Film Adaptations of Young Adult Literature: The Giver

by Lois Lowry
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Last Updated on January 13, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2233

The Book

Author: Lois Lowry (1937–)

First published: 1993

The Film

Director: Phillip Noyce (1950–)

Screenplay by: Michael Mitnick, Robert B. Weide, Lois Lowry

Starring: Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep, Brenton Thwaites, Alexander Skarsgård, Katie Holmes, Taylor Swift, Odeya Rush, Cameron Monaghan

Context

Popularized in the early twentieth century, dystopian...

(The entire section contains 2233 words.)

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The Book

Author: Lois Lowry (1937–)

First published: 1993

The Film

Director: Phillip Noyce (1950–)

Screenplay by: Michael Mitnick, Robert B. Weide, Lois Lowry

Starring: Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep, Brenton Thwaites, Alexander Skarsgård, Katie Holmes, Taylor Swift, Odeya Rush, Cameron Monaghan

Context

Popularized in the early twentieth century, dystopian literature became an important form of science fiction as authors sought a platform that allowed for both creative expression and satirical commentary. Modern novels found new ways to subversively criticize social and political systems. Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, written in 1920–21, was one of the first novels to satirize totalitarian states, and its publication spawned a new era of literary dystopias. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), George Orwell’s 1984 (1949), and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953) all attempt to demonstrate the disastrous effects of widespread government control and the extinction of individual choice. Each of these works has endured because of their relevance to contemporary society.

By the late 1960s the literary landscape began to transform to address the needs of a whole population of readers between the ages of twelve and eighteen, and authors began to write with this audience in mind. S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders (1967) is often credited as being the first young adult (YA) novel, while Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game (1977) cemented science fiction as a major genre within YA literature.

When Lois Lowry’s The Giver first hit bookstore shelves in 1993, it proved to be an immediate success and quickly became a literary staple in school systems across the United States and beyond. As the first volume of The Giver Quartet, The Giver has by far received the most accolades of any of Lowry’s forty-some-odd books. The other novels in the quartet, Gathering Blue (2000), Messenger (2004), and Son (2012), are set in the same futuristic society, but each subsequent novel features a different protagonist to extend the saga. Winning the Newbery Medal in 1994, The Giver has sold millions of copies worldwide and has been translated into numerous languages. The novel is not without its critics, however; since its publication, it has been challenged countless times by various communities because of its mature themes, which include sexuality, suicide, and euthanasia. Many attribute the novel’s success to the fact that it offers such a fitting allegory for the teenager’s experience of growing up. With this best seller, Lowry inspired the work of future writers of YA fiction around the world.

Although production was delayed numerous times for various reasons, the long-awaited film adaptation of The Giver began filming in October 2013, and was released in August 2014.

Film Analysis

The film adaptation of The Giver opens with a tone of foreboding. Words appear on a blank screen, accompanied by ominous music: “From the ashes of The Ruin, the Communities were built. Protected by the boundary. All memories of the past were erased.” This brief introduction then gives way to a more detailed description of this society. The world in which this story takes place, called the Community by its citizens, is a world of “true” equality. In order to maintain this equality, every citizen must follow a set of basic rules, each carefully designed to promote “sameness.”

One of the most significant differences between the novel and its film adaptation is evident within the first few minutes of the movie. Although Lowry’s original protagonist is eleven going on twelve, the on-screen Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) appears to be about sixteen or seventeen. While some would argue that four years doesn’t amount to much, this age difference adds a new flavor to Lowry’s story; not only is Jonas forced to undergo a major rite of passage—that is, the selection of a career— but he has to do so while navigating through the complex emotional development one experiences during puberty. Jonas’s age complicates the fragile dynamic between his two friends, Asher (Cameron Monaghan) and Fiona (Odeya Rush). They, like Jonas, seem much older in the film version, but the movie uses this change to develop two themes that we do not see much of in the original: friendship and romantic love.

