This book to film comparison contains spoilers.
Despite being a fan of young adult books (especially those set in dystopian futures), I had never heard of The Giver before reading about movie adaptations scheduled for release in 2014. I don’t recall it being an option in my primary or high school syllabus and even my local libraries didn’t have copies readily available. But, when I got my hands on a copy and read it, I was completely swept away.
Yesterday, the film adaptation was released in Australian cinemas and I went to see it as soon as I could.
In a seemingly perfect community, without war, pain, suffering, differences or choice, a young boy is chosen to learn from an elderly man about the true pain and pleasure of the ‘real’ world.
The movie and the book follow the same basic plot but if you’ve read The Giver, even the first trailer may have given you a flash of annoyance and confusion at the obvious changes but, after seeing the movie, I can understand the decisions behind them.
For me, part of the magic of The Giver was that Lois Lowry dropped you straight into the world without any explanation, instead letting each piece of information about the structure of society emerge in an organic way. Almost as soon as I formed questions, I would turn the page to find them answered. In the movie, a lot of those questions were answered before they were even asked.
Jonas’s journey to awakening and learning was powerful because some words didn’t even exist for him. He didn’t know about war or dying or even pain. But the opening of the movie, with its talk of The Ruin and the forming of the communities, established immediately that this was a world that had a denial of those concepts rather than a complete absence of them.
And yet, even with the denial of those concepts, the movie world of The Giver had closer ties to such things. The drones flying overhead were completely normal and so integral, in fact, that Asher became a drone pilot instead of the Assistant Director of Recreation. In the book, there was an unspoken fear of discovery, even though the characters didn’t know that it may be detrimental to their way of life.
Many minor things were altered to raise the stakes in this movie and, compounded, they resulted in fairly significant changes.
The Giver and the Receiver of Memories
I felt as though the Giver was slightly more benevolent in the book. He always seemed so gentle and just kind of broken by the burden that he had to bear. In the movie, Jeff Bridges had an undercurrent of anger and severe mistrust for the society, which was easier to pull off because, as I’ll soon discuss, there was a tangible bad guy to hold responsible for everything.
I wasn’t bothered by the change in the way memories were transmitted. I thought it kind of weird that, in the book, Jonas (Aussie actor Brenton Thwaites) had to lie down bare-chested and have the Giver’s hands on his back to absorb the memories. In the movie, this was replaced with mere hand-holding. I mean, I wouldn’t have minded getting some lingering shots of a SHIRTLESS Brenton Thwaites but hand-holding in itself was a violation of social propriety as people aren’t permitted to touch anyone outside their family unit.
Each Receiver of Memories is heralded in the movie by a curious birthmark on the wrist rather than the light eyes that Jonas and the Giver share in the book. I guess, logistically, digitally editing or supplying coloured contacts to everyone in the cast would have been way more time-consuming than smearing some make-up on a few wrists.
In the movie, Jonas and his friends seem to be about 16 years old—four years older than their book counterparts. This age jump was necessitated by the fact that Jonas and Fiona’s (Odeya Rush) relationship became a pivotal part of the movie.
Their relationship provides a doorway through which the audience can enter and imagine themselves as part of this world. Perhaps one of the most frightening concepts that emerged from Lois Lowry’s work was a life without love or any real emotional connection. Jonas’s desire to hold onto that feeling taps into the average person’s innate urge to develop companionship.
The age jump also made more sense because, in the movie, the characters were finished with school. In the book, their assignments were more of an after-school training for future work whereas the movie (perhaps in order to speed along the process) represented it as entering the workforce in full. It probably would have been too unusual for a modern audience to accept that people would simply start full-time jobs at the age of 12.
In the book, we only saw society through Jonas’s eyes. While he discovered that it was flawed, society itself didn’t seem particularly threatening; the flaws were brought on more by ignorance and refusal to change than by active threats.
Not only did the Movie Elders have the power to dispense community warnings, they had the power to appear at any given location as holograms, eliminating any sense of privacy and, in some cases, safety.
In the movie, the Chief Elder (who had previously been only a background character) played a prominent role because, well, she’s Meryl Streep. Also, we have to have a physical bad guy because it’s a little hard to pin the blame on people who are long-dead or their society as a whole. You need a symbol of the things that are wrong with society; somebody who’s fighting hard to maintain rules that characters have deemed superfluous and even harmful.
As an added bonus, Jonas’s mother (played by Katie Holmes) got to be an honorary bad guy. The streak of caring that softened her character in the book was stripped away and she was promoted from a ‘prominent position at the Department of Justice’ to Director of Justice. She wasn’t a figurehead for the bad guys like the Chief Elder but she wasn’t terribly opposed to ‘releasing’/killing off her son’s girlfriend either, since Fiona had broken the rules.
In contrast, Jonas’s father (played by Alexander Skarsgård) comes off lighter than he does in the book. He never deliberately lies to Jonas about what happened in the twin’s release procedure. When this occurred in the book, Jonas saw it as a betrayal of trust and marked his father as a murderer. Movie Jonas still watches the release procedure and understands the atrocity being committed but the Giver is quick to warn Jonas that his father doesn’t truly understand what death means. Fiona is similarly excused from the worst of her acts in the book when the Giver says that she has not yet begun to learn about release in her training.
