“The Giver” and the Gift That Keeps on Taking

The Giver

“When people have the freedom to choose, they choose wrong. Every single time.” So says the Chief Elder, a firm believer in the Reformed doctrine of total depravity, apparently.

In The Giver, the film adaptation of Lois Lowry’s 1993 award-winning, giga-billion-selling novel, we are introduced to a Community born out of the Ruins, the result of a cataclysm so devastating that remnant elites constructed an artificial environment in which there is no war, no suffering, no envy, no jealousy, no differences to fight over. Sameness is Gospel in this world composed only of shades of gray. Intimacy is monitored by pervasive video cameras, and the word love is a desiccated monosyllable. Equality is enforced by The Rules, by eugenics, and a rigid control over language and emotion. All citizens of the Community are injected daily with a medication that dulls pain, mutes feeling, and reduces everyone to a quotidian docility. The folks here are perfunctorily polite. Even the climate is finally under control. (Snow? What’s snow?)

And in the interest of creating true community, all citizens are white or light-skinned. Even superficial differences can result in competition, after all, and value judgments. (Although someone constructing the ideal “race” must have decided that whitish is rightish.) All memory of the variegated and multihued past has been wiped from everyone’s consciousness.

Well, almost everyone.

Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) and his friends Asher (Cameron Monaghan) and Fiona (Odeya Rush) are about to turn 16, which means enduring a formal ceremony in which each will learn his or her calling in life. Such an important decision cannot be left to the individual but to the Council of Elders, presided over by a Chief (Meryl Streep).

Asher is made a drone pilot. Fiona, a Nurturer. Jonas, well Jonas is special. He is to go into training to become the next Receiver of Memories, the sole individual who bears the burden of the Community’s history, with all its pain. The Receiver is occasionally called on to counsel the Elders themselves as they guide the Community to ever-grayer shades of similitude.

Jonas will be discipled by The Giver, who is in fact the incumbent Receiver (Jeff Bridges), a grizzled and troubled soul who inhabits the Community’s library. The Giver informs Jonas, more like warns, that he is in a privileged position: not only will he get to see what no other Community dwellers will ever be exposed to, but certain rules no longer apply to him. He can stop taking his daily pain-dulling medication, he can lie, he no longer has to apologize every fifteen seconds (sound familiar)? But he must not tell anyone about his training.

It seems that The Giver has had a would-be Receiver go bad before. Ten years earlier, a mysterious young woman’s Receiver training went terribly wrong, leaving The Giver in a grievous state. Can The Giver get it right with Jonas? The Chief Elder has her concerns and keeps strict tabs on both The Giver and his charge.

Jonas’s training entails receiving visions of the past—of colors and cultures and strange religious rituals and  dances and risk. At first Jonas is both fascinated and delighted—and confused by newfound sensations, including feelings for Fiona that he couldn’t quite articulate before. But as Jonas’s training progresses, he begins to see how such passions can go all too wrong: in butchery, war, exploitation.

Overwhelmed by the pain that bad choices cause, Jonas is close to checking out of the program. Then he learns something he finds to be even more horrifying than the past: the present. It seems that his Community-selected Father (Alexander Skarsgård) is in charge of the process called “releasing,” something to which some infants and elderly and certain Others are subjected to. Jonas learns that these poor creatures aren’t “released” to a place so much as simply murdered. This hits home when an underweight infant named Gabriel that Jonas’s father has brought home to nurture fails to meet Community standards and is scheduled to be released. Jonas begs help from The Giver: he wants to escape with Gabriel to Elsewhere, beyond the Community’s borders, to discover the truth of the past and give the baby a chance at life.

Will he make it? And if so, what exactly will Jonas discover out there? Will The Giver be able to save Fiona from “release’ given that she’s been privy to Jonas’s training and that the two teens have been seen engaging in unlawful touching? Will Asher execute his orders to find and terminate with extreme prejudice both Jonas and Gabriel?

While Lowry’s book is considered the progenitor of such tales as The Hunger Games and Divergent, and was considered remarkable when it debuted, the film doesn’t add much to the vocabulary of dystopian science fiction. The visuals are dull, and not just because we’re deliberately cast into a cinematically gray world that only slowly takes on color. You get the feeling you’ve seen this production design before – perhaps in Oblivion or even Logan’s Run, another story about a perfect world in which people who turn 30 must report to “Carousel” in the hope of getting “renewed.” (And good luck with that.)

