THE GIVER – The Lie of Utopia

The Giver is a faithful adaptation of the original book, almost to a fault, with some extra exciting sci-fi elements thrown in to keep things moving. It is a fascinating story, one that is more philosophical than narrative.

Where I grew up, The Giver was required reading in my middle school years (a fact which I continue to find utterly ironic, given that the public school system is a veritable breeding ground for conformity), so I was somewhat familiar with the story. I remember being bored and disappointed with it (I’m not much of a reader anyway). And when I saw the movie, I remembered why the book left me that way, though I definitely wasn’t bored with the movie.

Both the book and the film have deep philosophic and spiritual underpinnings. It is a sobering lesson of the evil and lie that so many today are attempting to propagate – that there can indeed be utopia on earth, never mind the inherent sinful nature of man. If suppression and coercion are the only ways to get people to conform, then how noble of a prospect is this utopia?

The Community awaits… SPOILER ALERT!

The Good

The vision and direction of The Giver was some of the most intelligent filmmaking I’ve seen this year. Director Phillip Noyce really deserves a lot of credit with how the world of the Community was established in the film. When the first trailer came out, everything was in color, and I was fearful that the filmmakers did not understand the purpose color served in the story (everything that brings emotion to the forefront is suppressed, even color).

Much to my relief, the film used color to maximum storytelling effect, and it turned out beautifuly. It reminded me of the use of color in The Wizard of Oz – the eyes get used to seeing things in black and white, then – BOOM – one sees color, and on some deep level, one seems to instantly “get” the idea that the characters are waking up to a whole new side of life to which they have not been exposed.

The actors did a very good job conveying their characters’ attitudes and motivations. Jeff Bridges, who was the catalyst to get this film made, really sells his character’s heavy burden being the Keeper of Memory. He’s grizzled, cynical and tired, and made me feel his burden. Meryl Streep’s Chief Elder was also great. It’s almost as if she was just blindly following rules, not really knowing (or caring) why she followed them. And Katie Holmes always plays a good automaton.

I enjoyed the added action sequences, especially with the drone. It brought the story into today’s consciousness. I remember reading the book and thinking that this Community was pretty boring and devoid of futuristic technology for being set in the future. I liked the balance the filmmakers struck, with the tech being integrated into the society pretty seamlessly.

The Not-So-Good

Though the filmmakers improved on the book in some areas, there were others that were not given the attention they needed. I do not think enough time was given to the story’s central relationship between the Giver and Jonas. Jonas was quick to learn (a little too quick, frankly), and I was looking for a much more dynamic, playful master-student relationship – perhaps the two of them leaping into these memories, and more memory sequences in general.

Furthermore, I wish that the actual memory transfer process between the Giver and Jonas was better explained. It seemed that the suppression of memories was controlled by that forcefield thing far beyond the Community. Maybe everyone had some kind of chip in their bodies that reacted to the forcefield? They could have had some machine that served as the bridge between the two characters’ minds. But perhaps the whole mind-meld thing was meant to harken back to the inherent spiritual nature of humanity?

While it is good that the movie stays true to the source material, it can be bad when said source material is underwhelming and disappointing as a story. The ending of both the book and the film was unsatisfying and left me asking, “now what?” It was very symbolic – sledding down a hill and coming up to the same house that Jonas had seen in the memory. However, it left more questions than it answered. The house represented the memory of what a “home” truly was. Are Jonas and Gabriel dead and this is “heaven”? Is it a mirage, a vision? Who are the people signing in the house? I thought there were no people outside the Communities.

Generally speaking, I’m not a big fan of ambiguity when it comes to movie endings. Some may say that it’s a way for the audience to exercise their imagination; I see it as lazy storytelling. The writer/director didn’t know how to end the story, and instead chose to leave things open. I’m sorry, but I crave resolution in my stories, even if it’s a bad resolution. In fact, most of the stories that have these vague endings do not have a plot line that warrants it (I’m looking at you, Cast Away). There are exceptions to this opinion, however. Inception is one of the few films that makes good use of an ambiguous ending because it was built through the entire narrative.

Themes and Thoughts

The Giver had a clear moral agenda as a book, and that meta-narrative extends into the film. The story is a fascinating indictment of modern society’s obsession with earth-bound egalitarianism and redemption through utopia. I suppose that the ambiguity at the film’s end could have been a nod to the suppression of free will – Jonas will plot his course at the end of his sled ride. This is mere speculation, however.

