Lois Lowry, author of the much heralded 1993 book, The Giver, maintains the story did not come from some intent to push a philosophical, moral or political agenda. The complex, yet cognitively simplified society void of long-term memory sprang from a much more personal well when Lowry penned the tale: Her protagonist Jonas discovers a world of memories outside the bland utopia in which he spent his childhood where he and everyone else is kept in check by selective amnesia.
“It was actually inspired more by the fact that my father at that time was very old.” she discloses in an interview promoting the release of the film adapted from the novel which, among other accolades, claimed the American Library Association’s 1994 Newberry Award. “I figured he would not live much longer and his memories were fading, and when I went to visit him…it became more and more apparent that to me he was losing memories that were so important.”
“On the other hand, at the same I realized that he was content because he had forgotten every sad or scary thing that had ever happened to him. He’d forgotten World War II in which he’d participated. He’d forgotten my sister, who had died young, his first child. And so, I began to think about how important memory is, what would happen if we could manipulate human memory. And when a writer begins to think questions like that, that begin with ‘what if,’ then a story begins to take shape. And that was the beginning of The Giver.”
Jonas grows up in a nuclear family of four people who have no last name. Theirs becomes almost a clinical existence, a life in which they adhere to practices which include “specificity of language.” They carry no memory of war or poverty or pain — indeed, their lexicon does not include experiences defining extravagant emotions such as passion and heartbreak. Only one member of this society understands these feelings, can access these memories. Known as the Receiver of Memory, this elder, in time, takes on a young apprentice to accept both the burden and the enlightenment, the repository for all human memory, a duty which next falls to Jonas.
The Australian-born filmmaker Philip Noyce directs the film adaptation of Lowry’s book, a project nurtured all these years by an actor who originally intended to direct the feature himself. Jeff Bridges came across the book and approached Lowry two years after its publication date to determine her interest in having it made into a Hollywood feature.
“It was a tough time in my life, actually, because I had a son who was killed in the military in 1995,” the author recalls of the death of her son, Grey, a pilot. “So it was a distraction from those tough times. I got to know Jeff gradually over a period of time, and I began to feel that the book was in good hands.”
When he first came upon Lowry’s work, Bridges had wanted his father, the late actor Lloyd Bridges, to play the title role. The younger Bridges had seen the cover, thought immediately of his father, and read the book before contacting Lowry. But factors intervened neither the actor nor author anticipated.
“As an adult I just loved the story, the poetry, the magical quality of it,” Bridges considers now, reflecting on first experiencing the plot Lowry had spun.
“I thought it would be an easy movie to get made, but I was proven wrong. Even though it was taught in schools, over 12 million copies sold, it was also on the banned books list, so it was quite a controversial book, and it took all these years and the Weinstein Company and Walden Media to get it made.”
Banned Books Awareness, an online literacy site references controversial literature and includes no fewer than four challenges to The Giver in four separate states over the years. One such public protest occurred as recently as 2007 in Kansas. Officials in that state, already known as a hot bed of conservative objections to certain educational material, briefly removed the book from school libraries before subsequently reinstating it.
Consider two current big screen franchises taken from young adult fiction, each with installments in release during 2014. Catching Fire, the second in author Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy, appeared in print in 2008. Veronica Roth’s Divergent landed on bookshelves three years later. Both books explore themes that include societal unrest, revolution, graphic violence and distrust in government, to name a few — any of which could inspire controversy.
Lowry maintains what readers — and filmgoers — clamor for simply may reflect an increasingly uncertain mood in the country, a possibility which may explain Hollywood’s seeming obsession with producing films set in dystopian environments.
“I think times are very difficult now for kids looking toward the future unlike my own teenage self growing up between two wars, the Korean War and the Vietnam War,” Lowry remembers of the halcyon days of her adolescence. She came of age during the relatively short-lived calm of the late fifties, years she spent as a service brat following a military father from place to place.
“ I lived in a very comfortable era and my family had no television, so I wasn’t bombarded by fears of the future the way my grandchildren now are. And I think that’s made them turn toward these books that’s made them postulate possible futures. They’re tyrying to figure out their role, what role they’ll play in, one hopes, changing the future.”
Those early experiences, however sheltered Lowry may have felt from outside calamity, provided a framework for the prolific writer to shape Sameness, The Giver’s utopian, if bland, society free or worry, conflict, enmity and fear.
“I grew up in a place that had a lot of rules, several places – military bases around the world – and so, it began to feel familiar to me when I began to create the world of Jonas, which is a world in which people are all equal, where they all live in the same kind of house, where things are made very easy for them — where, for example, meals for them are delivered. That was not true in my childhood.”
Bridges concurs and points out that childhood today is a far cry from the childhood experienced by previous generations — as childhood no doubt will play out for succeeding generations.
“You know, the movie takes place in some future time, but it’s very reflective of what’s going on now with our own technology and so forth and the power of that. Our ethics haven’t really caught up with our technology. I think it’s really important to question that.”
