The Received Experience from The Giver

the-giver-movie-actorsIt was quite clear after watching the trailers that The Giver would be significantly different from its book counterpart. Right away we can see that Jonas is older—in the books he’s twelve, but here he’s eighteen—and he and Fiona also share a kiss or two, when in the books, nothing romantic ever happens between them. While this movie was certainly a visual experience—its use of both color and black-and-white images was beautifully done—its narrative sadly conformed to the “sameness” that it actively attempts to tell us is bad. The Giver offers little to nothing new in its narrative and instead adheres to the same annoying standards and minority erasure as every other movie out there. This is only made more disappointing because the movie’s intended message is the exact opposite of the one it sends.

For the few of you who don’t know, The Giver presents us with a dystopian society. Sometime in the future, the unique qualities that set everyone apart from each other have been stolen. Instead, there is Sameness. In order to do this, people’s feelings, through medication, have been taken away. They are also genetically engineered—most people are white with dark hair and eyes, and it’s considered to rude to make comments about people who look different—and raised in family units. All units consist of a mother, father, son, and daughter. Names and birthdays, jobs, spouses and children are all assigned. Even people’s sexualities and identities have been stolen from them: they have all been forced to live as pseudo-cisgender aromantic asexuals. There is no one outside the gender binary. Their society has even gone so far as to remove color; people see in black and white and have no idea what color actually is.

the giver jonas family unitHowever, probably most concerning is that the people no longer have the ability to understand the concept of love, and as such, they have lost the capacity to truly understand the horrors of death. Indeed, this society feels that it is acceptable to murder, or “Release”, the elderly, and even kill babies that they think won’t fit in, such as identical twins, because they’re “different” from everyone else. And the people performing the Release—the ones injecting the victims with a poison to kill them—have no understanding of what they are actually doing.

Retaining all the memories of the past—color, race, religion, war, pain, sex, loss, love, etc.—is an older man called the Giver. In the movie, once Jonas turns eighteen (twelve in the book) he is assigned to be the Receiver. The Giver will transfer all of the memories he has to Jonas. The two of them must retain these memories in the event that their Community would ever need their advice, such as if their world experiences some kind of hardship. Additionally, there must always be a retainer of the memories, because if anyone with memories of the past dies before passing the memories on, those memories will return to the population.

In the book, The Giver presents a rich world that shows us how horrible it is to erase people’s differences. Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t always succeed in getting this message across. There is, however, one point about the movie that I actually did love: the whitewashing.

the giver community leaderThis is one of the few movies that I would actually say it’s okay to whitewash. Nowadays, society views being white as being the default, which is a horrible mindset. However, it is very believable that if we ever went to the Sameness as the people in The Giver, those of us who are white would do that by removing people of all other ethnicities. The Giver shows us how horrible that is. Once Jonas starts receiving memories, he starts to see what people of other cultures and ethnicities looked like—the idea that someone could have darker skin never occurred to him—and thankfully the movie focuses more on people of color in the memories than it does white people. When the movie talks about things that have been lost, that we should mourn, it shows us them. It actually uses whitewashing to talk about how bad whitewashing is and how damaging it can be.

Unfortunately, this movie doesn’t exist in a vacuum—the main characters are all still white—and though I loved this message, I highly doubt that other movie makers are going to take it to heart anytime soon. But it was nice to see a film actively addresses this issue. However, the movie ruins its own message here. Despite Jonas’s comment about skin color, the movie utilizes Black extras to work as caretakers for the newchildren—babies who haven’t been assigned to a family unit yet. So we end up with PoC in Jonas’s community, though the movie’s still about Jonas, and their existence actually negates what the movie is trying to tell us about whitewashing. Apparently Black people are so unimportant that even inside a Community filled with nothing but white people who value Sameness above all else, Jonas never noticed they existed. It feels really odd to say this, but this movie should not have cast PoC as extras in Jonas’s Community. They should have all been white, because the point of using PoC in all the memories was to imply that all ethnic minorities were removed—maybe even killed—from the population, and that’s horrible.

the-giver-jonas-fiona The Giver also adheres to heteronormativity, and this is where it fails the most. It creates a love story between Jonas and his friend Fiona that wasn’t there in the original source material. Though in the book, it is true that Jonas finds Fiona attractive—he stops taking the medicine to inhibit his attractions—Fiona never shows any kind of attraction back. However, in the movie, Jonas convinces Fiona to also stop taking her medication, which allows her to start experiencing more emotions and feelings that she’s entirely unused to. I wouldn’t find this a problem, since I do like that the movie gives Fiona more screen time and attempts to develop her character better, but it does so by turning her into the obligatory girlfriend. And it also has Jonas asserting himself on her.

