What a Wonderful World? A review of Lois Lowry’s The Giver
If you don’t like spoilers beforehand for your books or movies, then read no further in this post!
Lois Lowry’s 1994 Newberry-winning novel for young adults, The Giver, tapped into the dystopian tradition of Fahrenheit 451 and Brave New World, long before the Hunger Games books and movies became the hottest way to cash in on the teen entertainment market.
Belatedly, Hollywood has looked around and spotted The Giver as yet another chance to milk that market—especially as it conveniently has three “companion novels” (not exactly sequels, but books set in the same world) that can be adapted if the first film is a success. So “The Giver” is due out in theatres this August 15 2014.
Sequelism aside, book-to-movie adaptations are always a mixed bag. Fans were understandably apprehensive when they found out about the various changes detailed here.
And yet there is some hopeful news for fans of the book at this time: the author says she is pleased with the film.
It would be so easy to lose the essentials of this story in film adaptation. Because The Giver is not at first glance what you would call a high-concept summer blockbuster. You can tell from the cover of the first edition, which features a black and white portrayal (sepia-toned photograph?) of an old man with a troubled expression, and a small corner where the wallpaper is ripped away, as it were, revealing a sunset shining through snowy woods. Hardly the stuff you would expect to grab the kind of audience who will come to the movie because it features attractive rising teen stars Brenton Thwaites and Odeya Rush, as well as pop singer Taylor Swift.
The Giver tackles tough issues, but at first glance there is so much about the world it portrays that seems wise and wonderful.
Well, apparently wise. Maybe not so wonderful…in fact rather lacking in wonder, and in wonders….
“Concepts create idols—only wonder grasps anything,” says Gregory of Nyssa.
The young hero Jonas lives in an unnamed community where everything is tidy and orderly. Everyone rides bicycles, food scraps are carefully recycled. Can you imagine how good it would be “sharing feelings” with your family at dinner every day? It’s so sensible and reasonable. Everyone is categorized with their age group and funneled into a profession suited to their abilities. No-one is harshly criticized for failures or mistakes, but gently guided along by the collective wisdom.
The uniformity of the community is rather reminiscent of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, in which there is a dark world where children play by bouncing balls in exact time with their neighbours, returning indoors and shutting the door at the identical moment. Lowry’s version looks rather less harsh and ominous than L’Engle’s– on the surface.
But even at the beginning of the book, as Jonas awaits the announcement at age 12 of his future path, he begins to see something strange…an apple tossed in the air for a moment inexplicably and indescribably changes in his sight…
Jonas can’t describe it because, like everyone in his community, he has never seen colour before. And the readers only really understand this is what is happening when the Giver, an old man who holds all the community’s memories, teaches Jonas the painful lessons about what is missing in the community: its past, its heritage. Feelings, colour, music, differences, pleasures and especially pains….all erased by the community’s generations-long submission to Sameness.
I expect the movie will start with black-and-white, which can’t help but give the game away at once, as does the new trailer, but never mind—it still makes the point.
The book has a strong emphasis on pain. Because the community has largely eliminated all but the most trivial pain, it falls to the Giver to bear that pain on their behalf. He carries the memories of generations before of all kinds of pain. Pleasure as well, yes…but although this portrayal of memory is not based in scientific speculation, it does have right the fact that we remember most strongly our most painful and negative experiences. And these memories, and their pain, the Giver must transmit to Jonas.
Why do the holy fathers teach us not to avoid pain and hardship, but even to seek them out? This is too large a subject to treat in the middle of a book review, but listen for instance to Maximos the Confessor on this topic: “The person who truly wishes to be healed is he who does not refuse treatment. This treatment consists of the pain and distress brought on by various misfortunes. He who refuses them does not realize what they accomplish in this world or what he will gain from them when he departs this life.”– St. Maximos the Confessor, Third Century on Love, 82
The elders of the the community in The Giver have chosen to refuse the spiritual treatment of pain and suffering— and not just for themselves, but for their entire community. They indeed do not know what will be gained when they depart from this life—they avoid the whole thought of departing from it and live as if there is no other life, and as if the highest good is the avoidance of all suffering, irritation and inconvenience.
Of course, the elders in fact know better than this, though the general population of the community is kept in the dark. They know that talk of the “Elsewhere” to which their members go is only death—death to which they send the elderly, unwanted infants, and any members who repeatedly fail to fit in. In the most horrific scene of the story, Jonas observes by video his own father administering a lethal injection to an infant he had previously nurtured and cared for in the community creche, wrapping the body up and slinging it into a disposal chute with a cheery “Bye, little guy!”
A similar theme was treated long ago in the film “Logan’s Run,” where members of a closed utopian community are supposed to be reincarnated at age thirty, but are in fact destroyed to make room for the next generation.
The Giver’s themes are therefore not new or startling, but the simplicity and strength of the portrayal of a colourless—and heartless– society make it a worthy addition to the genre, especially as it speaks particularly to a younger audience. Young people growing up in a society that takes for granted various forms of birth control, that presses for unlimited abortion and euthanasia, will see the dark side of the idea of a painless world in The Giver.
When Jonas learns the truth, he knows he must rescue baby Gabe, who is also slated for “Elsewhere.” In a purgatorial journey outside the closed world of the community, he faces pain, hunger, cold and fear. But here the tradition of the Giver’s memories helps him, for there are memories of courage and strength and wonder to draw on. Most of all there are the memories of love, exemplified by an ancient memory of a family gathering at Christmas time. The world of Jonas’s community is stable but sterile, segregated by age group; whereas the traditional family gathering, so easily recognizable to the readers, is warm, the generations gathered together to give gifts to each other, and full of wonder.
Unlike a typical high-concept story, The Giver ends ambiguously. How much of what Jonas sees and hears as he slides down a snowy hill with the baby clutched to his chest is memory, how much if any is real? But it doesn’t matter; Jonas has acted out of love, and done everything for love.
The companion books reveal a little more, but we shall see what the movie does with this ambiguous yet satisfying ending.
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