I wish more time had been spent on The Giver and his world of inscripurated memory, of preserved past. There’s a rushed quality to the film (which clocks in at 93 minutes), as if the filmmakers were eager to get Jonas on the run so as literally to cut to the chase. (“Elsewhere,” that space beyond the borders of the Community, is itself an echo of the Forbidden Zone of the original Planet of the Apes.)

The performances are … adequate. Meryl Streep is sufficiently stern and matter of fact: a combination of church lady and librarian from hell. The younger cast members are patently earnest. Jeff Bridges is little more than a strung-out Rooster Cogburn. Katie Holmes, who plays Jonas’s Mother, is probably just happy to be working.

Mainstream critics have been less than enthusiastic about the film. The whole thing just seems tired now. Perhaps it took too long to bring book to screen. Perhaps a scenario that once was eyebrow-raising is now merely trite.

Or perhaps the critique of the hermetically sealed Community cuts a little too close to the politics of some of these critics, too. After all, we’re talking about a world of precise language in which Equality is the highest value, in which feelings are dissected to death and traditional nuclear families are things of a forgotten past, in which unfit babies and the elderly are dispatched into the memory hole, useless and disconcerting in a culture that averts its gaze from weakness and decay. Oh, and not an obese teenager to be seen anywhere. A Progressive Utopia, no?

Which is why conservatives have been quick to endorse this film and encourage their compatriots to take to the box office and celebrate this clarion call to defend freedom in the Age of Obama.

Uh, not so fast.

I stumbled across this interview with Lois Lowry, in which she alludes to the controversy the book generated back in the 1990s:

 Well, they have pulled out of context a few things. A mention of the Stirrings, an oblique reference to sexual feelings. And the other thing that they lament is when the father kills the infant. They have accused me of promoting infanticide and abortion and euthanasia. But I think what they’re really objecting to, and they’re not admitting this to themselves, is the fact of a boy, who’s 12 in the book, perceiving the hypocrisy of his parents’ generation, and breaking the rules in order to free himself and others of that.

Let’s engage in a thought experiment. How likely is it that Lois Lowry was so concerned about growing political correctness back in the 90s that she felt compelled to pen this morality tale? Does anyone even know what her politics are? (If this is, in fact, the same Lois Lowry as The Giver’s author, then I think I can guess.) How about Jeff Bridges, who shepherded this project for years and who blames the current “hunger crisis” on Ronald Reagan? How about Meryl Streep? Closet conservatives worried about unibrow thinking?

You know what this Community put me in mind of? Those “perfect” 1950s suburban developments. Might this also have been what Lowry had in mind, not to mention Jeff Bridges, for whom the word “McCarthyism” leaps to mind when thinking about the film’s theme?

You know what I mean, those prefab models of sameness with their own speech and dress codes, stark lines beyond which one dare not tread for fear of ostracization. Where comfort was king and there were agreed-upon values and civilities, acceptable families, and acceptable races babies (and those not produced in an acceptable way were deemed “less than” and often consigned, if not to the trash bin and incinerator like today, to “homes” beyond the prying eyes of moralizing neighbors).

Sure there was plenty of history, and plenty of memories, often sanitized for our enjoyment. The victors wrote the history books, though, while, closer to home, crazy abusive uncles were kept in the attic and never talked about.

Again, I find it interesting that the Chief Elder voices a view of human nature that is strangely … reactionary. (This is in addition to the fact that there is no dancing permitted in the Community. Are we sure the Elders aren’t Baptists?)

Don’t progressives and other utopian thinkers view human nature as something malleable, something that, given the right indoctrination, conditioning, and carrots v. sticks, can be directed away from the world-community bad and toward the world-community good? It’s usually the Right that bangs on about human nature as more or less fixed—owing to either original sin, biology, or a brief overview of the last five thousand years of human history.

As for all those religions that are celebrated in Jonas’s vision of the past: I’m sure the artists involved in creating both book and film have no great issue with them — as long as it’s understood that there is no one way to God or Enlightenment or Ultimate Truth. (And when that mind-set has done it’s work, what’s the point of religion again? Remember that The Giver consuls Jonas not only to have faith but also to engage in almost perpetual skepticism, regardless of the Authority. So what is finally to be learned from history? What is it that Jonas is to have faith in? Faith? An abstract, contextless notion of freedom?)

