The best aspect of the movie “The Giver,” currently in theaters, is its reminder to read Lois Lowry’s Newberry Award winning novel, from which the warped and withered adaptation is inspired.
A futuristic community chooses 12-year-old Jonas to be the Receiver of Memory — a responsibility bestowed upon a single citizen to gain the awareness of history and experiences. A Committee of Elders governs its citizens through rules and rituals, protecting them from the antiquated feelings of pain and consequence.
Jonas, with the help of his mentor, the Giver, begins to feel joy, hope and courage through received memories. He and the Giver feel love, while other citizens deem love merely an outdated, imprecise word.
Despite also witnessing death in warfare, Jonas develops the convictions that memories are to be shared and wisdom gained, that freewill is worth the consequent pleasure and pain, and that choice, despite it all, is desirable.
He receives the thrill of sled riding. He experiences hope and beauty when “… a snowflake drafted down and was caught briefly for a moment’s sparkle in the tiny fluttering eyelashes” of Gabriel, an infant deemed unfit by society.
Gabriel, too, is calmed by memories Jonas shares: falling asleep upon the transmission of sailing on a serene lake or the warmth of the sun. The complete experience of humanity fortifies Jonas and Gabriel alike.
The growth of Jonas and the depth of the story is conveyed well in the book, providing an interesting philosophical meditation on freewill. The movie lacks cohesion and artistry, abandoning the rich story for Hollywood executive-think, diverging from character details and ultimately overshadowing Jeff Bridges’ stellar performance.
The story line of Jonas’ playful friend, Asher, is substituted for empty action scenes. His other friend, Fiona, is changed unrecognizably by tacking on a reciprocal romance, complete with a kiss, something unthinkable for her and her society in the original story.
The brief memory montages cover the last few decades of events from an American perspective, not even covering the length of time there have been Receivers, let alone the “back and back and back” to all memory that Jonas is expected to acquire.
No allusion is made to Moses, the liberator, as is in the book with a river escape route. None to Jonas’s namesake, the prophet and only sign to the Israelites of a coming Messiah; nor to archangel Gabriel’s messages foretelling of a Savior’s conception.
Yet the moviegoer is asked to believe the unbelievable by Jonas calling his bike-jump off a cliff “a miracle,” while making no case for the possibility of miracles. In fact, the word miracle never appears in the novel.
Lowry offers an enriching counter argument to anyone who asks how an all-loving God can allow suffering. C.S. Lewis responds similarly in “Mere Christianity”:
“If God thinks this state of war in the universe is a price worth paying for free will — that is, for making a live world in which creatures can do real good or harm and something of real importance can happen, instead of a toy world which only moves when He pulls the strings—then we may take it it is worth paying.”
In the book “The Giver,” Jonas says it even better with his courage and conviction. He shows us the devastating consequences of a society that has lost freewill, joy and love.
Spine Time is a Monthly Book Review from a literary Catholic worldview.