“We failed in our last selection,” the Chief Elder said solemnly.
(See Important Quotations Explained)
Just before the Ceremony of Twelve, Jonas and the other Elevens line up by number—in addition to his or her name, each child has a number that was assigned at birth, showing the order in which he or she was born. Jonas is Nineteen; his friend Fiona is Eighteen. The Chief Elder, the elected leader of the community, gives a speech before the Ceremony, noting that it is the one time the community recognizes the differences between the children rather than ignoring them as is customary and polite. Jonas watches and listens as his classmates receive their Assignments. His friend Asher is assigned the position of Assistant Director of Recreation after the Chief Elder gives a long and humorous speech about Asher’s pleasant, fun-loving nature and the trouble he has had in using precise language. She recalls a time when Asher confused the words “snack” and “smack” at the Childcare Center, and received a smack with the discipline wand every time. She laughs as she remembers that for a while, three-year-old Asher refused to talk at all, but that “he learned . . . [a]nd now his lapses are very few.” Jonas is relieved that Asher has received a wonderful Assignment and happy to see that his other classmates are pleased with their Assignments too.
But when Jonas’s turn comes, the Chief Elder skips over him, moving from Eighteen to Twenty without acknowledging him. Jonas endures the rest of the Ceremony in horrible embarrassment and worry, wondering what he has done wrong. The audience is concerned too—they are unused to disorder and mistakes. At the end of the Ceremony, the Chief Elder apologizes for causing the audience concern and causing Jonas anguish. She tells him that he has been selected for a very special position, that of Receiver of Memory. The community has only one Receiver at a time, and the current one—a bearded man with pale eyes like Jonas’s, sitting with the Committee of Elders—is very old and needs to train a successor. The Chief Elder explains that ten years ago, a new Receiver had been selected, but the selection had been a terrible failure. After Jonas was identified as a possible Receiver, the Elders watched him very carefully and made a unanimous decision to select him, despite the strict selection criteria. To begin with, the candidate for Receiver can be rejected if any of the Elders so much as dreams that he might not be the best selection. The Receiver also needs to possess intelligence, integrity, and courage, as well as the ability to acquire wisdom. Courage is especially important, because as the Receiver, Jonas will experience real pain, something no one else in the community experiences. The job also requires the “Capacity to See Beyond.” Jonas does not believe he has this capacity, but then he looks out at the crowd and sees their faces change, the way the apple changed in midair. He realizes he does have it after all. The Chief Elder thanks him for his childhood, and the crowd accepts him as the new Receiver by chanting his name louder and louder. Jonas feels gratitude, pride, and fear at the same time.
Although his training, which will keep him apart from other members of the community, has not yet begun, Jonas immediately begins to feel isolated from his friends and family, who treat him differently from before, though very respectfully. At home, his family is quieter than usual, though his parents tell him that they are very honored that he has been selected as Receiver. When he asks about the previous, failed selection, they reluctantly tell him that the name of the female selected ten years ago is Not-to-Be-Spoken, indicating the highest degree of disgrace.
Before bed, Jonas looks over the single sheet of paper in his Assignment folder. He learns that he is exempted from rules governing rudeness—he can ask anyone any question he likes and expect an answer—that he is not allowed to discuss his training with anyone, that he is not allowed to tell his dreams to anyone, that he cannot apply for medication unless it is for an illness unrelated to his training, that he cannot apply for release, and that he is allowed to lie. He also learns that he will have very little time for recreation and wonders what will happen to his friendships. The other instructions disturb him too—he cannot imagine being rude, nor can he imagine not having access to medication. In his community, medicine is always instantly delivered to stop pain of any kind, and the idea that his training involves excruciating pain is almost incomprehensible. He cannot imagine lying, either, having been trained since childhood to speak with total precision and accuracy, even avoiding exaggeration and figures of speech. He wonders if anyone else in his community is allowed to lie too.
