In 1993, when Lois Lowry published The Giver, she was by no means the first to depict an authoritarian society where the ideals of “sameness” and “equality” trump those of freedom and respect for human dignity. Yet twenty years later, it seems we have inched closer to that world without heeding the warning signs she raised. The new film, by the same name, offers a vivid portrayal of a dystopian future that seems all too familiar.
Enter into a world where state surveillance reigns supreme and where those deemed unfit for life are discarded at birth. In this “Community”, decisions are made collectively by a board of elders and a chief elder (Meryl Streep) exercises veto power over individual decisions and their futures. When children “graduate” childhood, they are assigned roles for the good of the community—some as geneticists, others as teachers, and many as birthmothers.
The Giver follows the journey of Jonas (Brendon Thwaite) who is assigned the role of the “rememberer.” The Giver (Jeff Bridges), transmits memories and knowledge to Jonah, who has been chosen to serve as a community historian for future generations. Yet in the process, Jonas also experiences—for the first time in this life—feelings and the opportunity to exercise his own free will.
What follows is Jonas’s quest to journey outside of the Community in an effort to save his family and friends from state control and to restore their right to experience independence and authenticity. While there is pain and sadness that one incurs from such freedom, there is also possibility of joy, truth, and beauty. As Jonas discovers, it is a journey that is always worth risking—indeed, it is a gift.
In today’s world, hardly a week goes by without the uncovering of a new level of government intrusion into our private lives, be it our e-mails, phone conversations, or even getting through airport security. Genetic testing allows for the possibility of couples to decide to abort their children should they discover their child is not as perfect as they had hoped, and the enterprise of commercial surrogacy allows for the creation of children entirely detached from their parents. Lowry’s world of The Giver is more of our present than our future.
While the film suffers from some of the expected clichés of message driven filmmaking, such as its predictable narrative and unnecessarily dramatic scenes, its message regarding the ideals of freedom and hope remains worth promoting.
The heft of Hollywood superstars, such as Katie Holmes, Meryl Streep, and Jeff Bridges combined with the popularity of the 1993 novel, offers serious credibility that make it a likely box office hit for this genre.
In the film, Streep’s character as Chief Elder, laments,
“When people have the freedom to choose, they choose wrong”.
Rather than attempting to teach, train, and persuade its citizens to lead a virtuous life, the Elders of the Community opt for oppression. Yet, this is neither satisfying nor fulfilling, As young Jonas comes to understand, and as we know all too well from history, this must be overcome.
Within the world of The Giver, its citizens are promised that at the end of their service to the Community, they will be sent to “Elsewhere.” Of course, Elsewhere, is a euphemism for euthanasia—another practice that is increasingly being mainstreamed today using the language of mercy and kindness to mask the brutal reality of killing. The promise of a place like Elsewhere, however, seems strange in a society that aims minimalize feelings and eliminate aspirations. But even the Elders of the Community know that their citizens long for something more.
St. Augustine famously wrote that “our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.” For we earthly pilgrims, the hope of heaven is our end goal. This world, its temporal pains and pleasures, directs us to that end. No state, dystopian or realistic, will rid us of that. Yet, The Giveroffers us a devastating depiction of what happens when we try.