Sanitizing “The Giver”


On August 11, 2014, thousands of teens and their parents eagerly purchased tickets for the long-awaited film adaptation of Lois Lowry’s 1994 Newbery Award-winning novel The Giver.  My teenaged son read it in junior high and loved it. I loved it too. Like Madelyn L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, Lowry’s The Giver has a subterranean angst that readers can feel bubbling under their fingertips as pages are turned, a sense that no matter how calm this world is on the outside, something is irreparably wrong.

Everyone complains when a beloved novel is turned into a film. This may be especially true of science fiction works, as  entirely new worlds depend on an individual’s imagination formed from an author’s words. When one person, a director, substitutes his own vision for that of countless personal interpretations, tempers flare. While most moviegoers understand the necessity of divergences from the original text, other alterations are harder to accept.

For me, one of the first “hmmmmmmmmmmmm” moments in the film comes when Jonas is clearly not twelve (initially, eleven), as he is in the novel. He seems to be seventeen or eighteen.  In a novel/film about censorship, this made my Spidey-senses quiver. One  oft-repeated charges leveled against The Giver is that its protagonist, and presumably, its audience, are “too young” for the novel’s challenging themes.  For example, “[i]n 1994, The Giver was temporarily banned from classes by the Bonita Unified School District in LaVerne and San Dimas, California because four parents complained that violent and sexual passages were inappropriate for children.” The following year, “a parent in Franklin County, Kansas, challenged the book on the grounds that it is “concerned with murder, suicide, and the degradation of motherhood and adolescence.” The book was then removed from elementary libraries, but remained available to the teachers in the county.”  Capitulate and make the character older? DONE!

Another element that was present in the film but of much more importance in the novel concerns bicycles. During the Ceremony, the “Nines” are presented with their bicycles, futuristic looking gizmos that will make younger audience members ooh-and-ahh. But that’s all we get about the bikes in the movie.

In the novel, bicycles are much more meaningful. It doesn’t take a literature professor to recognize that bicycles equal a modicum of freedom and independence. That is not what is most important here, however. What should have been addressed is Jonas’s desire to teach Lily, his little sister, to ride before she is “legally” allowed (“Jonas had been thinking already about teaching Lily”– Chapter 2).  This willingness to break rules offers some insight into his character.  And (spoiler alert!) when Jonas escapes from the Community with Gabe, he does so on a bicycle.

There are other differences. There is a “mark” that a person must have on his or her wrist to become a “Receiver”; this is not a part of the novel…annoying but acceptable. Additionally, Asher and Fiona have different jobs. Asher has been upgraded to “Drone Pilot,” a profession not possible in 1993. Okay, fine.  For her part, Fiona is a “Nurturer” in the film while in the novel she is a “Caregiver” for the elderly. Sure. Shrug. The role of “Chief Elder,” seems to have been expanded to justify what I presume to have been the enormous paycheck to get Meryl Streep to appear in this flick (in the novel, the Chief Elder is only involved in the Ceremony…that’s it.)  Jeff Bridges is basically “The Dude” in a nicer easy chair (was there a rug? Dude… I hope so.)  Minor, liveable directorial choices.

What I did not like was the sanitized ending. After Jonas makes the terrifying decision to rescue Gabe and leave behind the entire world he knows and loves, Lowry offers no guarantee that gray dystopia has been replaced by colorful utopia. In the novel, Gabe and Jonas travel for days, cold, hungry, exhausted, but they finally reach the top of the hill.  Filled with happiness, the pair glide toward what Jonas hopes is the new community. As he and Gabe descend, Jonas feels pangs of regret and thinks he may hear music coming from his old home: “But perhaps it was only an echo.” In short, although the reader thinks all may be well, there is no guarantee. In the film, as Jonas and Gabe speed downhill, the camera pulls back to show the old Community coming alive with color, and presumably, happiness, all memory restored. If this is the case, why wouldn’t Jonas go home? Why not turn around and go back? Don’t think about it too much, the film suggests. Happy ending achieved.