The Chief Elder’s description of Asher’s childhood troubles gives us our first concrete example of the real cruelty that keeps the community so peaceful and happy. Though Asher seems to be a well-adjusted child, the idea that a normal three-year-old child’s confusion of two similar words could be so systematically and coldheartedly punished is difficult to accept. When a child whose language development had been progressing normally suddenly regresses into silence from constant physical punishment, that is evidence of severe trauma. Several events in the novel have already made us wonder if the peace and order of the society is worth the sacrifices its members have to make—sacrifices of individual freedom, deep personal relationships, and sexual pleasure—but Asher’s punishments demonstrate the severity of those sacrifices and help us to understand how intolerant the community is of differences and personality quirks.
Of course, the Ceremony of Twelve is the time when the community celebrates differences, and for Jonas it is the time when his own differences are made uncomfortably clear. His anguish and discomfort at being singled out at the Ceremony is only his first taste of the isolation he will experience as the new Receiver—the only member of the community whose life experience is appreciably different from anyone else’s. His family’s quiet respect for him and his friends’ distant behavior contribute to this growing feeling of isolation. Jonas is already different—already he has the ability to see beyond—but until now, he has not felt particularly different, and it has not occurred to him to criticize or question many of the community’s rules and practices. Interestingly, the role he is assigned, in accentuating his differences, encourages him to question those rules and practices, as he begins to do at the end of Chapter 9. The rules that permit him to act differently—he is permitted to be rude and to lie, among other things—encourage him to think differently: his permission to lie makes him wonder for the first time if other people in his society are permitted to lie too. Jonas loses some of his faith and trust in the members of his community. This slight loss of trust reminds us how dangerous it is to the structure of Jonas’s society to permit free choice or to encourage free thought.
In an age when film rights to young adult novels—particularly those centered around strong-willed children in a bleak dystopia—are optioned before a book ever even hits a shelf, it’s astounding that what is one of the most important, most popular, most cherished works of that kind from the past three decades took almost 20 years to hit the screen.
But maybe that’s because adapting The Giver into a film was always a fool’s errand.
In the course of two decades, Lois Lowry’s 1994 Newberry Medal-winning novel has sold nearly 12 million copies and become a classroom staple, the rare book that almost every American student was forced to read at a point in their lives and actually enjoyed reading.
It’s hard, too, not to see the work as a precursor to The Hunger Games or Divergent, among the countless young adult novels of that ilk. But it is the biggest difference between those modern books-turned-blockbusters that is likely the culprit for stalling its journey to screen for so long. Fittingly enough, that difference may also be the element that makes The Giver such a seminal, meaningful work of literature, whereas Veronica Roth and Suzanne Collins’ efforts are so often dismissed as pure pop: The Giver has no action.
In The Hunger Games franchise, children first battle to the death against each other, and then against the government. In the Divergent series, factions are at war with each other. The Giver is, oversimplified to a simple nut, about a boy who remembers things. In a brand new foreword to her novel that is being re-released with branding ties to the movie, Lowry discusses this. “‘Introspective, quiet, and short on action’ translates to ‘tough to film,’” she writes.
So in order to make this splashy, star-studded movie that is in theaters this weekend, The Giver’s screenwriters and producers added action. Lots of it. They made a quietly stirring novel into a loud and aggressive movie. The movie is quite good, if you can separate it from the novel. That’s a big “if,” however, and a hurdle that not many fans of Lowry’s words will be able to cross.
Book-to-film adaptations are always a precarious endeavor, and the changes that are made in order to make written words more cinematic are bound to upset those who held the source material dear and are unable to view a film version on its own merits. But we have a sneaking suspicion that the filmmakers behind The Giver, who employed a slew of crucial alterations to the novel’s narrative, underestimated the power and population of those who fall into that category.
So what’s different? First, a quick synopsis for the uninitiated.
At some ambiguous point in the future, Lowry’s novel begins by painting a portrait of a uniform society, one without color of any kind: in its visible palate, in its range of emotions, in its citizens’ ambitions or individuality. Jonas, a 12-year-old boy whose entire life to that point had been streamlined to conformity just like every one of his classmates’, is our book’s hero, though neither he nor we know that when we are first introduced.
