It’s no coincidence that Lois Lowry’s Newbery Medal–winning dystopian children’s novel The Giver has only now been adapted for the big screen, more than 20 years after its initial publication in 1993, in the wake of monster success dystopian YA novels The Hunger Games and Divergent and their triumphant book-to-film adaptations. But The Giver also makes sense now in a way it wouldn’t have in the mid-’90s, when coming-of-age films looked like Jumanji and Clueless.
The trouble with adapting The Giver in the wake of blockbusters like The Hunger Games is that The Giver was not written to be a blockbuster. It’s a quiet and internal story of a boy growing up in a false utopia that celebrates sameness, a boy who is given the opportunity to gaze into the past and see all the wonders his world has lost (snow, music, and love, to name a few) in their quest to create a world without pain and suffering. This adaptation attempts to honor its source material while creating a film that a new generation can get behind. As a result, the lead character, Jonas (Brenton Thwaites), is aged up (11 becomes 16), and Fiona (Odeya Rush), a mere crush in the novel, becomes a full-blown romantic interest in the film. Jonas’s painful and obvious tell-don’t-show voiceover is peppered throughout the film, and the third act, now all action sequences, bears almost no resemblance to the book’s ending, where our protagonist makes a quiet exodus from his community.
The Giver is a film that struggles in its reinvention, but that isn’t to say it’s without its merits. There are excellent performances (of note, Jeff Bridges in the title role, who also serves as producer on this film and has worked doggedly for almost two decades to get it made). Director Phillip Noyce builds out his world beautifully, and his use of color (a critical component of the book’s narrative) is masterful. But in its struggle to keep up with the times, the adaptation simply does not live up to its source material — even if it makes for an enjoyable and worthwhile hour and a half at the theater.