I was actually surprised to see non-Caucasians in the cast because, in the book (and it’s mentioned briefly in the movie), Jonas isn’t used to seeing people with different-coloured skin and even if you’re seeing the world in black and white, having a much darker skin tone than others might be enough of a difference to violate the Sameness.
I guess, since I pictured the world in black and white, I interpreted it as taking place in a white supremacist society that had shut itself off from the rest of the world and was annoyed with the idea that everyone had to be white to fit into the Sameness. I’m glad, though, that a few African-Americans were cast. Even though that was the way I interpreted the books, having a completely white cast would have felt off.
I wish that the movie had taken more time to explain the role of family and even the way that Birthmothers are used. In the book, we discover that entire families are disbanded when children came of age, as there’s no need for adults to stay together if they aren’t raising children. I found it horrifying and fascinating when Jonas said in the book that, by the time his parents were due for release, he would be too busy with his own life to even know that they were gone.
In the movie, the scene in which Jonas, Fiona, and Asher bathe people at the House of the Old was replaced with a scene at the Nurturing Centre. This scene served to introduce baby Gabriel from very early on. But there were no truly elderly people in the community and Jonas didn’t question the way families in any of his newly-gifted memories had grandparents. Without this question, there was no simple way to work in an explanation of the community’s family structure.
I thought there might be room for a quick explanation when it was insinuated that the Giver had once tried to share his memories with the Chief Elder. Whether or not that was intended as a nod to the Giver’s own romantic feelings is not clear. While there was a a brief suggestion that the Giver and the Chief Elder had once been paired as Rosemary’s parents, that was never explored in any great depth.
When it came time for Jonas to escape the community, the book and movie plots took very different paths. In the book, Jonas finally sees that the ‘release’ revered by his community is actually death by lethal injection. Release occurs when a person is too old for usefulness, when a baby is not reaching their developmental milestones, or simply to eliminate a twin in order to control population growth. Having a year’s worth of memories and experiences stored up, Jonas understands the horror of this and he wants to leave. He and the Giver devise a plan for Jonas to escape in due course.
When he finds out that Gabriel is scheduled for release, the plan is accelerated. Jonas takes the baby and simply rides his bike over a bridge and out of his community, past other dwellings, until he eventually reaches Elsewhere. Jonas has a hard slog ahead of him and the ending of the book is ambiguous but I did read it as if Jonas and Gabriel had died and were sharing one last happy memory.
The movie takes a different route, in which Jonas is determined to let the community see the error of their ways. He plans to make for the Boundary of Memory, which is conveniently drawn on a super old map, so that, upon crossing it, the community will receive his memories and understand that their system is garbage. Since Rosemary’s release was never really discussed in any great detail, this is presented as an untried method. They don’t know for certain that it will work but Jonas has to try for the good of the people.
To a certain extent, Movie Jonas gets to do most of the things Book Jonas didn’t have time for: he gets to say goodbye to the Giver, and to receive memories of strength and courage. He has to visit the Nurturing Centre in order to collect Gabriel and is afforded an opportunity to beg Fiona to come with him. While Fiona stays partly out of fear, her newly-awakened emotions give her enough courage to kiss Jonas of her own volition and then act as a decoy to help him escape, marking herself as a dangerous co-offender. This is more motivation for Jonas to reach the Boundary of Memory, since doing so could prevent Fiona from being released.
Jonas ends up escaping the community in a high-speed motorcycle chase and leaping over the actual edge of his reality. (In the movie, the community is built on some weird suspended cliff thing.) Jonas’s journey to the Boundary of Memory is devoid of the magical help that his memories give him to survive in the book. And, since there’s no sign of any kind of food anywhere (except a bottle of baby formula that Jonas somehow managed to snag at some point in his hasty escape), it’s a miracle that Jonas and Gabriel survive the trip. In fact, it’s a miracle that Gabriel isn’t howling from nappy rash since there doesn’t seem to have been any time to change him.
The movie takes the book’s ending literally. Jonas really does find a sled. He really does ride it downhill and find the house of his memories, all set up and ready for Christmas. I’m surprised that the house is still standing, let alone inhabited if it’s in the middle of absolutely nowhere and the Giver professed that memory to be from many generations ago. But we know that this is all literal—or at the very least the sled journey is—because, back in the community, everyone is suddenly experiencing all of Jonas’s memories; both the good and the bad.
It’s not clear whether Jonas intends to return to his community again now that he’s found that this memory house is real. If he does, hopefully whoever’s living in that house will make sure Jonas packs food and nappies for Gabriel.
There are vast differences between the original novel and the film adaptation of The Giver. Many readers of the book may not like the changes at all, even if they can understand why many of them take place. Personally, I think they both have their merits.
The novel, while it was beautiful and evocative, felt like it ultimately denounced the community and implied that it was impossible to change such a deeply entrenched system of values—better just to give up on it altogether.
The film ended on a more hopeful note and made the absence of love and desperate yearning for companionship into something that an audience could personally identify with. The issues raised in the movie hit slightly closer to home instead of seeming detached.
Despite all the changes, some scenes and a fair bit of dialogue were lifted straight from the book so I feel like it’s teetering on the edge of being a faithful adaptation. Personally, I like the movie better when I look at it as a completely separate product. If you accept it as being inspired by the book rather than being completed based on it, the film takes on a life of its own and becomes much more enjoyable.