The Giver has been a Young Adult best-seller for more than twenty years, but the film adaptation reminds us why some ideas are best explored in the medium for which they were created. Reading the book, a young reader could readily imagine what it must be like to live in a future world devoid of emotions: a community where sameness is celebrated and everything is seen in black and white. Literalized on screen, the story seems contrived and familiar, while the hero is colorless—pun intended.
I suppose it wouldn’t make sense to have a highly charismatic actor in the role when everyone in this future society is supposed to be docile, even dull. (A daily dose of meds makes certain that no one feels anything too deeply.) Aussie actor Brenton Thwaites gives a capable enough performance but never manages to draw us in—a crucial problem the movie never solves. The same can be said of the actors who play his two best friends, Cameron Monaghan and Israeli newcomer Odeya Rush. Their dilemma is clearly delineated, yet I felt myself at arm’s length throughout the picture.
The only actor who is allowed to dig into his role is Jeff Bridges, as the title character (officially, the Receiver of Memory). He is charged with passing on his unique knowledge of human history to his youthful successor, Thwaites: everything that’s been wiped out of the collective consciousness, from exhilaration and joy to human suffering. Bridges brings his professionalism and passion to the part and earns our empathy. (The actor has been trying to get this movie made for two decades, and is one of the film’s producers.)
Meryl Streep gives a one-note performance as his superior, the Chief Elder of the carefully controlled Community whose job is to maintain the status quo. Any film in which Streep is unimpressive is notable, but not for the right reason.
Perhaps the screenplay (credited to Michael Mitnick and Robert B. Weide), like the book, reads better than it plays. Phillip Noyce is a solid director, but he hasn’t found a way to imbue his film with the emotional resonance it demands. Sorry to say, The Giver is a misfire.