Imagine a place nearly free of all pain and suffering, where people are truly equal and everyone gets along. Imagine a place where hatred does not exist, where minds are not clouded by confusion or suffering, where the sun always shines and no one ever lies.
Jonas actually lives in such a world. He’s never known anything but. If there was ever another way, lost as it is in the folds of distant time, it’s best that it’s forgotten.
Well, forgotten by most.
The Community has one special person who hasn’t forgotten—an old man known as the Receiver of Memory. He alone holds in his mind their forbidden history. It’s a gift and curse that makes him both respected and feared. If the Community’s elders need advice on something outside their own breadth of knowledge, they consult the Receiver, but otherwise they leave him alone.
Jonas sees him sitting with the rest of the elders during the yearly ceremony in which the Community marks various life-stages: when 9-year-olds get their first bikes and the aged peacefully retire to Elsewhere. This year’s a big deal for Jonas and his pals, Fiona and Asher. This year, they’ll be given their lifelong jobs—jobs that are supposed to fit each of them like a pair of well-worn jeans. The enthusiastic and adventurous Asher is accepted as a drone pilot. Pretty, caring Fiona is chosen as a caregiver for the Community’s pool of genetically engineered infants. And Jonas … well, he’s given the most prestigious gig of all: He’s tabbed to be the next Receiver of Memory.
Jonas dutifully bikes to the current Receiver of Memory’s house, built at the edge of the known world—quite literally on a cliff that plummets down into who-knows-what. He walks in and sees walls full of what the Receiver calls “books.” For the first time in his life, Jonas is encouraged to ask questions. And then, when the older Receiver—now called the Giver—clasps Jonas’ arms, the boy collects his first memory …
… of snow, fluttering and cold. Of a green fir-forested hillside wrapped in white powder. Of a sled careening down. Of wind-whipped hair and thudding heart and laughter and—
The memory ends. Jonas is back in his safe and serene, black-and-white world. But he’s been given his first glimpse into something that was lost, something both beautiful and terrifying that was banished so long ago.
[Spoilers are contained in the following sections.]
The Giver, based on the Newbery Award-winning book by Lois Lowry, is a sci-fi meditation on what it means to be alive. We’ll plumb that concept a little more in the conclusion to this review, but for now, let’s turn our attention to Jonas—a guy whose eyes have been opened to the true depth and breadth of life for the first time.
In the beginning, when he’s kept from the Giver’s more painful memories, Jonas is overwhelmed by what’s been lost in the Community’s rigid system: thrill, joy, love, all the things that have been engineered out of existence in favor of vapid tranquility. Even though he’s been warned not to share his new knowledge and feelings with other members of the society, he can’t help himself: He simply must try to give them a taste of the excitement he’s experienced.
When he’s finally given more painful memories too, Jonas begins to understand why their forefathers punted all that troublesome emotion and messy color. But he never again fully buys the cold logic of it. He now possesses too great of an understanding of what life really means, what it should mean. He can fully discern right from wrong. And, better yet, now that he’s been granted that knowledge, he feels duty-bound to act on it. And so he does.
As Jonas’ sense of morality grows, other people help him in his quest to right the Community’s great wrong. The Giver, for example, also knows that the Community is in an unhealthy place and does what he can to help Jonas set things on a better track.
Specifically, at the core of this story and at the core of the Community is the issue of euthanasia. Few seem to understand that “releasing” people (from the elderly to the not-quite-perfect babies) to the so-called Elsewhere is actually killing them. But when Jonas learns that a baby named Gabriel is due to be released, he snatches it away and leaves the community with the tiny tot, hoping to not only rescue the child but somehow also restore the Community’s collective memories—once again making life the beautiful, complicated, choice-laden thing it should be. Murder has not really been abolished, Jonas realizes, it’s just been renamed.
Religion is among the many things eradicated in the Community, and when Jonas is receiving memories, he sees depictions of unfamiliar expressions of worship: a Christian infant baptism, Muslims bowing to Mecca, paper lanterns rising into the sky as part of an Eastern religious ceremony. And when he rides the sled in his first new memory, he slides toward a picturesque cabin where we hear people singing “Silent Night.”
