Readers have high expectations for film adaptations of books. This accepted practice explains the adage “The book is always better than the movie.” However, the audience can forgive certain elements. A book’s entire contents cannot be crammed into merely 90 to 120 minutes, nor will everyone be happy with the casting choices. When artistic license is abused, however, the heart of the book is compromised, which weakens the film. The Giver is just the latest in a long line of books that have been victim to this cinematic crime.
Lois Lowry’s 1993 dystopian children’s novel is captivating, thrillingly paced, and intelligent. Long before The Hunger Games, and Divergent series were hits, The Giver asked readers to observe the rituals and rules of the world around them and question it. The story focuses on a 12-year-old boy named Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) who is assigned the top-secret job of receiving the memories of the past from the only person in his community allowed to have them, the Giver (Jeff Bridges). Living in a world that is literally black and white, he begins to see color. As he experiences the history of mankind, he sees a spectrum of color and human emotion. He begins to realize that the “sameness”—the government’s control of every aspect of the community and elimination of emotion and individuality—takes all the meaning out of life.
Whether the reader is emotionally invested in Jonas’ discoveries or disgusted by his society, most will agree the story is enough for the big screen. Even 20 years later, its messages are relevant, which makes the changes made by director Phillip Noyce and screenwriters Michael Mitnick and Robert B. Weide all the more baffling. Honestly, had I taken a shot every time they changed something, I would have not only been plastered within the first half hour but I most likely would have died of alcohol positioning by the credits.
One of the films biggest misfires is how it changed its characters. Movies encourage romantic subplots so it was not surprising that Jonas’ sexual attraction, or “stirrings,” for Fiona (Odeya Rush) would be morphed into a forbidden romance on screen; however, in the film Fiona does not just become the romantic lead. Instead of being the model citizen and a supporting character, she is a forefront crusader of truth whose execution, or “release” as it is called, is only stopped by the film’s over-the-top ending that strays so far from the book that it made me wonder if the screenwriters had actually read it. On top of all that, she is not a redhead, which not only is one of the few things the book actually states about her but is part of an irreplaceable plot that was the filmmakers muted. Similarly, there are few traces of the book’s comic relief, Asher (Cameron Monaghan), in his movie counterpart. Instead of being Jonas’ best friend and an example as to why we need “precision of language,” the film presents Asher as uptight and obedient. And if that were not drastic enough, Asher is assigned the job of fighter pilot, an occupation that is not in the book at all, and is later assigned to hunt down and kill Jonas and Gabe, a baby saves. This added tension is unneeded and takes focus away from the real conflicts in the story.
The essence of the character of the Giver himself is mostly true to the book—he is a compassionate, guiding force who leads Jonas and the audience to the truth; however, parts of his backstory have been given emphasis and modification, which alters the story’s reality. His daughter, Rosemary (Taylor Swift), is a storyline which is beautifully woven throughout the book and ultimately reveals itself when the story sets the stage for the final act. In the film, her presence is forced and awkward. We see Rosemary’s face in artwork by the Giver and in a memory of her playing the piano. These moments would be impossible in the book because art and music do not exist within the present world; it is only music that Jonas discovers when receiving a memory of an ancient human practice known as “family.” The Giver from the book would not exploit the memory of his daughter in such a way nor would he mourn her death in art. His choice to mention Rosemary at all was as a cautionary tale to Jonas about the seriousness of the job and the dangers of their world, and to show Jonas that love can exist. The film’s approach to love is through Fiona and Jonas’ hidden make outs behind a waterfall, an extremely uncomfortable implied romance between the Giver and Chief Elder (Meryl Streep), and a lackluster monologue—not in terms of Bridges’ performance but in writing—by the Giver as they are putting Fiona to death. The film’s approach to love overshadows the emotions the Giver shares with his successor and the audience.
A reader’s reactions to the changes made to Jonas will range from dramatic eye roll to downright frustration. Most noticeably, Thwaites is 25 years old, not 12. Because of this, they make Jonas 16, which is the least threatening of changes made in the film. By aging him, it does amp up the angst and take away some of his innocence. I realize this change was made to make the addition of the romance more forefront and to give teenage girls someone to swoon over in the theater lobby. The radical changes to the rest of the characters have lessened my anger of the switch from pills to morning injection. Though, it seems odd that in a society so closely monitored that no one would see Jonas having an apple injected each morning. Instead of pale eyes, Jonas and Gabe were given birthmarks, which were subtly shown and never discussed. There was something beautifully fitting about people with pale eyes have a rare, natural gift of seeing and feeling emotion. Perhaps the most frustrating change was in the way Jonas handles the sensitivity of his training. Book Jonas would never have taught people how to dance, or shared information with anyone but Gabe, and that was only to save his life. The scene where he a Fiona playfully slide down a track on food trays to share the sled memory was not only a waste of time but completely out of character for both Jonas and Fiona. Does film Jonas not realize that his job is literally to receive memories and only share them if the council needed guidance or when he becomes the Giver himself, not to flirt with a girl or to start an uprising? These misjudgments by the protagonist seem foolish to the reader and only further the distance between the book and the film.
The only aspect this adaptation seems to get right is its stunning cinematography by Ross Emery. Visually the film is a great achievement. It effortlessly transports the audience to the world through Jonas’ eyes. It is a shame the context of what is seen is utterly lost in translation and suffocated with altered storylines. As the film ends, the entire world blooms into Technicolor as the memories of the past flood the minds of world again. It is gorgeous to witness; however, it does not happen in the book, even remotely. This final blow causes readers to come away from the film wondering if Noyce understood the book at all. Despite enjoyable performances by most of the cast, the adaptation from page to screen makes it painful for readers to watch. The title should have been called “The Taker” because it took away too many intricate and irreplaceable elements of the book. Rarely have I seen a film miss the mark by such a huge margin. Instead of “based on the book by Lois Lowry” it should say something like “based on a conversation I overheard about the book The Giver by Lois Lowry at a bar between people whose speech were too slurred to be understood but I heard bits and pieces.” It is disappointing that a book which has touched and even angered so many readers could be so unrecognizable on screen. Noyce’s adaptation ultimately takes away The Giver’s original voice and gives it one not worth listening to.