Why did it take two decades for someone to make The Giver into a movie? Lois Lowry’s new classic of young-adult literature has been a staple of middle-school classrooms almost as long as it’s been in bookstores; like training wheels for 1984 or Brave New World, the novel has eased a couple generations of American adolescents into the world of big-idea science-fiction. But if the long wait for a proper big-screen adaptation is perplexing, it’s no mystery why that wait has finally ended: Phillip Noyce’s futuristic melodrama is a Giver for the post-Katniss era, its narrative now adorned with CGI-abetted action scenes and its nominal romance slightly inflated to draw in the target demographic. The ironic side effect is that this major influence on today’s new class of dystopian YA smashes now looks like just another greedy knockoff on-screen—a monochromatic Divergent, or something similar.
The lack of color is actually one aspect of Lowry’s vision that hasn’t been compromised. Despite what the trailer seemed to suggest, much of The Giver unfolds in black-and-white, forcing audiences to see its sterilized, climate-controlled world in the same drab shades of gray as its characters do. Primary colors begin to flood the frame only gradually, as Jonas (Brenton Thwaites, bland, but maybe on purpose) gains access to the spectrum of light denied his fellow civilians. Named the new Receiver Of Memories by the elders of the community, the teenage boy pays daily visits to The Giver (Jeff Bridges, perfectly cast), a wizened hermit who shares with him all knowledge of mankind’s troubled past. As he absorbs these ancient impressions—not just of color, but also of weather, holidays, animals, pain, grief, sex, war, and everything else society’s engineers have eliminated—Jonas begins to realize that the perfect world in which he lives isn’t so perfect after all.
As written, The Giver is a cautionary tale about sheltering oneself from experience, and some of its poignant points—about accepting heartache as the price of feeling, about squaring humanity’s capacity for love against its history of hate—have survived the transition from page to screen. But in many ways, Noyce has dumbed down his source material, making concessions to a hypothetical audience. Rather than reveal the details of the world gradually and organically, as Lowry did, the film opens with a hand-holding exposition dump—a choice that stinks of interference from distributor Harvey Weinstein. The more irksome alterations arrive later: Not only do Noyce and his screenwriters needlessly amp up the teen love story and add a race-against-the-clock element to the final act, they also include a scene in which Bridges’ haunted sage actively debates the story’s themes with Meryl Streep’s severe Chief Elder. Is the conversation meant to function like a Cliffs Note, destroying subtext to help young viewers ace their English quiz? In twisting The Giver to resemble a more modern class of YA bestseller, the filmmakers risk stripping it of its individuality. “Sameness,” as the book warned, is not to be celebrated.