A ceremony is held every year in which each age group of community members is assigned more responsibility, the most important group being the 12-year-olds, who learn what their job and function in society will be: teacher, birth mother, recreation director, etc. Jonas is selected for a special job. He will become The Receiver, which means he will, through training with The Giver, inherit every memory, emotion, and color that has been eradicated from the community. That incorporates all of the happiness—beaches, sledding, love—and pain—war, death, loneliness. Suddenly emotional for the first time, Jonas makes decisions (an act also new to him) that affect not just his future, but his entire community’s.
The major point in that plot description is that Jonas is 12 years old. This is important. For one, that is close in age to many of the readers the first time they pick up Lowry’s book, making it easier for them to relate to and empathize with Jonas’ confusing journey into adulthood and decision-making, as they are at the same point in life. But Jonas’ youth also makes every discovery he makes all the more terrifying and, at times, heartbreaking.
He is just a child, and his innocence is broken as he receives the memories of war and death, and becomes aware that there is a capacity for evil in the world. When his anguish over these realities, which have been shielded from the citizens of his community for decades, builds to the point where he sees no other recourse but to change the status quo, Jonas’ age makes the act all the more brave.
In the movie, Jonas is played by 25-year-old Aussie actor Brenton Thwaites. Because Jonas is aged to 16 in the film, Thwaites’ bonafide adult-ness isn’t as egregious as it initially sounds—though the decision to age the character at all certainly may be. We chatted with Thwaites about this choice, and his answer was thoughtful and almost convincing enough to have us believe it was a good idea.
“I always read him as an older kind of a guy on the cusp of finishing school and finding a job,” he said. “In our world, we do that when we’re 17, 18. When we’re finishing high school you go out and find a job or go to college. So the crossroads you find in a teenager that’s about 17 or 18 is the same Jonas is at.”
That is certainly fair. But aging Jonas also has the perhaps unintended effect of making his naiveté seem slightly imbecilic. Jonas is our window into this community where no one ever questions why everyone and everything is the same, and where everyone isn’t just complacent in their flatlined existence, but embraces it. Though none of the characters questions this state of being, it’s easier for us to understand why a 12-year-old never would. When a 16-year-old takes on that wide-eyed, touched-for-the-very-first-time role, it all comes off as a tad more…juvenile. Perhaps even silly.
Your heart bleeds for a 12-year-old who sulks after discovering the cruel realities of humanity. When it’s a 16-year-old, you can’t help but think, “Man up.”
Then, of course, there’s the visual element. Brenton Thwaites is a man. He is a very attractive man with a very nice chiseled jaw and a very pleasant smolder. Did anyone think, when they read The Giver for the first time, that they would ever be sexually attracted to Jonas?
As it turns out, such confusing feelings—“stirrings,” to use Lowry’s terminology—may have been intentional. “You can really enhance the love story,” Thwaites told me, talking about the advantages, cinematically, of an older Jonas. “I think it’s more believable that a young adult would have stronger feelings of love for a woman opposed to a 12-year-old boy, who might have a crush.”
Yes, you may remember that in the book, Jonas does feel “stirrings” for his classmate Fiona. It’s a small portion of the book used to illustrate how the community has managed to manipulate and suppress even natural feelings of attraction through the use of a pill. That anecdote is blown out into a full-blown love story plot in the film. “Romantic” may not be a word anyone would ever have used to describe Lowry’s book, but it’s certainly a major element of the movie. I can’t say that a fleshed out romance between Jonas and Fiona is anything I was ever missing in the book, but it adds something that is, at the very least, extra and interesting (if annoyingly conventional and unnecessary) to the movie.
Also ramped up in the movie is the role of the Chief Elder. In the book, Jonas’ selection as The Receiver is treated as an honor by his community, but then he is essentially left to his own devices and personal self-discovery with his training. Almost from the start, however, Jonas’ training with The Giver in the film is treated as some sort of suspicious activity, with everyone from the Chief Elder down to Jonas’ mother and his friends looking at him and The Giver with a raised eyebrow.