While the book is much more introspective in nature, the film explores the effect that Jonas’s assignment—and all that comes with it—has on his social relationships. It is immediately clear that Jonas, Asher, and Fiona have grown up together. In the print version, Asher and Fiona are simply minor characters, but Noyce’s version places a much heavier emphasis on the dynamics of the trio’s relationship to each other. As each teen anxiously awaits the ceremony in which their lifelong careers will be chosen for them, they rely on each other for emotional support. Their rapport is expressed using a major symbol throughout the film: the triangle. Triangles appear everywhere in the film: the Community’s public announcement system bears a triangle as its logo; when Jonas begins his escape, the Chief Elder (Meryl Streep) stands in the middle of a glowing triangle to view surveillance video; even the outer edge of the Community’s boundary is marked by a large triangle formed by two fallen rocks. Solidifying the triangle’s symbolic significance, the three friends repeatedly convene in the middle of a triangle made by two hedges and a stone waterfall. A creative addition, the triangle symbolism is absent from Lowry’s original work.

True to the archetypes of contemporary young adult literature, Jonas is selected to fulfill a crucial role within society. He is, as the saying goes, “the chosen one.” As the new Receiver of Memories, Jonas must take on all of the memories that the human race has accumulated since the beginning of time, a job that was created to uphold the status quo of true equality. Because his job is so important, he is allowed to break certain rules and the dynamics of his friendships begin to change. As he trains with the Giver (Jeff Bridges), Jonas begins to question the Community’s laws. He stops taking his daily injections, which are imposed on all citizens to suppress romantic feelings and sexual desire, and starts to have such feelings for Fiona. In the book, Jonas’s feelings for Fiona are addressed and dismissed in a single chapter. He experiences his first “stirrings”—sexually charged dreams—about Fiona, but she quickly recedes into the background. In the movie, however, Jonas convinces Fiona to stop taking her injections as well and their friendship eventually develops into romance. In one pivotal scene, they even share a kiss at their rendezvous: the triangular hedge. Later on in the film, Fiona becomes an accomplice to Jonas’s escape, and is imprisoned for her misconduct. Conversely, Asher becomes discontent with Jonas’s lawlessness and turns into a secondary antagonist for the young hero.

Nevertheless, Jonas begins to receive all of the memories of the past, learning about the many things that the Community denies its citizens: sledding, changing weather, art, music, dancing. But, he also comes to understand the painful aspects of life before the Community existed, which included the horrors of war and violence and the cruelty of animal poaching, for example. These new memories jar Jonas’s senses and cause him to feel physical agony, and thus evoke a powerful response from Noyce’s audience. In a series of montage sequences, Noyce conveys the beauty of creation and the harsh realities of a world where choices, good and bad, are made.

As a movie of the twenty-first century, the film does offer certain things that the print version cannot. For one, Noyce incorporates a lot of visually stimulating technological gadgetry into the set, creating an aesthetic experience that complements the story’s utopian setting. Families are provided precooked meals that are served in what appear to be air-locked trays and, at one point in the movie, the Chief Elder materializes as a hologram in Jonas’s family’s living room to convey an icy warning to the new Receiver of Memory. None of these technologies are to be found in the original version, but they are additions that reinforce the futuristic experience. The film is also rife with action-packed scenes that build the story’s suspense in a different way. When Jonas is on the run, he is hunted by RoboCop-like police officers on futuristic motorcycles. Later on, Asher hunts him down with a drone.

Many critics have argued that this new content makes the pace of the movie much too fast. Jonas is selected as the new Receiver within the first twelve minutes of the film, whereas the ceremony of the book version does not happen until about halfway through the entire novel. In turn, the movie replaces much of the novel’s exposition with an ending that is more complete. The film comes full circle and has a clear resolution: as Jonas completes his quest, the memories of the past are returned to the Community. The novel’s ending, on the other hand, leaves many questions unanswered. For purist fans of Lowy’s work, Noyce’s version may fail to meet the magic of the original.

With all of these alterations, the film takes on a different, more politically charged tone. Although Jonas’s suffering and self-sacrifice could be seen to make him a Christ figure, the movie paints his character as more of a revolutionary than a spiritual savior. With guidance from the Giver, Jonas comes to understand his true role within society: to change the lives of the people by changing the existing social structures. In one of Noyce’s montage sequences, the Giver gives Jonas memories of civil resistance and political protest, showing the unity that evolves from political demonstrations that have taken place around the world. In one of the final images, Nelson Mandela smiles with a fist in the air. With all that is happening in the modern world, it seems that Noyce chose to extract and expand upon one singular theme from Lowry’s work: the social and political responsibility of society’s youngest adults.