Once Fiona stops taking her medication, she doesn’t understand the things she’s feeling. She knows that she likes these feelings, that they’re “warm” and “nice”, but she still doesn’t know what they are. She even lacks words to name them. This culminates in her anger at Jonas for doing this to her, and even that feeling she has trouble understanding. However, because Jonas is attracted to her, both he and movie just assume that she’ll be attracted back. So he kisses her. She doesn’t have the memories of the past, so unlike Jonas, she has no idea what’s going on. I found this scene incredibly problematic for those reasons. But thankfully for Jonas, Fiona also turns out to be heterosexual and attracted back. What a coincidence! I would have found it so much more interesting if Fiona found herself attracted to girls, or even if she truly was asexual. Regardless, she had other feelings she needed to sort out before Jonas engaged a relationship with her. I would have even accepted her being heterosexual had the movie taken the time to address the issues I just mentioned, but it doesn’t, because we need to have our obligatory heterosexual romance.

There are also other changes that this movie made from the book. Some of those changes are understandable, but others, such as Fiona’s and Asher’s assigned jobs, are less understandable and only existed to fuel pointless drama, instead of focusing on the issues that the book presented us. For instance, in the movie, Asher becomes a pilot so the community leaders can order him to hunt down a runaway Jonas later on and have Asher attempt to murder Jonas for no reason. While I like that Asher doesn’t go through with this plan, it took away from a powerful scene in the book. In the book after Jonas receives a memory about war, he sees all his fellow schoolmates, including Asher, who is training to be the head of recreation, playing a war game. And nothing Jonas says or does can get Asher to stop playing this game. We can see clearly in that one moment that their friendship is falling apart because there’s no way for Jonas to describe how hurt and distraught watching his friends pretend to shoot each other is.

the giver rosemaryFurthermore, the movie never should have attempted to murder Jonas to begin with, since in this universe, the Community needs someone to retain memories, and if the retainer—in this case Jonas—dies, those unwanted memories return to the people. The Community leaders found this out when the previous Receiver before Jonas, Rosemary, requested to be released, because she couldn’t handle having the memories. Her death caused a lot of problems because of that. Rosemary dies ten years before the start of the story, and the movie makes a big deal about her death, but it doesn’t really expand on it in the way it should. She’s simply The Giver’s fridged daughter. Additionally, due to Jonas’s changed age, the movie also inadvertently creates a plot hole—Jonas doesn’t know who she is in the book, because he would have been two at the time, but in the movie, he would have been eight. He would have been old enough to remember her becoming the Receiver and the trauma her death caused everyone.

The Giver is certainly not the worst movie out there, but it doesn’t do the best job at handling its source material. I did like some of it, such as the race issue, but other than that, this movie could have been so much better. If you are interested in this story, I’d read the book instead and skip the movie altogether.

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1 thought on “The Received Experience from The Giver

  1. Sigh. I loved the novel, had low expectations about the movie, which seem to be realized. I don’t really feel compelled to see it – I’m really intrigued by your commentary, though!

    I read the book as a kid and kind of took it at face value, as an adult, my working theory is that it’s a severe parody of the American dream, in all its Leave-it-to-Beaver glory. Down to, of course, the fact that the entire world is in black and white, the medium of the ’50s sitcom. (This interpretation may be influenced by the movie Pleasantville). But you have Mother and Father and House and Two Kids and Nobody Was Different because Such Things Don’t Happen Here.

    I really dislike turning Fiona into a love interest. One of the things that makes the Giverworld unsettling is the intense heteronormativity without heterosexuality – Lucy and Ricky in their separate twin beds. Jonas’s interest in her is so, so primitive in the novel. He’s not in love with her, he’s not even infatuated with her. He had one, involuntary dream where he imagined that she could be naked, and that he might want that. MIGHT. The flickering sexual dreams of 12-year-old boys (and girls, and everyone else, I presume, but I only had my dreams) do not describe orientations. And presumably any sexual dream Jonas had – about Asher, about his mother, etc. – would have been equal cause for the pill.

    And yet, I think, asexuality would STILL be stigmatized in this sexless world, because Mother and Father make a big deal of how taking his meds means Jonas gets to be an adult. Not needing it would surely be consideration for release, right?

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