Dir. Philip Noyce. U.S. 2014

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History tells us that oppression can take many different forms. Author C.S. Lewis said, "Of all tyrannies, a tyranny exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive." In a future world after “the ruin,” Philip Noyce’s The Giver envisions such a society in which good translates into conformity, where sameness is the most prized attribute, and where the killing of infants is routinely accepted. Based on the 1993 Newbery-winning novel by Lois Lowry and adapted for the screen by Michael Mitnick and Robert B. Weide, in the society that is depicted, all memories have been eradicated including recollections of war or pain.

Also nonexistent are distinctions based on color, race, and religion as well as emotions such as joy, fear, and love. Without towns or cities, the residents confront an endless repetition of immaculately landscaped identical dwellings surrounded by clearly marked territorial boundaries that they must not cross. A strict set of rules are severely enforced such as using “precise” language, wearing the same assigned clothing, obeying curfews, refraining from telling lies, and taking their daily anti-emotion injections. Oh, yes, questioning authority is also a no-no (sounds like Wall Street except for the not telling lies part).

Shot in South Africa in low contrast black and white, the film opens with three friends (all aged from the novel by five years so the script can include a romance) Fiona (Odeya Rush), Asher (Cameron Monaghan), and Jonas (Brenton Thwaites), eagerly looking forward to their graduation ceremony. This is not a graduation with a cap and gown and a diploma, however. Every year young people are assigned a life task by Big Sister, the Chief Elder (Meryl Streep) who is supposed to be Miss Blandness of the year but looks like the next Wicked Witch of the West. The elderly do not fare as well. Having served their purpose, they are banished to “elsewhere,” which I guess is just down the road from nowhere, which is where we all live now.

In the ceremony, Jonas is given the most prestigious job of all. He will be the Receiver of Memory, a position that has not been filled in ten years since the last Receiver met a whispered-about fate. In his new assignment, the awestruck Jonas will be reporting to a wizened, bearded elderly named The Giver (Jeff Bridges) whose job it is to transmit nothing less than the entire history of the planet. Though Jonas is warned that he will have to endure pain, he is not prepared when The Giver sends him back in time to see a world of vibrant color, the rites of different religions, and images of people dancing and singing as well as the killing of elephants for their ivory and the death of his friends in war.

Jonas begins to experience feelings he never knew he had, especially the emotion of love for Fiona and starts to become aware that the society he was raised in is not as perfect as he thought. Realizing that Jonas has the power to change things and restore everyone’s memories by crossing a certain boundary, The Giver shows the boy images of underdogs fighting against authority such as the man standing in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square and a picture of Nelson Mandela, though how those images would mean anything to him is not clear. Geared to a teenage audience, The Giver succeeds in conveying the message of what it truly means to be human and the values that are most important in life.

Unfortunately, the film’s overall effectiveness is limited by one-dimensional characters, a forced love story, banal dialogue, and Hollywood predictability. Unlike films such as The Truman Show, where the viewer only gradually realizes the true nature of the society depicted, Jonas’ too sudden understanding of oppression without the slow, burning development of conscience, robs the film of the element of surprise and much of its power. Even with its flaws, however, the film has a lot to say about the dangers of conformity, the suppression of feelings, and the unquestioned acceptance of authority, demonstrating that any attempt to sanitize life is misguided. Poet e.e. cummings put it this way, "To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else means to fight the hardest battles which any human being can fight, and never stop fighting." In today’s world of overreaching technology and increasing control over our lives, it is a fight that is more important than ever.


Howard Schumann

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