For children of the ‘90s like me, Lois Lowry's "The Giver" is one of the most memorable books from our grade-school reading list. It is the rare novel that captured my young mind and one that I plowed through without complaint. The novel posed difficult questions about complex issues, and was certainly ripe for classroom discussion. One might successfully argue that Lowry's work spawned more recent Young Adult novels like "The Hunger Games" and "Divergent," which may be why this film adaptation feels disappointingly familiar. Phillip Noyce injects beautiful images into this dystopian cautionary tale, but The Giver feels jarringly compacted and strangely vacant despite a wealth of intriguing material. The novel's themes are blunted and its characters robbed of dimension, and all the pretty pictures in the world cannot capture the spirit of the page.
A society without memories of dissent, pain, love, beauty or human triumph is at the heart of The Giver. There is neither suffering nor diversity, and only one member of the community is allowed to carry the memories of life as it existed before this great blotting out of free will. This receiver becomes the Giver (Jeff Bridges) when 16-year-old Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) is assigned to succeed him in this honored task. Jonas's training awakens senses and emotions buried deep inside, and spurs the horrific realization that the society around him will kill to maintain the status quo. The cold Chief Elder (Meryl Streep) watches from afar as Jonas begins pushing the limits of his freedom, sharing dissentious perceptions of the world with friends Fiona (Odeya Rush) and Asher (Cameron Monaghan). His parents (Alexander Skarsgard and Katie Holmes) are unsure what to make of Jonas's unexpected bond with an infant ward, but the Chief Elder assures them they should be worried.
The novel takes readers on a journey with its frightened but surprisingly mature protagonist, and the themes of repression and unperceived loss flow naturally. The film struggles with this narrative, though scriptwriters Michael Mitnick and Robert B. Weide wisely inject some humor into early scenes depicting the futuristic Stepford-like neighborhood Jonas calls home. It is difficult to discern whether Suzanne Collins and Veronica Roth drew heavily from Lowry's novel or if The Giver simply mimics recent film adaptations of those authors' work. For the first thirty minutes you could have convinced me I was watching a sequel to The Hunger Games or Divergent given the thematic and visual similarities. The film struggles to appeal to the YA audience and adults where the novel effortlessly courted both, which is probably to be expected. The world is simply less dangerous, less magical than in Lowry's prose.
Noyce shoots a gorgeous film, slowly injecting color as Jonas awakens to the truth about his surroundings. The framing, lighting and staging are impeccable, though the shallow narrative undercuts this superficial beauty. Bridges certainly looks the part of the Giver, at least as far as the original jacket artwork is concerned. His performance is good, but the film does not challenge the veteran actor. Thwaites is thoughtful and reserved, which works well with the material, and I suspect he has a long career ahead. Streep, Holmes and Skarsgard mostly dress the sets, and singer Taylor Swift has a small but important role. The Giver is perfectly watchable and impressively lensed, but never rises to the occasion.
The 2.40:1/1080p/AVC-encoded transfer supports the unique visuals with ease. The Arri Alexa-shot film has a softer appearance, but detail and texture are abundant. The black and white images are beautiful, with good shadow detail and appropriate grading. Colors are stark and nicely saturated, and skin tones appear natural. Fine-object detail is impressive, as are the crystal clear wide shots that stretch for miles. The visual effects and live-action elements are nicely blended, and I noticed no problems with banding or noise reduction.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix is strong but not quite reference material. Dialogue, effects and score are balanced appropriately, with both ambient and action effects making good use of the surrounds. There is no distortion or uneven balance to speak of, and quieter scenes are as audible as louder action bits. English SDH and Spanish subtitles are available.
PACKAGING AND EXTRAS:
This two-disc "combo pack" includes the Blu-ray, a DVD copy and an UltraViolet HD digital copy. The discs are packed in a standard case, which is wrapped in a slipcover that mimics the rather hideous key artwork. A fair number of bonus features are included: Highlights from the Original Script Reading featuring Lloyd Bridges (39:47/SD) is a vintage table reading from the novel with early involvement from the Bridges family. The disc's making-of, Making The Giver: From Page to Screen (21:39/HD) features on-set footage and cast interviews and details the long process to bring the novel to the silver screen. Also included are an Extended Scene (9:23/HD); a Press Conference with Filmmakers and Cast (35:31/HD); and the "Ordinary Human" Feature with Ryan Tedder (2:43/HD), in which the OneRepublic musician discusses the soundtrack. Things wrap up with Author Lois Lowry on The Giver (3:35/HD), which could have been longer, and an interactive Study Guide for the novel.
Lois Lowry's "The Giver" is a memorable book from my childhood, but Phillip Noyce's film adaptation is disappointingly shallow. The themes are blunt and compacted, and the narrative lacks the magic and danger of Lowry's novel. Brenton Thwaites is a strong lead and Jeff Bridges certainly looks the part, but The Giver may disappoint fans of the book. Rent It.