A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that the The Giver is a dystopian thriller based on author Lois Lowry's best-selling 1993 novel (which has sparked some controversy since its publication and landed on some banned-book lists). Since the novel is commonly used in middle school classrooms, the adaptation will appeal to tweens and teens who've read and loved it. Although there are some fundamental changes from the book (like the age of Jonas, the main character), the movie shares the book's central themes about the things that make life worth living, even if they're painful. The violent revelations are disturbing, especially ugly truths about what it means when citizens (including a baby) are "released into Elsewhere," but the movie isn't nearly as violent as comparable movies like The Hunger Games or Divergent. Like the movie, the book should launch some thoughtful conversations about totalitarianism, freedom of expression, and why utopian societies fail.
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What's the story?
THE GIVER takes place in a futuristic utopian society called "the community," where, at age 16, residents prepare for their coming-of-age ceremony, where they're assigned a specific job -- like birth mother, nurturer, teacher, or security. Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) is surprised when, at the Ceremony for Advancement, the Chief Elder (Meryl Streep) announces that Jonas has been selected as the newest Receiver of Memory -- the one person in the community to understand all the pain and truths that the rest of the society is spared. His teacher will be The Giver of Memory (Jeff Bridges), who will impart all of his knowledge. But as Jonas begins his sessions with The Giver, he also starts seeing things as they really are, not as the community wants them to be -- he sees in color (everyone else sees in black and white) and develops feelings for his friend, Fiona (Odeya Rush). Worst of all, Jonas realizes that life with pain is preferable to the "Sameness" on which the community is based.
Is it any good?
This is an adaptation worth seeing, particularly for the conversations you can have once the credits roll. As anyone who has read Lois Lowry's source novel will immediately notice, the movie's Jonas is five years older than he is in the book (and Thwaites was actually already in his 20s while filming!), making him a full adolescent as opposed to being on the cusp of puberty. While the aging up works when it comes to focusing on the central romantic subplot, it may upset the tweens and younger teens who related to Jonas' journey precisely because he was their age, not a teen on the brink of adulthood like the majority of young adult protagonists. But more bothersome is the fact that viewers -- unlike readers -- are limited in their connection to the cinematic Jonas and what's going on in the community, because it's not really an action story like Divergent -- it's a story of ideas that's better experienced on the page.
Of all the actors, Alexander Skarsgard (as Jonas' father) does the most subtle work, portraying how, even in such a tightly controlled society, some individuals are more loving and nurturing, even if they don't fully understand what love means. Katie Holmes (as Jonas' mother) and Streep both play unquestioning proponents of Sameness, and Rush sure is beautiful, but because feelings are manipulated in the community, The Giver is not a romance on the swoony level of Katniss and Peeta's or Tris and Four's. The characters in the community, with the exception of Jonas and the Giver, must by their very nature act eerily dispassionate, even-keeled, and neutral about everything -- even throwing a dead baby down a garbage chute. That flatness, which is so freaky in the book, doesn't work quite as well on the screen.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the popularity of dystopian settings in young adult literature and movies. What is it about futuristic stories that appeals to readers and viewers?
How would you describe the violence in this movie? Is it scary? Disturbing? Why? Are there other parts of the movie that are nonviolent but also upsetting? How do they compare?
It took more than 20 years after the book was published for The Giver to hit the big screen. How do you think that timing affected its impact?
Fans of the book: Was the movie a faithful adaptation? What differences did/didn't you like, and which scenes from the book did you miss?
- In theaters: August 15, 2014
- On DVD or streaming: November 25, 2014
- Cast: Alexander Skarsgard, Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep, Brenton Thwaites
- Director: Phillip Noyce
- Studio: Weinstein Co.
- Genre: Drama
- Topics: Book Characters
- Run time: 94 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG-13
- MPAA explanation: a mature thematic image and some sci-fi action/violence
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