Way Too Close: A Review of “The Giver”

"The Giver" is often dark and disturbing, but also refreshingly frank about serious moral, social, and cultural ills

Brenton Thwaites and Odeya Rush star in a scene from the movie 'The Giver'. (CNS photo/courtesy The Weinstein Company)

Brenton Thwaites and Odeya Rush star in a scene from the movie

MPAA Rating: PG-13
USCCB Rating: A-II
Reel Rating: (3 reels out of 5)

The Giver is a dark and disturbing tale that often hits too close to home to be enjoyable, but it should challenge the complecency of many viewers. Some films focus too much on “ideas” rather than the story narrative; The Giver is an idea movie on steroids that spends far too little on plot and character development while throwing out a huge number of themes, yet without getting into much depth. In short, it’s a mile wide but an inch deep. While movies should touch on difficult topics, they should still be entertaining. The Giver is as entertaining as its grim color palate and a bit vague in its central message—but it is still compelling.

The story is adapted from the Louis Lowry 1993 classic that many middle schoolers had to read in the 1990s, and it is faithful to the original while updating subplots for a 21st century audience. The Giver serves up yet another YA dystopian fantasy where adolescents fight an oppressive, Orwellian society. It has the eugenics of Brave New World, the euthanasia and claustrophobia of Logan’s Run, the teenage angst of Divergent, and the emotional stagnation and medical brainwashing of Equilibrium. This future is called the Community, a closed world on a misty plateau that seems to only hold a few thousand people. It is a rigid society with strictly enforced rules including no emotions, sex, or lying. Babies are created in a lab and placed in stagnant families that really exist to keep children in line while the elderly and sick are taken to a place called “Elsewhere.”

Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) and his friends Fiona (Odeya Rush) and Asher (Cameron Monaghan) nervously awaited the Ceremony where they will be assigned a job for life. Jonas is given the unique role of Receiver of Memories, the only member of the society who has access to the distant past and advises the Council of Elders on important decisions. Jonas is trained by the Giver (Jeff Bridges) who telepathically shows Jonas positive memories, including music, love, happiness, childbirth, and—gasp!—colors. However, Jonas is also shown fear, hate, war, and murder. The Giver explains that the Community had to set aside all love to remove all hate, ignore all good to stop all evil. Jonas, however, thinks this was a bad bargain.

The Community enforces their rules by giving every citizen a potent injection that stifles their emotions and individual drive, but it is doomed to fail because human nature cannot be fought; only misdirected. Catholic teaching understands that social norms and artificial laws are important and useful but shouldn’t be deified. St. Paul explains that “everything is lawful but not everything is beneficial.” For Christians, life is not about rules but about right relationship. Good deeds flow from a love of neighbor, which is ultimately a love of Christ. If rules are followed simply as a Kantian imperative, they will eventually begin to crumble.

For a film produced by the Weinsteins, starring Jeff Bridges and Meryl Steep, The Giver is remarkably pro-life, not just in terms of abortion but euthanasia, genetic testing, and a whole host of bioethical and political issues. Babies are constantly mentioned and seen throughout the film. Until newborns are proven healthy, they are not allowed into homes or even to be named. Jonas’ father (Alexander Skarsgård) breaks this rule by taking in Gabriel (played by four different infants), hoping he will catch up with the others. Later, Jonas witnesses his father committing an act of infanticide. Even as I write this, it’s hard to hold back tears of agony, so powerful is the scene. Nothing in the scene is hidden; director Phillip Noyce keeps the camera on the poor nameless baby as she is injected, slowly dies, and thrown down a garbage chute.

I’ve seen hundreds of R-rated films, but even The Boondock Saints and The Wolf of Wall Street had nothing as disturbing as this. “They told me they made a society free from murder,” Jonas remarks. “But they didn’t. They just called it something else.” That quote alone almost compelled me to give the film five reels. When Gabriel is scheduled to be taken to Elsewhere, Jonas rescues him and flees the Community. If he can’t save the whole world, at least he can save just one person.

Another surprisingly counter-cultural feature is the positive depiction of the importance of a nuclear family. Deprived of real parents, the State becomes the ultimate authority for everyone. Jonas’ mother (Katie Holmes) even spies on him and reports his unorthodox actions to the Chief Elder (Meryl Streep). Jonas feels a special connection to Fiona, but until he receives the memories he has no word for it: love. He convinces her to stop taking her injections and shares a private kiss. This stirs something unseen in her, and she agrees to help him escape. Together, they are able to give Gabriel a chance at life and become, in an odd way, his parents. The Giver argues that children deserve a mother and a father, and that social and political roles are a mirror of the family, not the other way around.

Why have there been so many dystopian fantasies on the big screen recently, and why have they all done reasonably well? Among many people there is a prevailing sense of dread. Doomsday Preppers would not exist unless it struck a real nerve in the American public. And this tension is felt by both the political left and the right. From the Iraqi War to the HHS Mandate, from the Common Core to Citizens United, it many people feel they are on a precipice, moments away from destruction. A common factor is the violation of individual autonomy, and the solution is obvious. Everyone has the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Unlike the baby-boomers who created this mess, millennials still hold to this dream, and these films affirm their expectations. Everyone has the right to seek the Truth and live free from coercion. In many ways, The Giver is an often dreary and even unpleasant cinematic experience, but it tackles important topics and I hope it does well at the box office and serves as a challenging wake-up call.

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About Nick Olszyk 185 Articles
Nick Olszyk teaches theology at Marist Catholic High School in Eugene, Oregon. He was raised on bad science fiction movies, jelly beans, and TV shows that make fun of bad science fiction movies. Visit him online at his website, Catholic Cinema Crusade.