At first glace, the August 15 movie version of “The Giver,” starring Hollywood heavyweights Jeff Bridges and Meryl Streep, features another kid in a long line of put-upon teens destined to save their dystopian societies.
But more recent teen heroes owe their success to the 1993 novel that started the dystopian teen craze. Before Katniss strung her bow in “The Hunger Games” or Tris jumped on a moving train in Divergent’s pages, there was Lois Lowry’s “The Giver.”
It tells the story of Jonas (Brenton Thwaites), who thinks nothing of his sterile, ordered childhood until he begins his apprenticeship under the Giver (Jeff Bridges). The older man transmits memories to Jonas: images, experiences, feelings, and passions that have been removed from humanity’s consciousness.
With the wisdom experience brings, Jonas begins to see, and then to resist, the horrors at the heart of his seemingly perfect society. In this world, memories and emotions are considered dangerous. They’re unpredictable, uncontrollable, and ultimately might lead one person to harm another. For the good of all, memories are best forgotten and emotions suppressed.
The Dystopia of Utopia
Taking a cue from the classics “1984” and “Brave New World,” “The Giver” imagines an oppressive system built around an imposed and enforced good. In this future world, the sun shines, homes are clean and white, and children ride bikes in safety and security through well-manicured paths. This dystopia looks a lot like utopia. Until you dig deeper.
There is a cost. Differences are negated. Dissent is hushed away as distressingly impolite. Passion is outlawed. Even the idea of choice is an archaic concept. The state dictates your mate, your family, your career. Prefer loneliness or the life of a ne’er-do-well? Too bad. Not an option. For your own benefit, your future is determined.
Music? Too emotionally liberating. Family? Irrational and unpredictable. Love? Too messy, too uncontrolled, as likely to end in murder as in bliss. After all, if the individual is allowed to choose, he or she might choose poorly.
Christian apologist and novelist C.S. Lewis wrote in a, essay shortly after World War II:
Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.
In the movie, the eye of the state, embodied in Meryl Streep’s Chief Elder character, is all-seeing, constantly meddling, inescapable.
The Right to Be Wrong
It is also inevitably cruel. For perfect order, those who don’t fall inside the lines must be sacrificed. A tyranny that lays claim to the inside of your own mind, for your own good, allows no dissent, no differing views. It can only end in re-education camps, some sort of opiate, or death.
This is a lesson we are learning again, brutally, in today’s ISIS-bloodied Middle East.
“The Giver” is concerned less with the how—the specifics of Jonas’s rebellion—than the why. And the why is where it soars. In beautiful flashes of image and emotion, we feel, rather than are told, the why. The thrill of danger on a sled ride. The smile on a bride’s face. The pride on a father’s. The agony of losing a friend. The heroism of a man standing alone in front of a line of tanks.
Without freedom to do wrong, there can be no right. Without the ability to choose evil, the option of choosing good is negated. Coerced goodness is not goodness at all, but something else entirely.
These are not mere platitudes. They lay at the very heart of the American experiment of liberty. Without the freedom to vile and offensive speech, beautiful and uplifting speech is impossible. Without the freedom to choose a wrong religion or no religion at all, faith means nothing.
Free men and women choose. Children are dictated to by others. Lewis went on: “To be ‘cured’ against one’s will and cured of states which we may not regard as disease is to be put on a level of those who have not yet reached the age of reason or those who never will; to be classed with infants, imbeciles, and domestic animals.”
This appeal to true liberty is the heart of “The Giver.” Wrapped in an exciting movie with beautiful special effects, it makes the case for the beauty of grown-up freedom.
This is why we need “The Giver.”