Ann Hornaday (c) 2014, The Washington Post. “The Giver,” an adaptation of Lois Lowry’s Newbery Medal-winning young adult novel, may seem like it’s riding on the coattails of such dystopian action hits as “The Hunger Games” and “Divergent.” But in reality, Lowry’s book may qualify as the ur-text of the form, a slim, futuristic allegory that, since it was published in 1993, has sold more than 10 million copies.
In its own way, the movie version — handsomely directed by Phillip Noyce and featuring an appealing, sure-footed cast of emerging and veteran actors — aptly reflects “The Giver’s” pride of place as the one that started it all, or at least the latest wave. Ironically, it wasn’t until its imitators became box office bonanzas that “The Giver” was seen as potentially profitable enough to produce for the big screen. Far less noisy and graphically violent than those films, this mournful coming-of-age tale feels like their more subdued and introspective older sibling, even as it trafficks in the self-dramatizing emotionalism and simplistic philosophizing that are so recognizably symptomatic of the young adult genre.
Set in an indeterminate future long after a vaguely drawn catastrophe called The Ruin, “The Giver” chronicles the story of Jonas (Brenton Thwaites), a teenager who has grown up in the Communities, where the all-seeing, all-hearing Council of Elders controls everything from domestic arrangements and careers to climate and sexual “stirrings,” which are carefully regulated by way of daily morning injections.
Jonas’ world, which he navigates with his best friends, Fiona (the stunning Israeli actress Odeya Rush) and Asher (Cameron Monaghan), is one in which all conflict, hatred and distinction has been erased by cultural values of conformity and obedience. This is a literally color-blind society, its black-and-white contours reflecting not only the Elders’ monotonously authoritarian sensibility, but Lowry’s own conveniently Manichean imagination, in which emotions and empiricism are at constant zero-sum odds.
As “The Giver” begins, Jonas and his contemporaries are about to find out what jobs they’ve been assigned by the chief Elder, played by Meryl Streep in a long gray wig that recalls Holly Hunter’s blunt-spoken separatist leader in the series “Top of the Lake.” It turns out that Jonas — who, unlike his friends and family, is able to see color — has been chosen to be a Receiver of Memory, meaning that he will soon learn all that happened before the world became the reassuringly predictable and consistent bubble in which he grew up.
His guide in this endeavor is the title character of “The Giver,” a bearded sage living in an isolated mountaintop aerie played with shamanic gruffness by Jeff Bridges. As it happens, Bridges himself was the prime engine in getting “The Giver” made after a decades-long struggle, during which he intended that his father, Lloyd, play the part he ultimately took as his own. That commitment and seriousness of purpose suffuse a production that will surely please the millions of people who read “The Giver” in middle school, and for whom it became much more than a good book and more like a potent talisman of their own emerging notions of individuation, moral choice and transcendent self-sacrifice.
Although Jonas is only 12 in the book, in the filmed version of “The Giver” he is 16 — and played by an Australian in his mid-20s, a digression from novelistic detail that already has sent Lowry’s partisans into howls of how-dare-they distress. But Thwaites, recently seen as a handsome prince in “Maleficent,” acquits himself well in a role that makes the most of his sober, Gary Cooper-esque good looks. Filmed in silvery tones of black and white, “The Giver” gradually gives way to a color scheme that is lurid or muted, depending on what experiences Jonas is accessing with the help of his grizzled mentor.
Although those memories will eventually send him on a genuine physical adventure, replete with a shattering revelation and high-stakes drone chase, most of the film traces a young man’s dawning awareness that, the ease and peacefulness of his world notwithstanding, there’s something frighteningly toxic at its core. (One quibble with “The Giver” is that, at a sleek hour-and-a-half, some of its most dramatically ripe scenes play too quickly and perfunctorily to convey the impact they’re having on Jonas; no sooner has he witnessed an unspeakable horror than it swiftly disappears, filed away in his burgeoning internal archive.)
Like its fellow YA movies — which with the current juggernaut of comic-book adaptations represent the dominant culture in Hollywood — “The Giver” perceptively caters to its teenaged fans’ own cardinal desires and anxieties. Messy feelings, youthful curiosity and unruly physical impulses are valorized and elevated, in sharp contrast to the Elders’ Stalinistic attempts at social control. As a Receiver of Memory, and in one of the film’s most obvious nods to teenaged wish fulfillment, Jonas is given permission to ask questions, no matter how rude, and to lie — and he never has to apologize.
Meanwhile, what he hears from parents and other authority figures is portrayed as the stuff of dehumanizing soul-murder. “Precision of language!” Jonas’ mother scolds him when he shares his feelings one night over dinner. Mom, by the way, is played by Katie Holmes in a suitably chilly performance as a rule-obsessed judge, intimations of the actress’s own recent brush with Scientology hovering over her scenes like a teasing, troubling mist.
Jonas’ father, equally skillfully portrayed by Alexander Skarsgard, features prominently in “The Giver’s” most disturbing sequence, in which Jonas witnesses one of the grisly realities beneath the anodyne double-speak that he’s now beginning to question.
That double-speak, of course, recalls George Orwell at his most anti-totalitarian, as well as Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451,” which may be “The Giver’s” most direct ancestor. Like “The Fault in Our Stars” earlier this summer, young people have once again been given their generation’s version of a message that, although not necessarily new, nevertheless may feel urgent and uniquely timely to its core audience. “The Giver” has been made with deep respect for that experience, and for the book that so powerfully predicted the grim universe movie teenagers now inhabit — for worse and, in this case, for better as well.
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Three stars. “The Giver” (PG-13, 94 minutes) contains a mature thematic image and some sci-fi action violence.
Ratings Guide: Four stars masterpiece, three stars very good, two stars OK, one star poor, no stars waste of time.