a more generalistic ‘graduate’, presumably so as to have his friend pilot an impressive drone. It also allows the film to have Jonas, definitely much older than 12, not just harbour romantic feelings for Fiona but layer it with sexual attraction and several kisses. A 12-year-old having his heart broken by his parents has a much more poignant touch to it than a rebellious teen.
The film also ensures that any paedophilic accusations in the contact between Bridges and Thwaites are removed. Jonas doesn’t remove his shirt and lie on the bed with The Giver placing his hands on his back to transfer the memories here. Instead, they hold hands across straight-backed chairs.
Lowry’s book may be about having faith in the world as it is. The film is safely hedging its bets.