A brilliant sunset. A wedding dance. The color red.
Each person who reads these words will see a unique image. Humanity may share experiences, but because of our memories—and our emotions—we approach these commonalities in vastly different ways. Variety and choice aren’t just the spice of life. They make us human.
In The Giver, a boy named Jonas lives in a vague parallel universe where no one has choices. His community looks like a 1960s dream of a utopian future, with no winners, no losers, no war, no hate. Children play in an idyllic black-and-white neighborhood where crime is nonexistent and where apologies are always accepted.
The pinnacle of each year is the Ceremony, where everyone gathers to applaud life’s turning points: Genetically engineered babies join families, the elderly are “released to elsewhere,” and 18-year-olds like Jonas learn their life’s work. The council of elders always chooses right—they watched all children from birth and observed their natural inclinations.
Jonas, like most dystopian page-to-screen heroes, is different. The council nominates him to become the next Receiver of Memory—the only person who can remember back and back to the times before the community, who can advise the elders because he can “see beyond.” Jonas must take on the memories of the previous Receiver through a kind of touch telepathy. For once, the gruff old Receiver, who calls himself the Giver, can share the pains and joys no one else will face.
But unlike the dime-a-dozen crop of modern dystopian teen romances, young adult novelist Lois Lowry’s The Giver has remained a classic on middle school reading lists since it came out in 1993. In some ways the story pioneered the entire dystopian genre, but it contains the intelligence and philosophical depth its modern peers lack.
Recent dystopian films like The Hunger Games and Divergent idolize the confused teen who discovers her unique strength and fights alone against an obviously oppressive society. Jonas may be a confused teen, but after taking advice from a mentor, he sacrificially rises up against a seemingly good society that violates human rights.
Jonas learns that his community sought to end war and pain by obliterating love and diversity as well. A haunting Meryl Streep says as the Chief Elder, “When people have the freedom to choose, they choose wrong.” Her words strike a chord because they’re true—as Jonas himself finds in the Giver’s memories, people choose destruction, sorrow, and injustice as well as beauty.
But Jonas’s vanilla world has not escaped evil—injustice rots the heart of this utopia, but its citizens are too numb to notice. The laughter of Jonas’s friends rings hollow because, though they have every physical comfort, they take injections that deaden true pain, true joy. When Jonas asks his parents if they love him, they scold him for using such an antiquated word. “Do I enjoy you? Yes. Do we take pride in your accomplishments? Wholeheartedly, yes,” his father tells him. But Jonas’s family is incapable of any deep feeling, including love.
At its best, The Giver fictionalizes the totalitarian government C.S. Lewis depicts in his Abolition of Man, where a select group of leaders determines morality for a race of “men without chests.” Citizens become little better than automatons as the leaders disregard universal truth and base morality on caprice. Words decay into chatter founded on subjective feelings. Society devolves into one giant euphemism. “It is not that they are bad men. They are not men at all,” Lewis writes. “Man’s final conquest has proved to be the abolition of man.”
When Jonas finally takes action against his society, I found it striking how static the citizens seemed compared to Jonas with his raging emotions. As he escapes, Jonas strikes a friend who stands in his way. His friend is immobilized—he doesn’t strike back, doesn’t rise to his feet, doesn’t chase after Jonas—he is a man without a chest.
Director Phillip Noyce, who made his name making political thrillers like Patriot Games, capitalized on the imagery of the source material. In the book, Jonas does not see colors until he meets the Giver. Likewise, Noyce shifts the color scheme from the black and white or faded colors of the community to vivid color in the visions the Giver shares. A vision set in the Vietnam War crackles with the pixelated green of old news footage. A sunset over the ocean glows in vivid reds and yellows. Like Schindler’s List, Noyce uses color to make a point about oppression: Man’s free will defies mindless conformity.
The Giver is the thinking teen’s dystopia. It depicts a dysfunctional society that sterilizes humanity and deadens emotion to make way for the “virtues” of tolerance and radical equality. The problem is, a government that monitors every decision does not end oppression—it just creates oppression of a different kind.
After the recent deluge of dystopian novel adaptations, The Giver may seem like a cheap copycat to some. Unnecessary voiceovers clog the story, and like the novel, the film leaves many questions about the community unanswered. It also proves the most hopeful of dystopias: Jonas at his saddest is more optimistic than Katniss Everdeen on her best day.
But unlike other dystopian thrillers, The Giver stuck with me after I left the theater. When I got home, I noticed how our wooden floors gleamed in the sunlight. My mom was wearing a bright red t-shirt, and she greeted me as I entered. I took a few extra moments to kiss her on the head. Color, love, family, home—all these everyday experiences are sublime. And worth fighting to protect.