Sometimes, when a bad memory pops up, I quickly shake my head to get rid of it. Sort of like clearing an Etch-a-Sketch. And they intrude on my thoughts quite a bit:
The time in second grade when my gym teacher wouldn’t let me go to the bathroom and I wet my pants during calisthenics, and a golden puddle formed around my designated white dot on the concrete.
The regrettable period of my life when I actually thought Abercrombie & Fitch was cool.
The Etch-a-Sketch method works in the short term, but the real problem is that those memories always find their way back onto the canvas of my thoughts. If only there was a way to wipe them clean for good, to drop those files into the trash can, empty that trash can, and erase it all from my hard drive. I wouldn’t have to be bothered with them, to relive the pain or the humiliation. If I was given the option to erase those memories permanently, I may be a little tempted.
Director Phillip Noyce explores that very idea in the film The Giver--what if we did away with the memories of the past? Not our silly mistakes and hiccups, or our blush-inducing, cringeworthy incidents from elementary school, but the world’s past. What if we erased and started over, and tried it better this time? “Better” being relative, of course.
The story features a teenager named Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) who lives in an isolated community presumably at some point in the future. Everything in this community is based on the idea of control because, as its icy Chief Elder (Meryl Streep) puts it:
“If people have the freedom to choose, they choose wrong.”
At some point in the past, generations and generations ago, the powers-that-be decided to take freedom of choice away and create a sterile, safe world. They control the climate, they have removed all color, and they keep people in line with a plethora of rules to ensure that order prevails. Everyone wears the same thing. No one is permitted to touch another person outside of their “family units.”
The story starts to pick up steam when the Chief Elder explains that Jonas has been selected for the community’s highest honor--the Receiver of Memory. It’s a prestigious position of utmost importance, she explains, and will come with very taxing and painful training. Jonas will be trained by the current Receiver of Memory, whom we will come to know as the Giver (Jeff Bridges).
When Jonas begins his training, the Giver, an elderly bearded man with a slight tic, sits him down for his first session as the new Receiver. While Jonas thinks that he’s there to receive memories of the Giver’s past, the Giver explains that it’s not his personal past that will be shared--it will be the world’s.
Thus begins a journey for Jonas as he discovers, through the vivid reliving and transmission of these memories, all that his community lacks--animals, colors, real pain, war, and most tragically, love.
To be honest, it’s difficult for me to look objectively at Noyce’s film on its own as a cinematic experience--I have strong ties to the story. The movie is based on a children’s novel written by Lois Lowry that goes by the same name. Lowry wrote it in 1993 and subsequently won the Newbery Medal for it in 1994. The book has enjoyed immense popularity--it’s sold over 10 million copies and is regarded as an important enough work that it’s included as a required book in the curriculum of schools across the country. Its presence in schools is, in fact, the reason why I first read it.
I had decided in college that I wanted to be an English teacher. When it came time for me to be assigned to a school for student teaching, my supervisor had presented me with a choice: I could take a position in a high school but it would be an hour or more out of town, or I could stay in town but work in a middle school.
Middle school? My blood ran cold for a minute. Middle school is a house of horrors. Or so I had heard. I had it on very good authority (basically every person I had ever talked to) that middle school students were hormonally unbalanced and because of that imbalance were unruly, crazy, awkward, immature, and--oh yeah--were the spawn of Satan. Still, even considering what I knew, I valued staying in town for my student teaching placement above all. There really was little choice.
So like Jonas, I accepted my assignment to this middle school with some anxiety. It was there that a short, bleach-blonde veteran teacher, wearied from years of teaching and much like Jeff Bridge’s character the Giver, passed on her knowledge to me. She gave me my first assignment--a small paperback book with the black-and-white photograph of an old man’s wrinkled face on the cover. A shiny Newbery filled the black space next to the old man.
“The first book you’re going to teach the kids is The Giver,” she said in her soft, reassuring voice. “It’s one of my favorite books. It will be yours, too.” I don’t know if was a Jedi-mind trick, but it did become one of my favorite stories. It was a pleasure not only to read it, but to teach it to these middle school students (who turned out to be wonderful, by the way) and help them explore, many for the first time, the ideas of why we need memories (even painful ones) and the freedom to choose, even if we choose wrong. I’ve had the privilege and joy of teaching this story for six years now.
