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Trapped In a Sea of Sameness

Going into The Giver, I was expecting the worst. For starters, they changed the age of the lead character Jonas, from a naïve 11 year-old boy to a swoon-worthy, naïve 18 year old. The same with his friends - both Asher and Fiona are now teens as well. Next was they way they marketed the film, as a cross between 1984 and Brave New World meets some teen melodrama you'd find on ABC Family. But mostly, I am just nearly burnt out by seeing studios take hot young adult novels and turn them into mediocre ripoffs of better-done adaptations, and given how poor Divergent, The Host, Ender's Game and The Fault In Our Stars turned out, you could understand my hesitation over seeing the final product.

Imagine my surprise that the film version of author Lois Lowry's dystopian sci-fi thriller wasn't as terrible as I thought it would be. For starters, the cinematography and color palette by Ross Emery is how I imagined this world would look like. This bland, colorless world feels and looks eerie because it's made to be a perfect harmony. The film was made on a budget of $25 million, and for the film to look as good as it does is impressive. I loved how Aussie director Phillip Noyce (Rabbit-Proof Fence, The Quiet American, Salt) expanded the character Chief Elder to more of an central role than a supporting one in the book. It also helps that they hired Meryl Streep to play this Orwellian figure, constantly looming over Jonas, his family unit, and the Community like a hawk in the sky. Seeing Jeff Bridges playing the titular Giver, a man charged with holding all the memories of the past and passing them onto his successor, is perfect casting, and he excels as the weary old man, holding in everything. Best of all is perhaps Katie Holmes as Jonas's mother figure, without the maternal nature. Hearing her scold her son for "precision of language" radiates creepiness and a slight sinister nature underneath her demeanor. With a few rewrites and a good makeup team, she would be the perfect Chief Elder.

The bad news is that The Giver could have been better. Much better. Highlighting that Katie Holmes would have made a better antagonist than the great Meryl Streep is just one of the films problems. I love Meryl, but I keep waiting for her to take command of her role like she has done in several roles before, from playing a suspicious nun in Doubt, to her portrayal as Maggie Thatcher in The Iron Lady. She comes off as a leader who's mildly annoyed that Jonas isn't being trained like he should, rather than a serene, yet frightening figure. But at least we do get a good dose of her and Bridges near the films climax as they confront the other on the human condition (or lack thereof). It's perhaps the most time the three-time Oscar winning actress looks to be involved in her character, but given what she has to work with, who could begrudge her for an easy payday?

The younger actors don't fare any better; in fact they drag the film down. Brenton Thwaites was a real miscast as the lead character, Jonas, and making him older for the sake of making teen girls swoon in their seats didn't help matters. In Lowry's novel, he was a bright, inquisitive boy who is chosen to to hold in all the positive and negative aspects of what humanity has lost. Seeing him transform quickly into a man is one of the best parts in the novel because he's so young and forced to grow up fast when he learns about the ugly side of humanity, especially when the worst parts of it has been within his community the whole time. Here, Thwaites gets the 'Stirrings' (see: becoming a hormonal teen) and really wants to make out with his best girl-friend Fiona. If you guessed that Fiona becomes his love interest, even though it was only hinted in the book, congratulations, because you can think like a Hollywood hack writer! OK, so Jonas really wants to bring back color and music, and plans a big escape with the Giver, but Thwaites' delivery is so one-note that calling him one-dimensional would almost be an insult. He just doesn't have the emotional range or the depth the character requires. I'm not really going to comment much on Odeya Rush as Fiona, mostly because she exists to be the film's love interest and nothing else, and because she's just as bland as as Thwaites is. Pop star Taylor Swift has a small part in this, playing Rosemary, the Giver's first protegee that didn't take. Again, I'm not going to comment; not because she was bad, but because the film fails to make her an integral part of the story (to be fair, so does the book, but the film version could have made up for that by allowing more time to see her relationship to Bridges character).

Perhaps the biggest misgiving I have about this film adaptation is how it decides to stick to the shallows about identity and the philosophical questions about human nature. In order to create the perfect world, the Elders rid themselves and their community of almost everything that makes us human: experiencing joy and sorrow; love and loss. In Lowry's world, Sameness now equals harmony, and taking daily injections is a means to an end in regulating said harmony. Those concepts are missing from this story, and instead, we're treated to "Divergents threaten the system" without explaining how or why, except that what they Elders are doing is wrong. Basically, Bob and Harvey Weinstein took the source material and pumped it full of Sameness to pacify and sell their movie to young movie goers, like myself, and hope we're too distracted by the young, attractive leads to notice that the essence of the book is mostly absent. The Giver isn't the worst of the YA-adaptations to come out, but it is something worse: it's factory-assembled product that, if it makes enough money, might be turned into another Divergent/Twilight cash cow.

** stars out of ****

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