The Giver (2014) | Savannah Film Festival
For every film and short that I attend at the festival I will be including both a brief, unspoiled synopsis, followed by a spoiler filled discussion beneath it. So be warned before you read-on that if you do not wish to spoil any of the following titles that you watch for my included warnings.
Somewhat old by festival standards–as this came out in theaters on August 15 of this year–The Giver was presented to a small audience of 250 patrons at SCAD’s Art Museum venue. At least it was a packed house.
From what little I’ve heard, this movie adaptation of the young adult novel of the same name is far removed from its source material, and fails to impress those who loved the book. And while I can’t speak for how this movie succeeds or fails in representing its source material, I can speak on how it succeeds and fails as a movie on its own.
The Giver is the story of a young boy named Joshua, who lives in a society devoid of emotional highs and lows, devoid of most social classes and bigotry, and devoid of any and all romantic relationships between individuals. All relationships are dictated by their necessity, and all families are chosen for each newborn based upon multiple factors related to what each family can provide that child in terms of learning opportunities and support. However, something else this society is devoid of is their history: no one knows what transpired before the implementation of the drugs that everyone takes every day of their lives. No one knows the hardships and the sacrifices that millions upon billions of lives helped to create before their time. All except one man, whose job it is to know “everything.” And it is now that person’s job to pass down this incredible knowledge and memory to Joshua, who has been appointed the new “Reciever.” This then makes the other person “The Giver,” played by Jeff Bridges.
The real story of The Giver is about how Joshua–through his training sessions with The Giver–slowly opens his eyes to the world that his society left behind for what they thought was peace and tranquility. But Joshua sees it as an abandonment of love, of passion, of beauty and magic, and also of remorse and decency. Because as it turns out, not all horrors of the old world have been abolished. For to keep their current society a constant steam of good healthy people, they obviously must not only genetically modify all new children, but must also expunge those newborns who still do not meet the high standards of the society’s elders and their law.
Eventually, Joshua discovers that there is a physical barrier, far out beyond the short borders of his city. And this barrier, if punctured, would release all of the hidden memories (both in details of events and details of emotions and feelings) back into the minds of his fellow citizens: restoring everything as it once was. This is what becomes Joshua’s defining goal by the end of the film.
Now the movie had quite a few issues with its production, and so I will go through each of them by section.
The story of The Giver is obviously very similar to another movie about emotional quenching, Equilibrium: which in many ways is a far superior film, both in narrative structure and in production quality.
The issues that I have with The Giver’s story stem from it being yet another teen rebellion movie based on a book series, and that it leaves many unanswered questions in hopes of producing more sequels to tell the rest of the story. My biggest issue was “What was the whole thing about the cabin in the snowy mountains about?” Were there people living in that cabin? Was that cabin old or new? Was Joshua now stuck out in the wilderness never to return again, or was he planning to make a trip back in the near future to see what happened to his family and friends?
Of course all of these questions are meant to be answered in a sequel. But I feel like if we were able to see glimpses of who was living in the house and get a more out-and-out “sequel beg” by leaving the dialogue on a bizarre cliff-hanger, then I might actually be interested in seeing a sequel. Because while this movie was kind of dull, it wasn’t a complete waste. Although I think if any marginally successful adaptation of a young-adult novel deserved a sequel, it would probably be Ender’s Game and not this.
Over all, the quality of the production design, while consistent, was very very simplistic and seemed almost rushed. As I have recently discovered, the original book had nothing to do with this futuristic location and setting. And many aspects about the story were changed in order to fit in with the typical “teen-rebellion-in-a-dystopian-future” story that is now permeating the box-office (The Hunger Games, Divergent, The Maze Runner). The main three characters’ ages, their love-triangle, and the use of computer technology, retinal scans, motorcycles, and drones were all added in during the scripting phase to make this story resemble that of its many counterparts.
The problem with these changes, however, is that because they were not based on imaginative designs from the book, they appear rushed and simplistic and very uninteresting. I have no idea whether it was Harvey Weinstein who had too much creative control, or if the Production Designer and Art Director were rather lax this time around in their career. But in either case, the quality of the sets, architectural shapes, and construction materials seem less like they accentuate the “sameness” and “emotionless” quality of the film’s environment, and more the lack of artistic talent at work.
The Giver’s above-ground entrance is a building made from extremely symmetrical blocks of fake cement bricks that seem obviously made from plaster and balsa wood. Metallic hallways seem dull, empty and unreflective. And the design of many interiors appear as if they were put together from a concept sketch drawn in an afternoon. “Just make it look futuristic.” “Put some glass and chrome everywhere. Where-ever you want, it doesn’t matter.” I don’t mean to be crude or insensitive about it, but frankly that’s what it all looks like. And the Cinematography doesn’t fare much better because of it.
The cinematography–along with the color grading for this film–felt flat and uninspired. While The Hunger Games has a grit and smoky edge to the way lighting and textures and smoke elements are all blended together, The Giver looks like a film that chose to take its story way too much to heart. It’s almost as if the production decided to use the ideals of the film’s society as a reason to not put as much effort into creating a distinctive design. Because if this society actually existed, they might not have wanted a flowery or elegant design, and would have gone for practicality more than anything. But that doesn’t mean practicality has to be boring.
