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There are few books from childhood that permanently shape the minds and hearts of the individuals who read it. When it was published twenty years ago, Lois Lowry’s The Giver inspired an entire generation of readers; the author-turned-grandmother still gets dozens of letters in the mail every day related to the book. With a black and white world that slowly turns into dazzling Technicolor and themes about what makes us human, it’s no wonder that a Giver movie was Jeff Bridges’ pet project for over a decade or that heavy hitters, including Meryl Streep and Salt director Phillip Noyce signed on.
It’s also easy to see why The Giver might be a tough sell to studios wanting to reach the largest audience possible. The Giver is a difficult story, one about an undemocratic state, but also about ethics and complex issues like eugenics and euthanization. Lowry’s book is intended for middle grade readers, but it is a complex title for mature readers that has touched adults, teens and children alike. For the big screen, Noyce had to take a book that is heavily about the new and eye-opening perceptions of a young man and turn it into a story that would translate on the big screen. By and large he succeeds, giving audiences images that are inspiring without being too heavy-handed, with only a few misfires where some added action grows unnecessary.
Following are the 10 biggest changes I noticed in my screening of The Giver. Plenty of other details were changed, of course, and feel free to remark on any differences you feel may have been more noticeable. There are many spoilers in The Giver book to movie comparison. Do not delve in if you want the film to be a surprise.
Jonas, Asher, Fiona and the other young characters are aged up. Careers are chosen for the three young people at the age of 18, instead of the tender age of 12. Additionally, Jonas’ sister is aged up so that she receives her bike at age 9 in the movie, instead of behaving in a younger manner. The maturation of the characters adds a hint of romance, and means Jonas' grown-up demeanor better suits his character, overall.
In the movie, technology is more impressive. The world is a technologically advanced place filled with drones, 3D transmissions and impressive looking devices of all sorts. This means Jonas has never seen a book of any kind, and much of the information imparted from the Giver is new. He also receives his medicine through injections and has to figure out a clever way to beat the injection system in order to start feeling true emotions.
The memories Jonas receives are similar but different than the book. His first experience of pain is of a bee sting instead of a sunburn. When he first experiences war, he sees an incident of modern warfare from what looks like the Vietnam period, rather than an old-timey war with horses and cannons. The movie often juxtaposes real video footage. Nelson Mandela, Tiananmen Square and more pop up, connecting Jonas and the Giver’s experiences to important cultural moments and events, and tying the narrative a little closer to history.
Jonas is able to share many of his experiences with others. In the books, Jonas does act out a few times, asking his parents if they love him and more. The movie highlights Jonas’ struggle to hold in all of the memories that he has been given. He kisses Fiona and teaches his sister to dance. He takes Fiona sledding using metal trays on a hilly surface. He tries to explain love. This causes him to be noticed by the elders in the community and puts him in danger later on.
The Giver explains love to Jonas. In the books, in order to explain love, the Giver gives Jonas his favorite memory, a window into a family sharing a warm and special Christmas. In the movie Jonas learns about love from words spoken by The Giver, but doesn’t truly experience it until he gets close with the "uncertain" baby Gabriel.
Jonas threatens to leave the Giver after experiencing war for the first time in the film. In the books, once he takes the war memory from his mentor, he wants to leave but feels he has no choice but to return. He gets more time to brood but to also mentally handle the pain he has been handed. In the movie, Jonas spends less time with the Giver in order to keep the movie’s pace fluid and engaging.
The Chief Elder is the big villain. While the setup of society is faulty in The Giver book, the Chief Elder plays a much bigger role to keep memories out in the movie. I’m not sure if the role was expanded once Meryl Streep signed on, but she sure does get plenty of screen time in the film.
The Giver keeps the memory of music in the books. Noyce’s film shows the Giver teaching Jonas about music, but in the books the Giver’s memories fade once he passes them to Jonah. He attempts to explain music to Jonah but Jonah valiantly gives the memory of music up. In the memories, music is used to connect Rosemary, the failed Receiver, to the present and to give Taylor Swift an opportunity to use her talents onscreen.
Fiona is given a bigger role in the movie and her career is changed. In the books, Jonas has his first stirrings related to his friend Fiona. However, he eventually kisses her in the movie and tries to share many of his experiences with her. This changes her in integral ways, too. As a nursery worker, she is able to to help Jonas to escape and to be targeted by the elders for release against her will.
The third act in the movie is heightened. Jonas decides to take baby Gabriel and this leads to a heightened chase through the nursery and into the wild on a motorcycle. Because Jonas jumps from a cliff and is dropped by his friend Asher into a large lake with a waterfall, the ending is a bit more exciting, although it takes away from the philosophical nature of Lowry’s book.