What Lois Lowry hath given in her bestselling YA novel, this flaccid screen adaptation taketh away.
Sameness, the conformist plague that afflicts the futuristic citizens of Lois Lowry’s celebrated and scorned YA novel, “The Giver,” might also be the name given to what ails the movie adaptation — the latest in a seemingly endless line of teen-centric dystopian fantasies that have become all but indistinguishable from one another. A longtime passion project for producer/star Jeff Bridges, “The Giver” reaches the screen in a version that captures the essence of Lowry’s affecting allegory but little of its mythic pull — a recipe likely to disappoint fans while leaving others to wonder what all the fuss was about. Any hopes by co-producers the Weinstein Co. and Walden Media that they might have the next “Hunger Games” (or even “Divergent”) on their hands look to be dashed by lackluster late-summer box office.
Originally published in 1993 (six years before “The Matrix”), Lowry’s novel was itself a patchwork of ideas borrowed from Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, Jack Finney and Ray Bradbury in its depiction of totalitarian groupthink masquerading as peaceable utopia. The setting was an unnamed anywhere known only as “the community,” whose residents had achieved a post-Platonic, post-Marxist ideal of a classless, conflict-free (and, though not explicitly stated, seemingly race-free) society through the chemical suppression of emotion and the erasure of all suspect stimuli (including books, colors, weather, and sex) from the historical record. Exempt from this rigorous burning of the past was one man: the Receiver of Memory, a grizzled community elder charged with keeping all human experience from time immemorial catalogued inside his own understandably addled brain.
If Lowry’s ideas weren’t anything new to genre buffs or sociology majors, what made her book so compulsively readable was the lucid simplicity of its prose and the surprising complexity of its arguments (especially for a novel aimed at children). Unlike a lot of speculative fiction, “The Giver” wasn’t a cautionary tale about nuclear or environmental apocalypse, but rather an envisaging of the even greater horror show we might effect through our ostensibly best impulses: to rid society of war, famine and other forms of suffering. It was a highly adaptable metaphor for any form of organized rhetoric, be it that of the religious right or the bleeding-heart left. And, taking a page from J.D. Salinger, Lowry didn’t just suggest that most adults were duplicitous phonies, but that they were capable of secretly murdering babies and the elderly without batting an eye. (Little wonder that “The Giver” was said to be banned from almost as many schools as made it compulsory reading.)
In bringing the book to the screen, director Phillip Noyce and screenwriters Michael Mitnick and Robert B. Weide have stayed reasonably faithful to the plot and characters while jettisoning much of the philosophical weight and making other, perhaps inevitable concessions to commerce. A mere 12 years old on the page, Lowry’s nonconformist hero, Jonas, is here played by the 25-year-old Australian actor Brenton Thwaites, while the incidental character of the community’s Chief Elder has been padded out into a ghoulish, Nurse Ratched-esque villain role for Meryl Streep (who appears alternately in real and holographic form, and seems equally disembodied in each). And with only partial success, Noyce, who’s long been one of the best action directors around (“Patriot Games,” “Clear and Present Danger,” “Salt”), tries to turn Lowry’s elegant, open-ended climax into a large-scale setpiece involving speeding motorbikes, drone aircraft and storm-trooper thugs rounding up dissidents into a Guantanamo-like prison.
The movie begins well enough, with our introduction to the community and its functional “dwellings” where Jonas lives with his dutiful but distant parents (Alexander Skarsgard and Katie Holmes) and younger sister, Lily (Emma Tremblay). Working on a modest budget, production designer Ed Verreaux and costume designer Diana Cilliers have given the film the spare, modular look of mid-century modernism — a feeling further enhanced by Noyce’s decision to shoot almost the entire first 30 minutes of the movie in low-contrast black-and-white, with color only gradually seeping into the frames as Jonas learns to “see beyond” (a variation on the technique employed by the 1998 “Pleasantville,” which itself may have been influenced by Lowry).
From there, “The Giver” goes on to chart the developing bond between the Receiver (Bridges) and Jonas, who has been selected to inherit the great storehouse of memory and carry on the older man’s legacy. The Receiver is Bridges in full-on stoner Buddha mode — a routine the actor has done so many times now (most recently in “Tron: Legacy”) that it should have descended into self-parody. And yet, Bridges is the most affecting thing in the movie — a man physically and spiritually exhausted by having to carry the emotional weight of the world on his shoulders. The same, unfortunately, can not be said of Thwaites, who barely registered as the young prince in “Maleficent” and makes even less of an impression here. As Jonas takes on ever more of the Receiver’s wisdom and experience, he’s meant to be shaken and stirred, pushed to the very brink of psychological endurance, but Thwaites plays it all with the same unwavering expression of sleepy, dumbstruck awe, more Harry Styles than Harry Potter.
Elsewhere, Israeli newcomer Odeya Rush flashes an entrancing come-hither stare, but otherwise sets off few sparks as the unrequited object of Jonas’ proscribed affections (or “stirrings,” as they’re known in community-speak), while country star Taylor Swift feels like the equivalent of human product placement in a thankless walk-on. But it’s hard to know what exactly to feel for Holmes, who’s casting as exactly the kind of dead-eyed Stepford wife the tabloids proffered during the TomKat years seems like someone’s idea of a cruel joke.
This year at the movies has given us two superior dystopia tales — “The Lego Movie” and “Snowpiercer” — rich in the kind of real emotion “The Giver” talks about a lot but never achieves. Instead, the more vibrant experience supposedly flows into the movie, the more canned everything seems. In the novel, Lowry conveyed the Receiver’s transmitted memories as indelible fragments of primal experience: the feeling of sun and snow against bare skin; the suffering of an innocent animal; the aftermath of a bloody combat. Noyce gives us those sensations, too, but he isn’t content to stop there, amping up Jonas’ visions into frenetic montages of global chaos and togetherness that feel like a cross between a Microsoft ad and a Save the Children infomercial. Skydivers plummet from dizzying heights, river rafters navigate raging rapids, the Berlin Wall crumbles and Tiananmen Square revolts. All that’s missing is a Peter Gabriel song.