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DIRECTOR: Phillip Noyce RELEASE DATE: August 15, 2014 RATING (US): PG-13
CAST: Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep et al.
// review by Beverley

Does the film store all the memories of the novel?

A Young Adult classic and Newbery Medal Winner, Lois Lowry's The Giver is an accessible dystopian classic. Its recent film adaptation gave me the opportunity to not only relive an amazing reading experience but to also pick up on many philosophical themes that I didn't recognize when I was young. Jonas, a member of a dystopian community, is assigned the role of Receiver of Memories. His job is to hold forbidden memories from an ancient collective conscious, so this secret information can be used to preserve their peaceful society. As his training with the Giver of Memories progresses, however, Jonas develops conflicting feelings about his role in this society.

In terms of the presentation of the film itself, I especially enjoyed the clips and music used to convey the secret memories of humanity past. Jonas' society is drab but safe, and this footage managed to show the intensity, diversity and magnificence of the human experience before this civilization emerged. I have never been a good judge of acting, but because the characters in this civilization have such a sterile life (they are literally immunized from emotion), wooden acting was actually fairly appropriate. There were many intense moments when I was wondering if any of the characters, especially Jonas, would cry and he did not, but partly this added to my own feelings of tension about the plot.

One of the most annoying problems with the movie was the way in which the story had been "Hollywoodized". In the book, everyone in the society drove bicycles which were both environmentally friendly, safe, and appropriate for their small community. In the movie, the bikes become motorized to make the chase scene (which I'm also pretty sure never happened) more exciting. This isn't the most ridiculous example of changes made to the film adaptation, but the others would be difficult to share without completely spoiling the movie. Since the book is so digestible I really suggest reading it before seeing the movie.

Now for the more interesting philosophical points: I could spend all day on the fact that that Jonas learns what colour is alone! I know this happens in the book but it is much easier to understand when the story is presented visually. The book explains colour from the perspective of the Receiver, who has only seen in greyscale before that, and so it is incredibly vague when he explains that his friend's hair took on a strange visual quality that he could not describe.

That said, once colour was introduced, it was the perfect metaphor for Jonas' paradigm shift. Jonas' view of the universe is literally coloured by his new received memories and experiences, and like trying to explain colour to someone who has only ever seen grey, he is unable to convey his experiences in their full, crisp intensity to his friends. Jonas was like the Platonic escapee who returns to the cave to be called a raving madman. The movie did an excellent job of portraying his tragic isolation. To hammer home the allusion to the cave allegory, at a crucial part in the film the Giver exclaims, "We are living in shadows!"

Furthermore, when the director wanted to show Jonas from the eyes of his community or the institutions of that community, he was shown in greyscale, an excellent way to show whose "voice" each shot is portrayed in. What was really useful about using greyscale and colour shots to show paradigms and perspectives is it allowed the director to imply this story was not about "good guys" and "bad guys". The society Jonas was in wasn't evil; it just couldn't see what he saw.

Interestingly, The Giver explains to Jonas that the reason the capacity to see colour was taken away was to prevent racism, yet the majority of actors in the film are still white. This is when a very important point hit me: the purpose of any dystopian story is not to pat society on the back for standing outside of indoctrination and power — there is never an outside standpoint. We are not looking in from outside of Plato's cave. Just as much as Jonas' society is socially constructed, so is ours. We must still work toward finding social constructions that best serve our society by pushing boundaries and experimenting with ideas.

As a final note, I have railed on dystopian movies in the past for their incredibly oversimplified and obvious ways of portraying the enforcement of norms in dystopian societies, but The Giver actually did a pretty good job of showing the subtlety of social regulation. Control of language (Orwell) was treated like table manners, the control of space(Foucault) was a kind of moral imperative that would never be questioned, and the panopticism (Orwell and Foucault — C-C-C-COMBO BREAKER!) was seen as what normal families do to keep themselves safe. These practices were seen as nothing dramatic, unusual, or in need of explaining, they were just a normal part of everyday life.

If you enjoyed the books, like thinking about critical theory, or just love a dystopian story, then this movie is a good one for you. After seeing this I found out The Giver is actually part of a four-book series; needless to say, I am inspired to read the rest of them (and maybe see them in theatres?).


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