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movie review: the giver

how does the film stack up to the book?

by: liza darwin

August 15 2014

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Hollywood can update as many superhero flicks, comic books, or Nicholas Sparks novels as it wants— but for me, some stories should remain sacred. This includes pretty much every book on my middle school reading list, mostly because those of us who remember reading tales like Catcher In The Rye, Animal Farm, or Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret harbor such a special emotional connection with the classics. We grew up with these books, after all, and more often than not, the slick silver screen updates don't do these iconic novels justice. 

The Giver is arguably the leader of the pack. Not only is Lois Lowry's 1993 dystopian novel a hit in its own right, but it also serves as the foundation for current YA best-sellers like The Hunger Games and Divergent. So yeah, Hollywood has a lot to live up to with its latest revamp (no pressure or anything).

Hopefully by now you know the gist: Set in a futuristic world devoid of war, violence, and feelings, The Giver follows 16-year-old Jonah (he's aged 12 in the book) as he comes to realize his peaceful community is actually the opposite. In fact, the black-and-white color palette, the required daily injections, and the lack of emotion are all a cover up so the community will never rebel against The Elders again. This discovery comes when he and his friends Fiona (played by Odeya Rush) and Asher (Cameron Monaghan) are assigned specific roles within the society upon graduation.

Whereas Fiona and Asher's responsibilities are far more conventional, as the Receiver, Jonah has to learn the harsh truth of memory from his teacher, the Giver (Jeff Bridges)—who's dealing with a painful memory of his daughter, Rosemary. Sound familiar? But while the general movie plotline stays fairly loyal to the book, it's the minor alterations in the story that make all the difference.

Along with their older age, the Hollywood version places a major emphasis on the love story between Jonah and Fiona. Rather than just a mention or two of "stirrings" as referenced in the novel, this time the duo's romance is a running theme throughout the film. The motivation here is understandable—the characters are teenagers now, and duh, sex sells— but you can't help feel like the choice is a cheap ploy. The characters' sparse, formal dialogue that reads so perfectly in the pages of the book sounds awkward and uncomfortable in real life. And perhaps most importantly, the memories Jonah receives from the Giver just don't translate in the same way onscreen. It's one thing to imagine Jonah sledding down a hill in your head; it's an entirely different thing to see it played out in a five-minute clip. 

However, as Lowry says in the introduction to the book's newest edition, these changes don't belittle the novel itself. "The important thing is that another medium—stage, film, music—doesn’t obliterate a book," she notes. "The movie is here now, on a big screen, with stars and costumes and a score. But the book hasn’t gone away. It has simply grown up, grown larger, and begun to glisten in a new way."

Nobody can deny the fact that the cast is stellar (Katie Holmes, Alexander Skarsgard, Meryl Streep, and Taylor Swift also star), the special effects are stunning, and the film's hour-and-a-half running time is just long enough. Just know that this definitely isn't the same book you remember obsessing over as a 12-year-old...but if anything, the new movie version will inspire you to pick up your tattered old copy of The Giver and reread it all over again.

The Giver opens in theaters this weekend.

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