This is what diversity has been reduced to, no? Superficial differences, like tattoos, masking an underlying sameness, the banality of relativism?

Granted, The Giver‘s famous, ambiguous ending makes a “conservative” reading plausible, what with its echo of Jonas as a Jonah or Jesus figure and a reminder that it’s a wonderful life. But keep in mind that old-fashioned liberals (R.I.P.) used to hurl “conservative” and Christian values at, well, conservatives and Christians as a rebuke, a challenge, for their having failed to live up to them.

I’m not saying that the conservative reading of The Giver is all wrong (although it seems Lowry got some pushback from conservatives early on, as that block quote above reveals). I am saying that I don’t think it’s quite that pat. (And needless to say, and so I’ll say it, the paradigmatic dystopian novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, was the brainchild not of a conservative Christian but of a socialist atheist, albeit one with certain conservative, and very English, instincts.)

Look, when you’re an outsider in a culture, a minority, of course you jump on the liberty bandwagon, extolling freedom of thought and speech and association, freedom for all. (Were the hippies of the 60s fighting for more repression?) But when your clan finally attains real political power, well, you can’t let them, your erstwhile oppressors, get back into a position of influence, can you? (See Theodosian Decrees.) You can’t let their ideas loose in schools to implant themselves in impressionable minds. You can’t let them run their businesses just any old way. You can’t let them preach “hate” from their pulpits, giving God’s own imprimatur to their primitive views. This is a nation of laws, not men persons, after all, and more laws make good neighbors, isn’t that how that expression goes?

The real threat is always the same: ideology, or dogma off its leash. The attempt to reduce all human experience to some grand, unifying, almost arithemtical Idea — economic, environmental, racial, even religious (see Northern Iraq 2014). Which is why conservatives can never afford to become complacent, whoever happens to be in office, or what the mainstream media is hawking, because ideology is the gift that keeps on taking, such that the Bill of Rights may one day be something you learn about only on a future version of Pawn Stars, and The Taker may be someone you would have sworn was on your side.

Ideology can, of course, take any number of forms and can creep into anyone’s kit bag of values, hoping to construct from it an overarching system, a vast chalkboard of equations and GPS coordinates thought to equate to real life, a synecdoche in reverse, a nonhuman thing thought to represent the human.

Before you know it, you’ve become everything you hate.

The  first temptation of ideology is always to give History, that know-it-all and busybody, a push in the right direction, whether by running roughshod over the wisdom of elders long dispatched to Elsewhere or by planting boots on the ground. Let’s face it, we all tire of waiting: for an enlightened citizenry, or a common sense of decency, or a world that reflects back to us our own highest ideals, or God’s direct intervention into our neighbor’s damn 3 am pool parties.

But it’s 2014, and the crisis this time is of a materialist, secularist, scientistic bent. And so it’s easy to read into The Giver a commentary on a progressive hell. But I think the real takeaway is that it’s vitally important how one engages with the prevailing ideology, whatever it is. Care must be taken in waging “culture war,” because it will inform the way one finally rules.

Will the traditionalists, the conservatives, the keepers of memory, when they come back into cultural and political power, as they no doubt one day will, allow for true debate of conflicting beliefs — even as they argue for the superiority and authority of their own — or will they, too, slap a new set of draconian Rules on the losers?

In short, will they fall prey to ideology?

There are all manner of ways, Left and Right, to create a hell on earth.

Just try and legislate a heaven there first.

  • tiorbinist

    An interesting view.

    What you may be searching for, in the manner of grey turning to color in the course of cinematographic treatment, would be “The Wizard of Oz”, which actually started in “sepiatone” (which my mother told me was perfect for portraying Kansas!)

    Something to consider as you arrive at your final questions and statements is that one reason for the current appearance of liberal-progressivism in ascendency is that conservatives don’t approach life the way liberals do, and one generation’s liberals may appear to be a later’s conservatives. It is rare for a conservative to approach a problem by first asserting that his opposition is composed of racists, monsters, anti-semites, etc, while that is the preference of progressives, these days. It can be neatly summarized that the liberal progressives are all about narrative and message, while the conservatives are concerned with relationships.

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