There seems to be a predilection with our society that people can be made “better” through the coerced loss of individual goals and move toward a more group-minded mentality. There is even a TV show coming soon that will explore the concept of utopia:

However, as the trailer for the TV show powerfully illustrates, every individual has their own concept of utopia, and some of these ideas are diametrically opposed to one another. Human nature will eventually rear its head, collapsing the plans of those masterminds. This itself illustrates why it cannot work unless people are forced to comply with the program.

“When people have the freedom to choose, they choose wrong.” The Chief Elder

In The Giver, the masterminds of the Community believed that a perfect world can be made through “sameness” – everyone is allegedly equal materially, socially and vocationally. To accomplish this, everyone in the Community is told where to go, what to do, etc. And human nature is suppressed medically through the use of drugs injected into each person. To the average, thoughtful person, this is unsettling and eerie. True the society is pacified, but the people are little more than mindless robots devoid of personality and emotion. It is the only way a “perfect society” on earth is possible, and the concept is inherently evil.

“The way things look and the way things are are very different.” The Giver

Any person born who does not fit the criteria of the Community’s sameness, or those that do not get with the program, are “released into elsewhere,” a euphemism for euthanasia. The baby Gabriel was to be subjected to this “release” procedure had it not been for Jonas. This has been seen over and over in human history, even recent human history. Both the Nazi and Communist ideology advocated “sameness,” which lead to the deaths of millions of people in gulags and concentration camps.

“There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” Romans 3:22-23

Utopia on earth is a fantasy. It will never ever happen for one simple reason – every human being sins, even those who consider themselves fit to rule. Those who advocate for this heaven on earth are either delusional or lying. Our emotions and passions are God-given, and it is up to the individual – not a government – to control their own emotions and feelings. And we cannot as individuals control our sin nature without God intervening in our hearts, taking away the burden of our sins.

Christians today are often wrongfully accused of advocating for a kind of theocratic utopia, where everyone is forced to worship God. I really have to question those people’s understanding of who God is. Forced worship is against everything that Jesus taught, and any Christian teaching this is gravely mistaken. God Himself gave us the ability to choose, even choose our own selfish sin over His perfect love – even to the point of not believing He even exists. Jesus Himself did not use the presiding Roman government to institute His ministry; He asked his disciples to individually follow Him (Matthew 4:19). If the God of the universe, the creator of heaven and earth, can give us the choice to love Him or not, who are we to force that choice on others?

Modern society’s preoccupation with making a heaven on earth is a deep-seated desire for order, justice and redemption. We all want a restoration of order, to be saved from the evils of this world, and to have those evils punished. There is only one heaven, and it isn’t on earth, It is heaven itself, a holy place where perfect, loving and just God reigns supreme, and where darkness can never be (John 1:5).

Conclusion

The Giver is an intriguing and well-directed film. It still retained the spirit of the original book, and added more technological depth and intrigue to the world. It kept my attention all the way through, which the book had trouble doing. However, it does frustrate me that the movie still retained the book’s overly-ambiguous ending, and loses all the steam it built up by the third act.

The Giver is also a cautionary tale. While we should strive to make our society more equal for everyone, we have to realize that not everyone is equally endowed with talents and abilities, and that there will always be an inequality of outcomes. Politicians selling across-the-board equality, and an end to sin and vice should be looked upon with suspicion, for history has told us that governments with designs on earthly human perfection and promises of utopia are usually built upon the deaths of millions of “undesirables.”

God loves us all equally, for He has given us all an equal chance at redemption – true redemption. Those that choose this redemption will eventually be in heaven with Him – a truly perfect place ruled by a perfect God. A place filled with the beauty and colors of creation, but free from fear, strife, and sin.

The Giver (2014)
The Weinstein Company / Walden Media
Starring Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep, Brenton Thwaites, Alexander Skarsgard,
Katie Holmes, Taylor Swift, Cameron Monaghan, Odeya Rush and Emma Tremblay
Written by Michael Mitnick and Robert B. Weide
Based on the book by Lois Lowry
Directed by Phillip Noyce

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One thought on “THE GIVER – The Lie of Utopia

  1. I never read it, but I remember seeing the book cover in the elementary school library all of the time… that old man and his beard are etched into my memory forever. I was kinda sad to see the trailer and find that Bridges doesn’t look quite as beardy 😉

    I never thought the ending of Cast Away was too vague, though; it always made perfect sense to me that he heads back down that path after the truck. Even if it is completely open-ended, I think it works as an ideal ending to the story of a man whose life was defined by time, who then lost everything (including time), and is now on a new path — a literal crossroads at which he smiles toward a specific direction. It works just the same as Inception’s ending, which you liked, where knowing the conclusion isn’t the point, but rather it’s understanding that the character has now made a choice and completed this part of their arc.

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