It takes imagination to make interesting its lack. Considering the ring of meh around Phillip Noyce’s film The Giver, I was surprised to see how faithful it was to Lois Lowry’s Newbery Medal-winning book. Its faith only breaks on commercial commonplaces—on Y-A clichés that have either blinkered the imagination of filmmakers or conked the source material into an ironic bow. Or maybe a little of both. Published in 1993, the novel predates the current Y-A boom, but is coolly prescient about which marks to hit. It is set in a Huxleyan dystopia: a Bored New World wherein conformity is the opiate of the masses—of everyone, really. Like Harry Potter, the adolescent hero, Jonas, is more special than he thinks; he is, in fact, more special than everybody else. And what makes him special is that he has been selected for an honor that all adolescents in our world are forced to endure: *feelings*.
Jonas’s society is literally sterile; starting at the cusp of puberty, its citizens take pills to banish the “stirrings.” Absent that biological impulse, and the concomitant commitment of love—a word that has fallen out of use because passions aren’t intense enough to warrant it—family life is blunted into a form of social husbandry. Giving birth is a dispassionate occupation that, like all occupations, is assigned to one by the Council of Elders when one is 12 years old. When the story begins, Jonas is at the tail end of his 11th year. One of his friends gets assigned to the birthing center, where Jonas’s father works. Other peers are dispatched to the Hall of Justice, the workplace of his mother. Jonas, however, is appointed to the hieratic position of Receiver of Memory, in whom all experience of past sensation, passion, nuance, and even color, is kept—all that was purged generations ago when the community retreated into insensate, choiceless sameness. The current officeholder is a trenchant, prematurely wizened man called The Giver; he transfers the memories of snow and war and sunburn and love to Jonas, who comes to understand that the tranquility of his parents and peers—who will, by design, never understand what he is going through—is a lie. This is a lesson that any teenage reader who’s high on hormones and low on perspective could appreciate, and a lesson that those who mean to court that demographic have shrewdly learned.
Lowry’s prose, however, is anything but shrewd; it is plaintive in its simplicity. But unlike, say, True Grit, it is barren of irony and other adult preconceptions, and, unlike The Hunger Games, it hasn’t been imagined in terms of TV or the movies and their straightjacket beats. Rather, it’s unadaptably abstract, like A Wrinkle in Time or Fahrenheit 451. (Even Truffaut couldn’t help that the concept of a modern society without the written word is only persuasive when rendered in the written word.) Jonas’s family’s dinner-table ritual, in which they talk out, and thus contain, the superficial pressures of the preceding day, might have been intended as a rebuke of the politically correct thought-policing of 20 years ago; but the thinness of these opioid sessions, with their vaporous good intentions and kiss-booboo grievances, holds up well. (These are omitted in the film, which is less suggestive—too blunt to be creepy.) Someone who has only seen the movie might be surprised by the novel’s lack of reference to technology. To me, Lowry’s spare descriptions brought to mind suburbia more than sci-fi; and yet the film’s aesthetic is the white-walled, food-pill fantasy of 50 years ago, which is by now a stock image of the future.