Like the dystopian, emotionless world on which it is based, director Phillip Noyce’s “The Giver” feels like an echo of Lois Lowry’s 1993 Newbury Medal-winning young-adult novel, visually bringing to life Lowry’s imagining without capturing her story’s depth or thoughtfulness.
The story follows a teen, Jonas (Brenton Thwaites), as he is “selected” to become the next Receiver — the one individual who carries around the memories of the world and the only person to understand joy, pain, love and all the hallmarks of human experience. Jonas forms a strong bond with The Giver (Jeff Bridges), who must pass on to Jonas the burden of humanity, and begins to question his society’s sacrifice of emotion for uniformity and stability.
In some ways, film is a better medium for the often visual story, especially because the world of “The Giver” is colorless. The movie is initially shot in black and white and strategically reflects Jonas’ growing perception of colors, highlighting the red of an apple or the green of a tree in a way the book could never achieve. As the colors of the world begin to unfold before Jonas’ eyes, the viewers are able to immerse themselves in his perspective and feel the simple wonder and beauty of color with him.
But the story’s beautiful packaging doesn’t make up for the way it has been commercialized. “The Giver” overlays Lowry’s simple story with all the elements of a cookie-cutter teen dystopia in an attempt to appeal to fans of “The Hunger Games.” Instead of an emphasis on the relationship between The Giver and Jonas and his path to discovering what it means to be human, there’s the budding teen romance with childhood friend Fiona (Odeya Rush); the villainous and status-quo-obsessed Chief Elder (Meryl Streep), a minor character in the book; the thrilling chase sequences — all of which make “The Giver” fun to watch but unoriginal and forgettable.
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Even the star-studded cast (including Taylor Swift, who appears briefly as the previous Receiver-to-be) can’t make the movie pop. Streep ironically serves as the emotional powerhouse in the film despite her character’s commitment to the society’s dystopian views on emotion, but Bridges and Thwaites lack the chemistry to make the vital relationship between The Giver and Jonas seem deep and special. Thwaites has a much better time with the baby cast as Gabriel, a child to whom Jonas becomes particularly attached. Their scenes together are poignant and natural.
With not enough character development to stand alongside “Pleasantville,” nor enough action to compete with “Divergent, “The Giver” is stuck somewhere in between, losing its heart along the way.
Katharine Schwab: firstname.lastname@example.org or @kschwabable