Perhaps to give Meryl Streep, who was cast as Chief Elder, more to do or perhaps to add more blatant strings of dramatic tension to the film, Jonas and The Giver are treated as if their work is nefarious, like they’re up to something, for most of the film. So while their decision to actually defy the order of the community in the narrative’s climax comes as a very moving, noble surprise in the book, you’re hardly startled by it at all in the movie. Meryl Streep’s incessant meddling tips you off to it from the start.
And it is that climax where the book and the film diverge the most, and which will probably upset the most people.
The changes at first seem slight, but become vastly important by the finale. They start at that ceremony where the 12-year-olds receive their job. In the book, Jonas’ best friend Asher is named recreation director. His crush Fiona is assigned to a caretaker to the elders. The film, however, makes Asher a pilot and Fiona a caretaker to the newborns—seemingly innocuous decisions that become meaningful.
You see, by the end of the first year of training in the book, Jonas and The Giver decide it is time for the community to have their memories back. That society hasn’t been helped, but actually harmed, by eliminating them in the first place. It is explained that, should Jonas leave the community and go to “Elsewhere,” all of the memories he has received—the great ones and the brutal ones—will then be released to the community, no doubt causing mayhem at first as they grapple with the new emotion, but hopefully creating a better society in the end.
Their plan is altered slightly when Jonas learns that a newborn named Gabriel who has been staying with his family under the care of his father, a caretaker of newborns, will be “released.” Just prior to finding out this news, he learns what “released” actually means. The community claims to release its elderly and its malnourished newborns frequently, saying that these citizens are sent to Elsewhere, where they will live out fruitful lives outside of the community. The Giver, in a pivotal moment, tells Jonas that releasing is actually a form of euthanizing. These citizens are being killed, and Gabriel is next.
Enraged, Jonas kidnaps Gabriel and rides his bike outside of the community’s borders, both to rescue the infant and release all of his memories so that the citizens will realize that it is wrong to be killing its weak in the name of conformity and order and end its practice.
The third act of the book, however, turns this sequence into a major action setpiece. Gabriel isn’t simply scooped up and placed on a bike like in the book. He must be kidnapped out of the nurturing center, where he is under Fiona’s care. There is an adrenaline-packed, torturous moment where Jonas must convince Fiona to help him save Gabriel, though she’s confused as to why. And Jonas doesn’t pedal out of the community, he rides a slick jet-like motorcycle, and is chased out by security guards in hot pursuit. His friend, Asher, is sent up in a drone-like airplane to tail him, too, and an air-and-land cat-and-mouse game between former best friends ensues.
Both end in the same vein, with Jonas and Gabriel circling back to the first memory Jonas received from The Giver and sledding to safety at a cute-looking cottage in the real world outside of the community, which they had to trek days of precarious terrain to get to. But the breathlessness you feel as they get there is out of pure emotional and intellectual turmoil in the book, versus explicit, special-effects driven tension in the film.
These are just a few of the differences between the book and the movie versions of The Giver, but they’re important to flag, as they change the entire experience of the narrative. Given that this whole story centers around the crucial idea of “experience” and what it means to all of us, it seems fair enough to obsess over how such things differ in the movie, doesn’t it?
But again, it needs to be said that The Giver isn’t a bad film because of these changes. On the contrary, it’s a solid, engrossing film with great performances. It’s also a film that many people will find difficult to appreciate given the effect that the experience of reading the novel has had on their lives.
“A book is such an individual and private thing,” Lowry writes in her new foreword, musing as to whether the film will be as powerful as her book has been for so many people. But she goes on: “The important thing is that a film doesn’t obliterate a book. The movie is here now. But the book hasn’t gone away. It has simply grown up, grown larger, and begun to glisten in a new way.”
The question is whether we’ll let it.
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