The Giver, a cinematic adaptation of Lois Lowry’s contemporary young adult classic, is great summer action-adventure entertainment. The film also serves as a terrific example for future moviemakers seeking to transfer themes of spiritual faith to celluloid without succumbing to preachiness and overwrought didacticism.
Yes, The Giver is yet another dystopian sci-fi adventure story featuring handsome young protagonists rebelling against established A-list Hollywood stars portraying adult autocrats. But, unlike the silly, over-the-top political media and often disturbing ultraviolence of The Hunger Games, The Giver delivers the action without unnecessary onscreen carnage. True – for the most part – the adults are still autocratic nincompoops, but the purpose behind their actions derives not from the comic-book arch-villain text book. Instead, the world depicted in the movie is closer to attempts at social engineering witnessed on a daily basis; from all-pervasive surveillance cameras to language policing and nanny-state enforcement.
Taking a cue from the original Star Trek television series, the setting of The Giver has, like Spock’s home planet, Vulcan, eliminated human emotion and biological passions in response to some catastrophe (presumably war). One individual is entrusted to all pre-catastrophe memories, the title character (Jeff Bridges). The Giver resides in an outpost on the edge of civilization, a bunker filled with books and a grand piano. He is charged with transferring his memories to Jonas (Brenton Thwaites), the state-designated Receiver of Memories. Like Spock, the Giver performs his own version of the Vulcan mind-meld for the transference of memories.
Why does the state go to all the trouble of eliminating historical memories while preserving them in only select few? As Bridge explains, the elders believe they must “know the past in order to guard the future.” An echo of George Santayana’s famous saying, of course. The remainder of the population is injected daily with a concoction that deadens biological urges, reminiscent of the soma in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. All memories of warfare and poverty suppressed, but also of the simple joys of life. “Use precise language” is a mantra whenever abstract words as “love” are uttered. Biologically, babies are genetically engineered in laboratories before given to “families” for nurturing to adulthood. Those not making the state-designated weight and length requirements are discarded, as are the elderly. Those making the cut are sent to state schools whereupon their strengths and weaknesses are monitored constantly for eventual placement in a career determined the best fit by the Elders.
Missing in the narrow confines of this “ideal” society – made obvious by Phillip Noyce’s direction – is the color that fleshes out humanity, warts and all. Noyce relies on a monochromatic palette for the first portion of the film before Jonas’ awakened memories. While this can brings to mind Gary Ross’ execrable 1998 film Pleasantville wherein libertinism alone brings color to the black-and-white1950s town, The Giver emphasizes the necessity of the entire panoply of an imperfect humanity.
Those conversant in natural law will recognize the film (and novel as well) champions free will as opposed to totalitarian micromanagement. More subtly, the film and novel also champion faith. In The Giver’s climax, Jonas is required to take a literal leap of faith, resulting in a most satisfying denouement wherein the Christmas song “Silent Night” figures prominently.
The Giver is a primer on how to make a film for both faith-based and secular audiences. Many films designed to capture spiritual audiences are monochromatic throughout – if you’re a Christian and the film is marketed to your demographic, you can bet your last kernel of popcorn all the film’s antagonists are evil through-and-through. Meanwhile all the protagonists stumble through a minefield of obvious foreshadowing before reaching the finish line whereupon grace is guaranteed. The Giver, on the other hand, slyly holds the faith card up its sleeve before sliding it across the viewers’ consciousness.
Freedom-loving film aficionados would do well to recommend The Giver. It’s a terrific adventure film that portrays the dangers of a too-near futuristic society resorting to social and biological engineering at the expense of individuality, privacy, religious faith and God’s greatest gift: free will.
Liberty—the right to exercise free choice, free from coercive state regulation—is a necessary precondition for virtue. And virtue is ultimately necessary for the survival of liberty. Anyone interested in building a good society should desire to live in a community that cherishes both values.