The of more than three dozen books for children and young adults may not have intended The Giver to broach certain controversy — in her own words, she refutes the notion of being a “political animal” — but the questions she raises in the themes explored by both the book and the film adaptation undeniably tackle weighty societal issues.
“They lived by a lot of rules,” she admits of the citizens who populate the community of Sameness, “and it makes their lives orderly – which I guess is to be desired. It makes them very content, but there’s also the more you exist or observe that kind of rule you begin to realize there’s something desperately lacking.”
“Over the course of many generations as the man, the Giver says, ‘Back and back and back,’ they have made certain decisions in order to create a stable and safe society. But in doing so, they have obliterated personal choice, individual choice, and the people have paid a terrible price for that, even though with the exception of Jonas and the Giver, they don’t realize it. But choice is gone for them.”
Lowry created a protagonist in Jonas who reaches the threshold of adolescence at the story’s opening chapter. His selection to assume his duties as the keeper of all memories reflects the qualities the elders detect — intelligence and courage in equal parts, traits which keep Jonas in good stead even if the elders subsequently find themselves questioning the prudence of their decision. The contradiction Lowry regards as much inevitable as it could be instructive.
“This is a boy who perceives the hypocrisy of the governing body of his world and the adult…generation above him and perceives something deeply evil there. I suppose that’s a cautionary tale for today’s kids.”
As happens in movie translations of popular novels, details of Lowry’s story take shape on screen in quite different fashion. The film unfolds as Jonas approaches both the end of high school and the beginning of adulthood. For the movie, filmmakers cast a then-24-year-old Australian native, Brenton Thwaites. Movie audiences will recognize him for his appearance earlier in 2014 as the prince in Maleficent.
“The boy Brenton whom I met this summer and have seen again (on set) is quite remarkable,” the writer professes with enthusiasm. “Although he’s older than the boy was in the book, it seems okay, because he looks and seems vulnerable and intelligent and brings all the things that the boy in the book had.”
In giving life to a character six years his junior, the young star who portrays the youth tasked with keeping track of all human memory embraced the challenge of discovering life lessons for a second time.
“To be honest, I read the script, and I found a real opportunity to find such simple things in a new way,” says Thwaites. “I have been in love before, so I know what love feels like, and I’ve seen colors all my life, so I know what color looks like. But I thought it was interesting to play around with the different ways on how that would affect me,” he relates.
“The audience learns as Jonas learns — and Phil shoots it from Phil’s POV — and so we see what Jonas sees as he discovers love, pain, war, hate, murder, all these kind of great and horrible memories, but the question is asked halfway through the film or three-quarters, ‘What’s the point of having such love without such hate or having such hate without such love….Is it better to experience both of those things or is it better to just be the same and experience none of these things.’”
While the novel continues to garner accolades and praise — two twenty-something members of a weekend audience watching the film adaptation in Los Angeles cited the book as a memorable childhood influence — the film itself does not seem to inspire the same breadth of approval among critics. The site Rotten Tomatoes weighed in at the close of its nationwide opening with a score of 31 based on an average of 101 reviews.
One audience member found fault in that the movie covers too much ground in the time given it. A couple who attended a Sunday afternoon showing considered it well worth attending — in agreement with more than 30 thousand audience members across the country who added their own opinions arriving at a more than respectable 72 score on Rotten Tomatoes.
What, then, makes for a good film? The two feature projects previously referenced in release earlier in 2014, both from young adult novels, would qualify if financial considerations are the sole arbiter. Catching Fire earned a staggering 440 million plus at the box office. Divergent took in a more modest, though still impressive, cash haul topping 150 million.
In its first weekend, The Giver brought in some 12 million and change — not a bad sum considering the budget for this ambitious project has been estimated at 25 million or so. The film will more than make its money back.
One film executive recently offered, off the record, that some books should not be made into movies. From the standpoint of a bottom line, such a finding no doubt invites few naysayers.
The Giver undeniably does not make for an easy elevator pitch — a two-line summation that compares the plot to audience favorites full of car chases, explosions and the like.
Just as undeniable, however, The Giver does provide an examination of .life at the crossroads for young people preparing to take on the vast and often ill-fitting responsibilities of adulthood. The Giver succeeds admirably in echoing those awakening feelings for those who have yet to experience them fully — even as it poses questions for the rest of us to consider again and again.
Can a society wipe out the collective memory of a society? Surely the point has been made more than once that the answer is in the affirmative. History, it has been said, is written by the winners. Decisions are made by those who show up. Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.
Time and time again — back and back and back, as the story puts it — the past has been reinvented for expedience, and sins of omission have been committed in the teaching of the histories of the world as well as that of the United States. Even now, school boards and politicians argue over what to include in school books and what to leave out. The dangers implied should be evident.
The Giver — on the page or on the screen — may not answer all the questions it raises, but ask them this story does. We, as readers or theater audiences, might find it in our interest to pay attention.