When I first saw the trailer for The Giver, I scoffed. First, because if I’m going to be honest, I always dreamed that I would write a screenplay for The Giver and become rich and famous and take selfies with celebrities all day because I assume that’s what a one-hit wonder screenwriter does. So forgive me if I’m a little upset that Jeff Bridges has stolen that from me (Jeff Bridges played a significant role in making this movie happen). Second, for as short as the trailer was, it gave away some of the key spoilers of the story. As I tell my students, spoilers are my biggest pet peeve. To prove my point, last month, as I introduced The Giver to my current crop of eighth graders, I warned the students not to spoil anything in the story for others if they happened to read ahead. One day, a student, as we were discussing the story in class, mentioned what I’ll call a low-grade spoiler. If these spoilers were a tornado, they would be an F-1.
As soon as the words left her mouth, my eyes contracted and twitched with anger. I happened to be holding a yard stick in my hand (the discussion was about how the community disciplines its children with “discipline wands”)--I tossed it to the ground in disgust, stormed out of the room, and yelled, “I’M DONE--I QUIT!”
Fortunately, the students knew I was joking (or was I?). The offending student even brought me two cookies later that day (See? Middle school is great). The point is, I hate spoilers, I hated the trailer, and I hated Jeff Bridges even more.
Still, considering the importance of the novel to what I do, I saw the movie. I went by myself late on a Sunday night and caught the last showing. I and some other lonely guy in his mid forties wearing a Dad jacket were the only ones there. What I first noticed about the movie was that the first several minutes were dominated by voice-over narration of Jonas. This would be a recurring trend through the rest of the movie. While famed writing instructor Robert McKee advises against voice-over narration, and for good reason because The Giver’s narration proved to be far too textual and over-explained far too often, I found a positive in it: it allowed for a good amount of Lois Lowry’s language from the book to make its way into the movie. Ultimately, the narration proved to hold the audience’s hand and guide it through the story like a seeing eye dog does the blind rather than create a story that takes the reader along for the ride.
The film is loaded with a few A-list actors--Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep, Katie Holmes as the mother of Jonas--and also features some brief appearances by Taylor Swift as Rosemary, the previous Receiver of Memory who failed ten years prior to Jonas’ selection. Meryl Streep’s performance is the only one that stood out as above average--she brought just the right mix of cold reserve and ruthlessness befitting of her position as Chief Elder. Jeff Bridge’s take on the Giver, with his tics and his slurred speech, made me see the character as more comical than the immensely pained, sad, weary, and burdened man I’ve come to know in the novel. As for Taylor Swift--I know a grown man shouldn’t be admitting this, but I’ll say it--I’m a huge fan of her. Huge. In this movie, though, I was not. Not that she did a terrible job--it just seemed so out of place and reeked of a tickets ploy using star power. Beyond that, the performances by relative unknowns Thwaites as Jonas and Odeya Rush as Jonas’s romantic interest, Fiona, were suitable to the task, but neither made too much of a lasting impression.
By the end of the movie, which was only 97 minutes long, I felt a little shortchanged. This complex, subtle story that I’ve spent so much time with over the last six years felt like it had been pared down with a cheese grater, melted with a few new flavors and synthetic substances, and plopped out as an underwhelming, dancing jello mold.
The story’s themes and conflicts were less four-course meals and more half-price appetizers. I understand that a book has to be chopped a bit to make it to the big screen. I understand that I have an above-average emotional attachment to this story. I still say that the movie fell short of delivering the emotion that the story deserves. Maybe it has to do with the run time; maybe it has to do with the fact that the audience has very little to discover since, for much of the story, the narration told them what was happening and how to feel.
Perhaps, one day, I’ll be bold enough to try my hand at a screenplay for The Giver despite Jeff Bridges beating me to the punch. Hollywood’s memory regarding reworked movies is short enough, right?