The overall contrast ratio on the film feels average: blacks aren’t black enough, whites aren’t white enough, gray tones don’t have enough depth to them. And once the film transitions from black-and-white to color once Joshua is given the memories of color, the production becomes even more uninspired and lifeless because in some places the colors do not pop when they ought to, and in others they pop too much. Yes, the film has a transitional period where the colors slowly grow more and more saturated. But once all of the color is visible, it proves to actually be too colorful and devoid of a distinct color-palette style.
Ultimately I would have to say that if the production design had been given more time, more resources, and better art directors, the quality of the sets would have been such that the lighting could have more to work with. And if the lighting had had more to work with, then perhaps the post-production color graders would have had more to work off of to create a unique color scheme and style. Unfortunately, none of that happened here.
In this area, I felt like I had more of a problem with the female characters than I did with the male, mostly stemming from their lack of good dialogue and lack of interesting contributions to the story. Firstly, I felt that Odeya Rush’s portrayal of Fiona was not very exciting or engaging. And I’m sorry to say that I actually expected that.
I expected the filmmakers to cast an average actress to portray a poor character, because that is how many female characters in so many fantasy and sci-fi films have been designed: they only serve to be an end-goal for the main male protagonist, which really should not have been the case. And it should stop being the case before I get royally pissed off. At least give this character more of a “character” if you won’t give her more of a role to play. I know that there are actual females out there who have a similar personality to Fiona, but I still feel that characters like that make female leading roles less impactful on the story, and less of an endearing three-dimensional character to become invested in. I never once cared what she was going through because the film never let me in on it. They tried to. You can see in a few short scenes that they tried to address her feelings and issues, but they never amounted to anything. And we ended up leaving Fiona to be arrested and almost killed by the elders of the society as Joshua was trekking across the outlands looking for the “boundary of memory.”
Secondly, there was Meryl Streep, who I really wish had been given a more defining role here. Meryl Streep has so much more acting chops to offer, and yet the filmmakers did not use them to their full advantage. Obviously she was chosen because she was yet another older actor/actress who “could” play a societal dictator or leading figure. You have Donald Sutherland playing President Snow in The Hunger Games, you have Glen Close as Nova Prime in Guardians of the Galaxy, Judi Dench as M in the James Bond films, Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth the II in The Queen, John Hurt as Adam Sutler in V for Vendetta, Jodi Foster as Delacourt in Elysium, and you have Morgan Freeman both as Beech in Oblivion and as Nelson Mandella in Invictus.
So whether the characters are good, bad, indifferent, male or female, we have a precedent of using many of our oldest and most distinguished actors in leadership roles within movies of this type. And so it was only natural to want someone like Meryl Streep in the role of Chief Elder. However, I feel as if her talents were wasted on the role because there just wasn’t very much to work with.
For one, the Chief Elder had very obvious morals for doing what she did and being who she was (“the world is cruel and man is selfish”) and we never got to see what was really motivating her to keep to the code. Because if one lives in a society where all memory of the past and all emotion has been stricken away, then how can there still be a sense of want or need or duty if emotion does not fuel it? Logic should “logically” take over more than anything else. So what you really need in the role of every character in this film is someone like those actors who have played a Vulcan on Star Trek. Someone who can be strictly logical, unfeeling, and generally passive. But if they went that route, as the movie Equilibrium did, then we wouldn’t be able to identify (to a degree) with our three main protagonists because they would have appeared bored and uninterested to the young viewers in the audience.
But even so, there should have been more of a consistency with the rules that both governed this society and that governed the story. The character of the Chief Elder (especially) should not have had underlying morals dictating her choices because logically speaking she shouldn’t have had any at all. Or if that weren’t the case, then she should have been shown to have a clear motive from past experiences that fueled her interest to keep the peace and continue to keep society in check. Ultimately, this uncertainty in the Chief Elder’s performance turned her into an inconsistent character that did not make much sense one way or the other, and is perhaps the most forgettable character in the film.
In the end, the only really glowing comment one can give in regards to the film is that its choice of locations–for when Joshua is running across the outlands–were very good. The different mountain ranges, rock formations, waterfalls, rivers, and deserts made for some very beautiful and unique photography that I had not seen before in a sci-fi film. At least not quite like that. And I may even be naïve for thinking it, but all of those locations seemed real to me: not a trick of CGI and green-screen compositing. But there’s always a chance that at least some of it was, if not all of it.
All in all, I would consider The Giver a rental, much like Divergent and The Maze Runner. Because while Harry Potter and The Hunger Games are well worth your matinee cash at the box-office, these other films are not nearly on the same level of quality or filmmaking expertise. And you will have a much easier time emotionally connecting with Katniss than you ever will with Joshua. I can guarantee that.
I think this film will also stand as an example of how not to approach an adaptation simply for the sake of creating a comparable product to what is already popular in the media. It only serves to cheapen the original material and make it less engaging. And it especially removes the magic and charm that a proper adaptation may have had.