This year’s young adult summer blockbuster opens onto a community disturbingly similar to our own—at first glance, it appears the whole town has merely moved onto the local college campus. Everyone looks young, fit, and happy, riding around on identical white bicycles, which are creepily reminiscent of the ubiquitous boxy bike-share bikes currently endangering pedestrians on metropolitan sidewalks everywhere.
In fact, a lot of our collective impulses have been realized in the world of “The Giver.” Public apologies, which people seem to like so much these days, have become ritualized and constant. Someone has finally succeeded in completely removing baby-making from the family sphere, and euthanasia is available on demand for everyone—and is eventually forced upon the old, along with a celebration of life. Humans have managed to eliminate war, race, religion, disease, unemployment, and gender roles. One gets the sense that this peaceful world could be right around the corner.
All this peace has been achieved by imposing radical “sameness.” As the hero of the movie, Jonas (Brenton Thwaites), remarks in the opening voiceover: “We didn’t want to be different. Who would?” Jonas, however, is different. He has the intelligence, integrity, courage, and, crucially, the “capacity to see beyond” necessary to shoulder the most important role in the community—the Receiver of Memory. You see, the townsfolk are spared the memory of everything that happened before the mysterious Ruin and the subsequent establishment of the new order in which they live. But someone has to remember what happened before so he can advise the elders who rule the Community. This small gesture toward the importance of history is the only bit of real wisdom shown by any of the Community leaders, led by the fierce, all-seeing Chief Elder (Meryl Streep). So while Jonas’s friends are assigned jobs like Nurturer or Drone Pilot, he gets saddled with holding all of human history.
Comfort Versus Freedom
The former Receiver—the Giver, played by Jeff Bridges—must transmit the history of civilization to Jonas. The Giver is a bitter, lonely man. He alone knows that this world is no utopia. Only he knows the real cost of the security and comfort the community enjoys: Along with pain and real suffering, they have given up love and real joy. In the interest of peace, the government has taken away free will and along with it everything that makes us human.
If this all seems a bit heavy for a YA movie, it is. And it’s fantastic.
“The Giver” is based off a book written in 1993 by Lois Lowry, who won the Newbery Prize for it in 1994. While the themes dealt in both the book and the movie are not overtly political, and Lowry made it clear in a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal that she is not a Republican, the film has already been embraced by conservatives of all stripes. It’s not hard to see why. The movie is about the importance of freedom and free will, and what can happen when we are willing to sacrifice them for comfort and security. Just the thing for Tea Party Patriots, conservatives, and anyone else concerned with the First Amendment and creeping government power.
The Giver deals with themes of totalitarianism, suicide, euthanasia, and infanticide—rough stuff for anyone, let alone the delicate adolescents who make up the movie’s target audience. And the movie is hard to watch at times. The role of Jonas’s father is played by Alexander Skarsgard, who is best known for playing a particularly brutal vampire of HBO’s “True Blood” series. His role in “The Giver” is far more terrifying. He plays a different kind of angel-of-death role here—one who is kind, gentle, and kills only children. And he has no idea that it’s wrong.
Show, Don’t Tell
It’s horrifying. But it’s a vital part of what this movie does. Instead of talking about the dangers of government power, it shows what happens when we are willing to sacrifice everything for life without conflict and pain: Life ceases to have meaning. I spoke with Chip Flaherty, the executive vice president of Walden Media (the film’s production company), who compared this show-don’t-tell strategy to arguing in a court room. He said it’s always better to “lay out the facts of the case and allow the jury to come to its own conclusions. When you make your own decision in a non-didactic way, it becomes a fiercely held belief—because it wasn’t imposed on you….The best type of art or film should raise questions and inspire people to seek out the big answers for themselves.”
That is part of what is so important about the current wave of YA books and movies. Adolescents are just starting to question authority and their own places in the world—just like Jonas. Adolescents are surly and miserable in part because they are constantly faced with difficult, important questions about what kind of person they want to be. “The Giver” allows young adults a chance to think about these questions, and it provides them with a language and a concrete set of characters and situations to help them come to their own conclusions.
It also provides them with a set of role models. As in many of the other popular YA series, friendship plays a vital role in “The Giver”—in fact, Jonas’s friends play a far larger role in the film than they do in Lowry’s book. It’s the young people in the movie—especially the ones who must act without the benefit of the memories Jonas has been given—who are finally able to tap into their own capacity for faith. They take risks for what they know is right, and their friendship and bravery ultimately save the day.
These lessons are not just for children. And the movie asks other questions that we should all be concerned about: Just how much government do we want, or more specifically, just how much freedom are we willing to give up to live without conflict or insecurity? How much censorship are we willing to put up with so everyone can comfortable? What is more important: religious freedom or a government entitlement? The right to live or the new right to choose? Just how fair, how “civilized” can we get without giving up something more important? “The Giver” reminds us that these questions aren’t trifling: the Community members have had the humanity civilized right out of them.
Streep’s Chief Elder says at one point, “When people have the freedom to choose, they choose wrong. Every single time.” It’s chilling and it should be. American audiences have grown up with “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” as our national creed. The lucky ones still grow up starting every school day “with liberty and justice for all.” The people in the Community have peace, and have no envy, hate, or war. But they have no music, no love, and no real family. Their lives are so sterile, so bereft of meaning that they don’t even recognize what they are speaking of when they talk flippantly, even cheerfully, about “release.” They have no joy and can feel no dread, as they have nothing to lose.