Significance

Despite the film’s highly anticipated release, box office sales paled in comparison to its cinematic predecessor, The Hunger Games. While The Hunger Games made over $152 million its first weekend in US theaters in late March 2012, The Giver grossed only $12.3 million on opening weekend in mid-August 2014, and had grossed only about $45 million in the US by December 5, 2014. Moreover, The Giver received mixed to negative reviews from critics. Having a run time of only ninety-seven minutes, many felt that the movie did not allot enough time to develop a world that the audience could appreciate. Other critics argued that, even with the star power provided by Bridges and Streep, the acting of the younger characters was clunky and strained.

However, it is important to keep in mind that The Giver was published in 1993. As one of the first YA dystopias, the book influenced similar titles, several of which were adapted for the screen much sooner than The Giver. Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games and Veronica Roth’s Divergent both appeared as films long before The Giver did. In light of this dystopian trend in Hollywood, one could argue that The Giver became white noise; by the time Noyce’s film hit theaters, the public had already had their fill of the genre. The movie version took over twenty years to produce, and this delay in production may have had a negative impact on the film’s critical response.

Further Reading

  • Hanson, Carter F. “The Utopian Function of Memory in Lois Lowry’s ‘The Giver.’” Extrapolation 50.1 (2009): 45–60. Literary Reference Center Plus. Web. 11 Dec. 2014. <http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lkh&AN=43234079&site=lrc-plus>.
  • Lea, Susan G. “Seeing Beyond Sameness: Using ‘The Giver’ to Challenge Colorblind Ideology.” Children’s Literature in Education 37.1 (2006): 51–67. Literary Reference Center. Web. 11 Dec. 2014. <http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lfh&AN=20032457&site=lrc-live>.
  • Connors, Sean P., and Iris Shepard. “Critical Readings: Who’s Betting on The Hunger Games? A Case for Young-Adult Literature.” Critical Insights: Contemporary Speculative Fiction May 2013: 115–136. Literary Reference Center Plus. Web. 11 Dec. 2014. <http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lkh&AN=88181605&site=lrc-plus>.

Bibliography

  • Bogstad, Janice. “Young Adult Science Fiction.” Science Fiction Studies 27.3 (2000): 494–498. Literary Reference Center. Web. 12 Dec. 2014. <http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lkh&AN=3918070&site=lrc-plus>.
  • Dargis, Manohla. “If You Want to Remember, You Have to Ask the Old Guy: ‘The Giver’ Adapts Lois Lowry’s Novel.” New York Times. New York Times, 14 Aug. 2014. Web. 11 Dec. 2014. <http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/15/movies/the-giver-adapts-lois-lowrys-novel.html?_r=0>.
  • Lawson, Richard. “The Giver Is Adapted to Death.” Vanity Fair. Condé Nast Digital, 12 Aug. 2014. Web. 11 Dec. 2014. <http://www.vanityfair.com/vf-hollywood/2014/08/the-giver-review>.
  • Miller, Laura. “Fresh Hell.” New Yorker 14 June 2010: 132–136. Literary Reference Center. Web. 10 Dec. 2014.
  • <http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lfh&AN=51313344&site=lrc-live>.
  • Redmond, Sean. “Future Almost Lost: Dystopian Science-Fiction Film.” Critical Insights: Dystopia (2012): 257–274. Literary Reference Center Plus. Web. 12 Dec. 2014. <http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lkh&AN=83430644&site=lrc-plus >.
  • Rosenberg, Alyssa. “From ‘The Giver’ to ‘Twilight,’ Young Adult Fiction Helps Teens Grow Up.” Atlantic. Atlantic Media, 22 Mar. 2012. Web. 11 Dec. 2014. <http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2011/07/from-the-giver-to-twilight-young-adult-fiction-helps-teens-grow-up/241578/>.
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