I first read The Giver in the sixth grade. I judged the book by its cover and liked it immediately—the gray scale, the torn corner, the weathered old wise man casting downward with sad, pensive eyes. I liked the inside even more, and really, I don’t think I’m alone when I say that The Giver turned out to be pretty influential on my life as I moved through the weird passage of preteendome, and even now, as I get ready to finally enter my last year of college.
So, naturally, the news—elicited some time ago by my daily glance at IMDb—that The Giver would finally be turned into a feature film under the control of Jeff Bridges really interested me. I knew that the film had been stuck in various infant stages for many years prior, so I read word of its full-fledged reality as encouraging signs of intricate planning, careful selection processes, and probably infinite script rewrites. This could be really good, I thought.
Then the first trailer came out, the project having since forgone Jeff Bridges as a potential director in favor of his role as the titular character. But that doesn’t matter.
I watched the trailer. The trailer ended. I blinked. I frowned. I turned sideways, casting a peripheral accusation as one would to a pet you just found eating the rest of your well-crafted sandwich. She may have even drunk from your glass. You stare at her. She stares at you. She can turn her tail down and crawl under the living room ottoman if she wants to, but the facts still stand: your sandwich, with all its layers and time and careful selection process, is gone. Swallowed by the underbite of a small, collared mammal testing the clock. All that remains is a once-occupied paper plate, the mere foundation of what should have been your beautiful, beautiful lunch. Crumbs, the rubble of the aftermath, cling to the rim, mocking you. Are they mocking me? Do they think I don’t know where they came from? Were they really ever part of my grand, culinary masterpiece of carbs, condiments, and wavy oceans of honey-baked ham? Where is that small, collared mammal, now?! HOW COULD THIS HAPPEN TO ME?!
Wait. That was weird. It’s like I wasn’t even talking about a movie trailer anymore. It’s like I took my source material and warped it into something else entirely. Something only vaguely related to the issues at hand. Sound familiar, Jeff Bridges? Sound familiar?
Seriously, though. I had actually been anticipating the release of this trailer for a while, despite my fears of Taylor Swift’s casting and suspicious reports that leading lady Meryl Streep would take on a character that, in the book, hardly requires any screen presence at all. I even tried to look past Brenton Thwaites, the 24-year-old actor playing the role of what I thought was supposed to be a 12-year-old Jonas, in hopes that all those studios and writers and directors and the blessing of Lois Lowry herself would produce a film akin to the literary phenomenon that sweeps sixth grade classrooms to this day.
What I discovered instead was a minute-and-a-half preview for a film nearly unrecognizable as the story it stems from.
Hovercrafts? Tractor beams? Why does everything look like a space ship? Why is everyone giving shifty glances all the time? What’s with all the touchscreens? Who are these hordes of flashlight men? Meryl Streep sure is acting a lot like President Snow right now. That guy is really tall. Who are these hordes of flashlight men?
I couldn’t help feeling disappointed. I understand that book-to-film adaptations rarely suit everyone, but this wasn’t the world conjured by The Giver; this wasn’t Jonas, these weren’t his trials. It looked familiar, all right… but not in the right way.
I normally don’t even mind film adaptations veering from their source material. My imagination isn’t the only valuable one in the world. But something about this particular instance turned my brain to something telling about the way young people tend to be perceived as consumers and thinkers, and the summation of those views as presented in The Giver’s marketing irked me more than a little bit.
Trying to ease my initial flash of annoyance with the trailer, I read an interview conducted with Lois Lowry, one specifically targeted to her involvement with the film version of The Giver and how it differs from the book. Things sailed along smoothly enough until I came across her comments on some of the biggest changes—namely, the increase in the main characters’ ages and the influx of new, futuristic action sequences virtually nonexistent in the original story.
According to Lowry, the filmmakers decided that writing in some action sequences—complete, I guess, with the trailer’s beam-firing hovercrafts—would solve the “problem” of the book’s introspective tone. A problem, I’d say, if someone were trying to make an action movie, which The Giver, as a novel, is not.
Lowry also gave the okay for writers to amp up the ages of her child characters, who started out around age eleven or twelve on paper, and now round up to about sixteen years old. The actors themselves, as previously mentioned, are even older than that. While Lowry did ask that the writers not use the age jump as an excuse for a love story between Jonas and his female friend—who, while pivotal in Jonas’ gradual recognition of the faults in his society, is ultimately too young and emotionally unavailable to Jonas to be anything more than an occasional companion. Lowry claims that the producers gave their word to prevent such a love story, and that the tone of the book would be preserved throughout the process, but the trailer certainly wants audiences to think otherwise. Personally, I would have preferred to see a lot more of the character Gabriel in these ads.
I get it. The film team needs to market a film to an audience already attached to The Hunger Games and love-it-or-hate-it Divergent. And marketers are right in that decision. The main age range attracted to those books and films is definitely the same set of kids reading The Giver. Dystopian novels are huge in pop culture, have been in the past, and will probably continue to be in the future. And that’s great. What doesn’t fit the mold, though, and what marketers might not find worth emphasizing, is that these same kids still loved The Giver for all the stillness and introspection producers masked with spaceships and gunmen. And in the same way they love The Hunger Games for all its action and tumult.
Paging through the trailer’s comment section on YouTube and through the book’s reader reviews on Goodreads, I discovered that several fans feel the same way. Many commenters and reviewers name The Giver, often first read in middle school, as the book that launched their love for literature from that point onward. Still more mentioned an attachment to the book’s grey tone and careful pacing, something unique in modern young-adult literature (not to mention in film and television), and utterly lost in the filmmakers’ advertisements.
People like me, who experienced The Giver at Jonas’ age, grew up in a world already tuned to the rapid satisfaction of the Internet age and the increasing pace of plot in entertainment media. We have been told time and again that these things decrease our attention span, that our patience is lacking, and that we often fail to appreciate the intangible experiences of the real world away from screens and buttons. We have been fed these things to appease our grab-and-go tastes, despite the fact that films like Boyhood, filmed over twelve years, prove that people haven’t run out of patience quite yet. This is who the media—and in some cases, even our own parents—think we are. Is it who the movie-makers behind The Giver think we are?
Because I find the situation fascinating, that so many people accustomed to this apparently innate and insurmountable wiring—regular middle school students of the 21st century—would choose to appreciate a paperback novel with few to no action sequences, no romance, and a pace slow enough to occupy several hours most likely spread over several days. These are the same people who love The Hunger Games for its own breed of love triangle and its ferocity and its schemes. But what The Giver’s traditional fan base tells me is that these passionate people are also lovers of peace and placidity and the quiet renderings of their own, private mind. Twelve-year-olds are complicated.
I don’t even mean to say that the literal route is the best route in terms of turning books into movies. Some people, like Peter Jackson, tend to do near page-by-page transcriptions of The Lord of the Rings pretty well, and others, like Baz Luhrman and his Gatsby, maybe go too far by being too literal. Literally. By floating actual words of the original text across the screen.
Still, chances are that the film will be a successful and high-quality piece of work, regardless of what philosophy I use to disarm it. Heck, I’ll probably like it a lot. But I slump to see The Giver take form into what its trailer makes it out to be, as I find its presence in the hearts of so many young readers too unique to be fashioned into a playbook summer blockbuster.
Here’s to hope.