The Giver by Louis Lowry is a book most of you, readers, were probably forced to read in grade school, and you probably had to write a book report or take a test too. For the past few weeks I reread the book and watched the movie because I sensed Lowry had some very important things to say, and I was right. The Giver is a simple but very touching and profound book. It is not War And Peace, The Red And The Black, or any other dense, tedious classic. It does not need to be. Teachers often advise novice writers to show rather than tell and it is very possible to show a lot by writing very little. Lowry does it well in The Giver; she reminds me of Nietzsche and Emily Dickinson since both have the same talent as she does, but Lowry does not make her work dense or obscure, something Nietzsche and Dickinson are notorious for. For this reason I hope to one day read the whole Giver Quartet and write my thoughts on them.
The dystopia in The Giver is a totalitarian society at heart: a subtle and insidious one, an iron fist in a leather glove. I would solidly place the Community on the Huxley side of the Orwell-Huxley scale. It brainwashes its people not with a jackboot but with soma. It does not force them into obedience but lulls them into it with false comforts. The Community seems nice and comforting but is in fact extremely cruel. It ruthlessly executes sickly and deformed babies, the old, and people who break the rules three times. Young children and old people are disciplined with bullwhips. Most shockingly, the authorities execute and discipline malefactors with a smile, for even in their minds they do not understand the full consequences of what they do. I always imagined the Community as a kind of white picket-fenced suburb and the people, with their tunics and bicycles, reminded me of Mormons. The suburb is a pretty good example of living a comfortable lie and a cruel society beneath a veneer of happiness.
The Giver started the whole young adult dystopian genre but it would take a decade for the genre itself to become a big and very marketable force in the mainstream. The Hunger Games is solidly on the Orwell side, a great trilogy on its own right but lacking The Giver’s subtleties. The society in Divergent is not really a dystopia; it has a rigid caste system but young adults can choose their cast. The society falls into violence and terror because the Erudite caste try to overthrow the Abnegation caste, not because it is intrinsically made that way.
As I reread the Giver, I picked up on many small things I did not notice as a child. The Community reminds me a lot of the Matrix – of course! The Matrix always needs to be worked in somewhere. – since the people live in a controlled and fundamentally unreal environment. They are not ensnared in a virtual world but a network of institutions and abstractions they cannot escape. Jonas, his family, Asher, everyone can only speak and even only think of things related to the Community: the rules, volunteer hours, careers, even their dreams are only about the Community. They cannot think outside the box. The Giver reminds me of Plato’s allegory of the cave. – Why not be even more pretentious while I’m at it? – The people in the Community do not feel deeper emotions or even live real lives. They only see shadows of real things. It is also worth mentioning that Socrates in the Republic speaks of banning all flute players in his scheme of a utopia. The Community had eradicated all music a long time ago.
Jonas, at first, and everyone else in the Community speaks in a very stilted, politically correct language. Stuffed animals are “comfort objects”, death is “release” or “loss”, ardor is called “stirrings”, bullwhips are “discipline rods”, and so forth. George Carlin rightly called political correctness ugly language, and the people litter their language with ugly words. Once Jonas receives the Giver’s memories, his language subtly but drastically changes. He actually talks like a normal person later in the book because the Community no longer restrains his thinking and his language.
The Community eliminated all privacy. Cameras watch the people from every road and building, speakers hover in all buildings, even in people’s homes, and families are obligated to share their all dreams with each other. The Community eliminated all history. Jonas at first knows nothing of any place outside of the Community or any time before. He has no historical point of reference and no sense of culture, since the one culture he lives in is all he knows. Only the social order and ideology of the Community exist, always present and always right. All the great dystopian writers, Orwell, Huxley, and Lowry, know that a dictatorship needs to do three things to succeed: control language, eliminate privacy, and eliminate history.
Lowry in the sequel of the Giver Quartet, Gathering Blue, mentions The Ruin, a cataclysm that almost destroyed humanity long before the books begin. Before I learned of The Ruin, I wondered what horrible event made people so desperate that they would suppress their feelings and memories. We often say that people want to be happy and that they do what is best for their rational self-interest. This is wrong. People choose to be wretched and cling stubbornly to their misery, because suffering gives their lives meaning. People believe they find a deeper truth or a sense of realness in their suffering that they feel they would not have if they were happy. The Ruin must have been a calamity beyond words for an entire society to want to anesthetize itself forever.
In 2015, Jeff Bridges and Louis Lowry got together to make a film of The Giver, an ambition Bridges wanted to make into a reality since 1998. Originally, Bridges wanted his father to play the Giver but his father died, so Bridges took the role himself. I watched the film, hoping the movie would be more than the blockbuster action film promised by the trailer. Thankfully, the trailer lied, as it usually does. The movie is at its heart faithful to the book but had to make mandatory changes to translate book to film. The movie avoids the conventions of the dystopian young adult genre, as seen in the Hunger Games, Divergent, and Percy Jackson, in the most important ways, but still conforms to the genre in others.
Bridges and Lowry probably felt the need to make changes and conform to make the movie sell as a young adult blockbuster. The book is a slim volume but it psychologically feels long and laid back. The prose is simple but shows a lot of information while not appearing dense, making you use a lot of energy to notice everything while not noticing it. This is what makes the plot move in a laidback, walking pace. The moods of the book are ones of melancholy, thoughtfulness, and sympathy. The film is more intense, in part because of the action scenes thrown in. The film appears dense and crammed, even though it shows less information than the book. Many of the book’s subtleties are lost in the film, though the film valiantly preserves some important ones. It is an unfortunate loss in translation that happens almost every time a book is adapted into a film, so the film’s faults are not unique.
I really liked how the film manipulated color. The director shot the scenes in black and white at the start of the film and slowly introduced us to colors as Jonas received more memories. Once Jonas ran away from the Community with Gabriel the director reverted to black and white while still shooting scenes outside of the community with color. Jeff Bridges’ Giver is different than the Giver in the book: the book’s Giver wistful and resigned, Bridges’ Giver intense and wizened. Fans and critics may protest Bridges’ acting, but I see it as necessary and good. Actors must impart their personalities in their characters to act well, and Bridges delivers. I understand critics when they complain about the movie missing elements from the book, but they do not seem to understand that Bridges and Lowry made a blockbuster film, not an obscure arts film. But they are critics; it is their job to spit venom at everything for no good reason while being smug and self-satisfied.