When boys and girls in the Community enter adolescence, they begin experiencing something that’s called the “stirrings.” These sexual symptoms are perfectly normal, they’re told, but also undesirable. So daily injections of drugs are used to subdue them. Love and passion, then, are virtually unknown. Babies are genetically engineered, the fertilized eggs implanted into surrogates, then handed off to suitable family units after birth. It’s forbidden to even touch someone outside one’s assigned family unit.
As Jonas collects more memories, he forsakes his regimen of drugs and begins to experience amorous feelings, which are focused on Fiona, his longtime friend. The two grow closer: They hold hands and eventually kiss (both in real life and in Jonas’ dreams).
The Community’s practice of euthanasia is depicted with discreet images of a man inserting a syringe needle into the head of a baby. Then the small body is placed in a box, and the box is sent down a wall chute. A teenager is nearly dispatched with an injection as well.
Jonas scuffles with a guy, hitting him in the face. And in his memories, we see brief but uncomfortable and frightening scenes of death and war. He finds himself in a huge, jungle-based battle where a comrade is gunned down. (Jonas stares into his friend’s wide, unblinking eyes.) Guerilla fighters are shot out of trees. And the whole scene turns into a mass of blurred and frenetic images, sometimes tinged red.
We see elephants gunned down for their ivory, bullets penetrating thick hide. (All the wildlife on Earth has been exterminated at this point—gone so long that a plush stuffed elephant is thought to be a mythical creature called a hippo.)
As mentioned, Community residents are injected with drugs every day to keep them under control. (Jonas and, eventually, Fiona trick the automatic dispensers into injecting the drugs into apples.)
I kinda feel for the founders of Jonas’ Community. Their intent, after all, was to create a grand and enjoyable utopia, not a devastatingly grayscale version of an Orwellian dystopia—a land so drained of real life that the world itself has lost its color. They just wanted to live someplace nice. They felt the same frustration that we do when we look at this fallen world of ours. They saw too much brutality. Too much hatred. Too much instability. With every generation, we find new ways to hurt each other and the world we live in. Every day, we find new ways to hurt ourselves.
The Giver believes that if humanity’s given another chance, we could do better. We could make better choices. But the Chief Elder isn’t so sure.
“When people have the freedom to choose, they choose wrong,” she says. “Every single time.”
She’s right more often than not, of course. We do choose wrong. We, as individuals and as a society, almost always choose wrong. It’s in our nature, a nature that’s overwhelmed with sin.
And yet God gives us the freedom to choose anyway.
In trying to make peace with this fallen world of ours, I think most of us push to mitigate and minimize life’s pain and unpleasantness in some way. We might try to smooth out the rough edges through drugs, like those in the Community do. Or we can retreat into semi-protected bubbles that are filled with tepid comforts, consumeristic pleasures, winning sports teams. We talk to one another about nothing but banalities. We invent air conditioning. These days, with all the modern distractions that are available, it’s actually fairly easy to slip into a sort of half-life.
Jonas wants more than that for his family and his friends. And God wants more for us too—even though He knows, and we know, that truly living life to the fullest will always involve discomfort and pain.
The Giver has all this and more on its mind. This is an ambitious movie that, while not matching the power and poignancy of Lois Lowry’s book, gives it a good run. Funded by Philip Anschutz’s family-focused Walden Media (the studio behind The Chronicles of Narnia movies) and stocked with top-rung talent (Oscar winners Jeff Bridges and Meryl Streep play the Giver and the Chief Elder, respectively), this project hints at what a family film can truly be.
There’s no foul language in it. No sex scenes. No crude jokes. No gratuitous drug abuse. Hints of youthful attraction and snippets of violence are both restrained in their depictions and used fully in the service of the larger story and moral lesson. The Giver is a challenging film, to be sure. It deals with life, liberty, free will … and euthanasia, after all. But it never once wavers in its responsibility to escort moviegoers onto solid moral ground, to give them loads of positive material to think about and talk through afterwards.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.