The Giver is a movie that defies a simple definition. However, let me start with what is clear, and there WILL be some spoilers. This film is based on a book by Lois Lowry and is basically about a society where everyone is equal and “sameness” is considered a virtue. The world is devoid of any color because of this sameness, hence much of the story is told from a black and white point of view. It is here we meet Jonas (brilliantly acted by Brenton Thwaites), a bright young man given the life assignment of “Receiver Of Memory,” meaning he will become the one who will possess all of the information from the time before “the ruin,” an event which is not elaborated on, but is implied that it had devastating consequences which is why this society was formed.
When Jonas meets with The Giver (played with the regular acting genius that only Jeff Bridges can deliver) he is immediately given memories through physical contact. He almost immediately starts to see the world differently, first through identifying different colors, and later through experiencing emotions that had been programmed out of him. When Jonas finally learns of love, as well as war and death, his journey of personal crisis begins. He sees the world for what it truly is while everyone else still experiences the black and white sameness which has been part of the social programming for quite a few years, and Jonas takes it upon himself to try to change the world.
The symbolism of this movie is very striking, and at times somewhat uncomfortable. The notion of programming a society and its people into specific roles is not a new one in science fiction, but never before has it been so scarily portrayed as seen here in this film. The movie also takes the viewer on the same journey as Jonas through the memories he receives, the most stirring of which where we experience courage when a memory of the brave man who stood in front of a column of tanks at Tiananmen Square is shown, and I must admit, I had a serious lump in my throat, especially given in this particular context of the story.
As I was watching this movie I came to the conclusion that this was easily the most artistically beautiful science fiction film I had ever seen, both visually and in its storytelling, but that was derailed when I reached the end of the movie. The story fails when Jonas, exhausted and possibly suffering from hypothermia, finds himself at the border of “Elsewhere.” Here Jonas passes through what appears to be some sort of barrier and this releases an energy wave, which passes over the community and restores the memories and emotions that have been programmed out of everyone. Now I have not read the book, but there is evidence to suggest that this part of the story is common to both book and film. However, the dramatic telling of this still delivers a punch, as people start remembering what it is to be human, both the good and the bad. We see memories of what it is to laugh, what it is to dance, what it is to fight, what it is love, what it is to grieve, what it is TO LIVE. These scenes had such amazing power that it quite literally brought tears to my eyes, but as quickly as the movie delivers a powerful revelation to all about being human, the story dissolves into more ambiguity leaving everyone to wonder about the real fate of Jonas. This is the story’s greatest failure for we do not witness the results of Jonas’ quest. We see him succeed, but we are none the wiser in terms of what this does to the community. Up to this point the Chief Elder (played with a chilly iciness by Meryl Streep) had been repeating the programmed rhetoric that having feelings, experiencing love and joy, and basically allowing people the freedom to choose, always leads to doom. The Giver argues that peace and tranquility must not be programmed and forced upon the people, that only choosing to live that way can bring about a truly utopian society. While these arguments can spur endless debates, at no time does the story show what happens to the people now that their memories are restored, nor do we even get any emotional satisfaction from the individuals who referred to themselves as Jonas’ family. It is almost as if the movie takes us, the viewer, right up to that very boundary Jonas passed through, but is too afraid to take us through to the other side for any kind of emotional payoff.
This is what I was left with as the movie ended. Instead of being emotionally moved by the ideas presented, I was left feeling quite bewildered by this movie’s vague “non-ending.” However, this fault does not lie with the filmmaking, rather with the story itself. I still maintain that this is one of the most beautiful science fiction films ever made. It is in its abrupt and bizarre ending that the story falls apart, which leaves me with this question. Did the movie succeed by being faithful to the original story, especially in how it ended, or did it emotionally and intellectually betray the audience by delivering an ambiguous ending to moviegoers unfamiliar with the novel? As I said before, the movie, and the way in which it was made, is outstanding. I only wish the story itself had been better.