Directed by Phillip Noyce
Starring Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep, Brenton Thwaites, Alexander Skarsgård, Odeya Rush, Katie Holmes
What if we could erase violence, pain and discord? Could a society regularize emotions, eliminate suffering and end war? What if reproduction and sexuality could be completely divorced from the messiness of family life? Wouldn’t it be lovely? In the soon-to-be released movie-from–a-book, “The Giver,” an ideal community is based on this premise. There is a price, of course.
The film is based on Lois Lowry’s novel which has become a literary fixture in American schools. “The Giver” is one of those rare books loved both by teachers and students. Our guess is that the movie version produced by Walden Media will have similar success. For one reason, it has a built-in audience of the millions who read the book as students. For another, it is visually spectacular.
In the movie, inhabitants of a highly controlled and regimented world are smiling, uniformly handsome and beautiful. All happily work on various state-run activities. They are fed, clothed, recreated and quietly controlled by the smiling and seemingly benevolent dictator (played chillingly by Meryl Streep), who at one point says, “When people have the freedom to choose, they choose wrong.”
The inhabitants also live in a perfect climate, but live a flat and colorless existence. Since they daily receive injections to suppress their emotions, they, too, are colorless. They don’t bear their own children. Only those designated as “birth mother” carry this out. After delivery biologically unrelated host families inculcate the children into society’s soft totalitarian ethos. Presumably there are no squabbles at the dinner table, no complaints about veggies or sulky teenagers.
Central to this dark utopia, babies that don’t measure up to mandated standards of weight and length are “released.” That is, they are quietly and efficiently put to death. So, too, with the elderly, who smilingly gather for their “releasing” ceremony before extermination.
This seemingly idyllic world has intentionally cut its citizen off from any knowledge of the past. Only one person [Jeff Bridges] has knowledge of the human history, the world which the ruling creators left behind. He is “the receiver of memory” and, since he is getting old, his task is to past on his wisdom and knowledge to his selected successor. The basic plot, then, involves Bridges efforts to teach Jonas, a bright teenager, the world they have left behind. He must pass on to Jonas the secrets of world of the hidden world of good and evil, the world of unknown emotions, such as love and hate.
Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) is in training to be the new “receiver of memory,” but he must keep the wisdom and history from the rest of this “perfect community.” Early on, Jonas is shaken by what he learns about the past and the confusing and mixed world of emotions. However, the turning point comes when he learns that the baby Gabriel, who is living in his home, has been found to slightly below standards and, therefore, is scheduled to be “released.”
While “The Giver” is clearly popular entertainment about a futuristic society, it is riddled with quite relevant social warnings and spiritual messages, all delivered in a low key way. Religious viewers will find plenty of symbols in the movie. An apple, in this gender abridged community, is given by Jonas to his female friend (Odeya Rush). Baby Gabriel (God’s messenger?) is the instrument who brings truth and love back to these unknowingly enslaved people. A sled saves Jonas and Baby Gabriel as they escape to the real world and find refuge and salvation in a snowy house decorated for Christmas.
The film’s provocative social messages focus on what befalls a people who have given up or had their freedom taken from them. It demonstrates what happens when they put their wellbeing into the hands of a state that promises to take cradle-to-grave care of them and to solve all their very human problems. Pro-life viewers will be reminded of what is in store for those the State defines as “defective.”
Below the surface of this compelling story are many quite current social trends and practices: one is an education system that is devoted to fitting people in collectivist roles rather than developing youth into fully flourishing humans; another is the quiet drift toward individuals giving up bits of freedom and slices of liberty in exchange for comforts and security; another is government sifting information, shaping history and spinning the truth; and still another is the growing trend of controlling thought by manipulating thought by substituting words like “death” with bland term such as “released.” But basically the film reminds us that our untidy human natures are part of what it means to be alive.
“The Giver” is due for release August 15 in US theaters. It is the work of Walden Media, a film production company, which since its founding in 2001, has brought us some spectacular films, many with strong pro-family and pro-life themes. Among Walden Media’s thirty films are “The Chronicles of Narnia,” “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” and the powerful documentary “Waiting for Superman.”
If you only go to one movie this summer, choose “The Giver.” Coming out of the movie, a priest friend, who teaches philosophy at a New England university and who is a close observer of college students, commented, “It’s is a perfect end of summer date movie.” On the other hand, it’s a perfect family movie. So much to talk about over the dinner table.
Kevin Ryan founded the Center for the Advancement of Ethics and Character at Boston University, where he is professor emeritus. He has written and edited 20 books. He has appeared on CBS’s “This Morning”, ABC’s “Good Morning America”, “The O’Reilly Factor”, CNN and the Public Broadcasting System speaking on character education. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.