August 20, 2014

The Giver Quartet and the Movie

I reread Lois Lowry's THE GIVER back in April because I knew it was being adapted into a movie. I initially read this dystopian kids' book soon after its 1993 release and liked it enough to read multiple times (though I was already well past the target age), so I was curious how it would stand up to my memories. After rereading and discovering that the story is still thought-provoking and affecting, I decided to check out its sequels, which I'd heard were only loosely connected to the original.

My reactions to the followup books were less enthusiastic. None of them are as powerful as THE GIVER, and fans only looking to find out what happened after that story's ambiguous ending will be disappointed by the switch to a new setting and characters. However, the sequels do get better as they go along, and the traditional sequel function also increases in that direction. It's possible to skip any of the books without becoming confused, so my recommendation for non-completists wishing to continue is to go directly to the final book.

The new movie, released last week, was another disappointment. Some critics have reviewed it well, but I'm with the majority in finding it unworthy of the source material.

Here's my take on each of the books, followed by more thoughts on the film:

THE GIVER: Life in Jonas's community is pleasant and safe. Every citizen is provided for, children are well cared for by the family units to which they are entrusted, and each twelve-year-old is assigned to a carefully chosen career that will lead to a satisfying adult life. But when Jonas receives his assignment during the Ceremony of Twelve, it's a bewildering one, and what he learns as he starts his training is even more confusing. He's never thought to ask questions about his life before, and now he's questioning everything.

This is a strong, if simple, story of a world that seems like a utopia to the inhabitants but isn't quite so perfect from a reader's perspective. It's written to be accessible to pre-teens, and so at times I would have preferred to have things less spelled out, but in general it's a pretty sophisticated story for the age group, relying on the reader to grasp the limits of Jonas's understanding. It stood up well to what I remembered, and I'd recommend it to both kids and adults.

GATHERING BLUE is also set in a far-future world, but in a completely different type of society, a primitive village where life is based around superstition and fear, women and children aren't respected, and nobody is particularly happy.

The plot is very similar to that of the first book: A young person is chosen to fill a special, mysterious role in their community, and this leads to discovering that their world is not what they've always been told. This repeated formula makes the story somewhat dull. More importantly, the second book lacks the element that gave the first one its impact. The society of THE GIVER is arguably better than ours in many ways, and you can contemplate whether what they gave up was worth it. GATHERING BLUE leads to no such philosophical questions. It might keep younger readers interested, but it has nothing special to offer adults.

MESSENGER: As with the other books, this story involves an isolated community. Life is rather simple in Village, but people are happy there, and everyone is welcome. Threats are looming, however, and everything will change for the worse unless one young person courageously saves the day.

MESSENGER is a pretty forgettable story, but what it has going for it is that it performs the usual function of a sequel and answers a few questions about what happened to some characters from THE GIVER after the end of that book. It serves more directly as a sequel to GATHERING BLUE, with those characters featured more prominently, but the events are unrelated enough that it isn't necessary to read GATHERING BLUE in order to follow along if all you care about is Jonas's fate.

SON is the most worthwhile of the sequels, both because it's the most compelling of the followup stories and because it offers the most information about what else happened to the characters in the original. The first part of the book takes place in Jonas's community, and the events unfold at the same time. I loved seeing another perspective on the events of THE GIVER and also seeing how much more sinister the community is to someone who is unhappy and starts questioning much earlier.

After the first section, the main character embarks on a series of adventures that eventually tie in to the events of MESSENGER (and to a far lesser extent, GATHERING BLUE). It's not necessary to have read the intermediate books in order to understand the story (though I think it would be odd if you hadn't read THE GIVER). These further adventures didn't absorb me as much as the first part of the book, but they did explore some interesting ideas.

If you're a fan of THE GIVER and want more, feel free to skip directly to SON. Or just stick with whatever fate you imagined for Jonas and pretend the rest of the books don't exist.

→ The first thing that struck me about the film was that Jonas is a lot older than twelve, but while this was a startling change, it's a reasonable moviemaking decision that has few consequences for the story. The next thing that struck me was the huge difference in pacing: the first third of the book is dispensed with in under ten minutes. This is a much more problematic choice, because it gives the audience almost no time to experience the apparent perfection of Jonas's world before he starts becoming disillusioned. The story is significantly weaker as a result, and none of the additional changes to the plot or characters make the situation any better.

I'm fine with adaptations that differ from the original when that produces a different interesting story, but nearly every change here leads to something less effective and more generic. The pacing remains odd throughout, partly in order to accommodate a lengthy and preposterous action sequence, since that's what moviegoers are supposed to want. In general, much of the film feels influenced by the recent wave of teen dystopia movies, and it's a real shame it wasn't adapted before this trend.

I did enjoy the look of the film, both the futuristic sets and the visual effects. And Jeff Bridges does a good job in his portrayal of the Giver. But besides that, this is an unimpressive adaptation, and all I can hope is that it brings more readers to the book.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Bloom, Robin Black explains why she spent too much time trying to fix a novel that was only fit for the desk drawer: "As difficult as this is for me now to believe, I was so horrified at the thought of having wasted more than four years, in my mid-forties, on a 'starter novel,' that I simply couldn't bear the thought of starting again. And so for another six months, I dug away at the thing, changing the point of view, changing the tense, removing one character, putting in another, aware of two things as I did: The first was that these are common revision practices and don't by themselves mean a manuscript is doomed. The second was that this particular manuscript was doomed."


laurenhat said...

Thanks so much for reading the other books so I didn't have to. ;) I started Gathering Blue but got distracted and never went back.

I was very disappointed in the movie for the same reasons. From the moment that I realized that most of the interesting first third of the book was getting compressed into opening expository voiceover, I was unhappy... and, as you say, the main effect of most of the changes was to make it more generic. I also thought the ending lacked the interesting ambiguity of the book's. What a shame.

Lisa Eckstein said...

Yes, I felt the same way about the ending. I do know that many younger (especially) readers dislike the ambiguous ending -- and it's not a very Hollywood way for a movie to end -- so I wasn't too surprised, though it would have been nice if they'd kept the uncertainty.

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