Stop me if you have heard this basic premise before, particularly when it comes to the realm of YA literary adaptations. Following a cataclysmic event (called “The Ruin” on screen), society has reestablished itself as a futuristic, sterile and homogenized community restricted by countless societal boundaries. At a turning-point age, teenagers are assigned by elders to specific tasks – or, you know, Districts (The Hunger Games) and/or Factions (Divergent) – where they contribute to the betterment of the culture. But one “Chosen” hero sees through the imperfections of the feudal society (lorded over by an Oscar winner – here Meryl Streep instead of Donald Sutherland or Kate Winslet), and races the clock to tear the system down.
Don’t curse the great Katniss in the sky and instantly dismiss The Giver as recycled garbage from the YA trash heap, though. Published in 1993, Lois Lowry’s The Giver pre-dates the bestselling literary outputs of Suzanne Collins and Veronica Roth, to name the two “big dogs” in this current teen-friendly field. In other words, we wouldn’t have The Hunger Games, Divergent or this recent crop of post-apocalyptic save-the-day romance thrillers. And those exercises aren’t quite as entertaining as The Giver ends up being in its finest moments.
The “Giver” character isn’t the hero of this piece. That would be the “Receiver,” a handsome teen boy named Jonas (Brenton Thwaites). On his 16th birthday, Jonas is told by the Chief Elder (Meryl Streep) – in a ceremony Divergent blatantly copied earlier this year – that he possesses the right functions to become the Receiver of Memories. He’s to meet daily with The Giver (Jeff Bridges), a brilliant recluse who remembers what life was like before “The Runi,” and retains such knowledge to advise the Elders and prevent such horrible developments from ever happening again.
Again, the “Giver” isn’t the hero, but he’s absolutely the star. Jeff Bridges is so amusingly philosophic in the spectacular role of mentor and sage – the overly experienced veteran who has so much to share with his younger cast mates but needs to pick and choose his moments. The Giver is a role Bridges has grown into – ironic because he wanted to adapt Lowry’s seminal novel on his own, casting his father, Lloyd, in the wise, old role “junior” Bridges now assumes (and wears very well).
The cast, in general, is populated by veterans who bring real screen presence to what has become a very familiar tale. The surprise would have been Streep, checking in periodically as the wizard behind the curtain. Except Oscar-pedigreed talents like Sutherland and Winslet have paved the YA way for thespians of Streep’s platitude, meaning Dame Meryl isn’t docked points for slumming in a teen-oriented future drama. She, instead, earns brownie points for trying to elevate material aimed at the up-and-comers.
The presence of Australian director Phillip Noyce also gives The Giver a welcome boost. A veteran of Harrison Ford’s Jack Ryan run – he helmed both Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger -- Noyce makes two wise decisions (which belong, in part, to Lowry’s text). For starters, the early portions of The Giver exist in black-and-white. The absence of color signifies an absence of knowledge, for the more that Jonas learns, the more color Noyce allows to bleed in. Secondly, the director wisely chooses illuminating imagery that punctuates every moment when The Giver passes experiences and memories on to his empty vessel of a student. These flalshbacks are resplendent bursts of life: music; dancing; a boat drifting toward a gorgeous sunset; and, yes, imagery of loss and death in times of war. The Giver slips into YA pacing and symbolism in its lowest moments, but the contributions of several gifted parties open this world up in ways I didn’t expect. “Thank you for your childhood,” indeed.