When the trailers for the film adaptation of Lois Lowry’s classic dystopian young adult novel “The Giver” hit theaters and the Internet earlier this year, I made up my mind to stay away. There are only so many parts of my childhood that I can stand to see treated as simply another opportunity to capitalize on the craze for “The Hunger Games.”
But over the past couple of weeks, “The Giver,” which was produced by family (and sometimes faith-tinged) filmmaker Walden Media, has become a minor cause for conservatives who want to prove that they can make a movie a hit. So I capitulated. Had director Phillip Noyce actually made a conservative film? Or are conservative champions of the movie behaving as liberals sometimes do, trying to yank a movie with a wide range of political ideas firmly into one partisan camp or another?
“The Giver” is a spectacularly indifferent movie, both in matters artistic and in the expression of its ideas.
Noyce sketches in the details of Lowry’s story with efficiency but without wit. The main character, Jonas (Brenton Thwaites), lives in a place called the Community with his parents (Alexander Skarsgård and Katie Holmes) and sister (Emma Tremblay). The family is a creation of the Community: In this society, children are born to Birth Mothers and raised by Nurturers (two of many jobs to which Community residents are assigned on their graduation from school), then given to families.
Upon Jonas’s graduation, he is assigned to an unusual job. He is to become the Receiver of Memory, studying with his predecessor in that role (Jeff Bridges) and becoming the receptacle for everything the Community has banished: recollections of climactic variation, racial and religious difference, biodiversity, sexuality and human conflict. Jonas also is given permission to learn what actually lies behind the Community’s rituals, including Releases, which turn out to be euthanizations of the elderly or children who fail to meet growth benchmarks.
Or, as former Alaska governor Sarah Palin put it in an endorsement of “The Giver” on her Web television channel, “Gradually, Jonas learns what Reagan knew, and what some of us still know today: that freedom is worth it.”
Over at National Review, Kathryn Jean Lopez singles out the family politics of the film in a larger discussion of the value of self-sacrifice and generosity. “In the first part of ‘The Giver,’ we see the wretched souls in a society where the relationship between a mother and child is severed, where women are no longer free to nurture the innocent into their best selves,” Lopez writes. “There is a deadening that sets in and spreads like a cancer when the strong no longer protect the weak and the gifts of the essential freedom and dignity and responsibilities of stewardship give way to idols of faux security.”
Insomuch as “The Giver” is capable of communicating emotion, the movie makes absolutely clear that it is grotesque to kill a baby who cries when he is not soothed and that something is missing in families designed by the state. Though it may be in Palin’s and Lopez’s interests to suggest otherwise, these ideas are hardly the sole provenance of conservatives. Suggesting that people who advocate for continued access to abortion do not care about the welfare of young children is an unpleasant rhetorical gambit, but often an effective one.
While it might be strategic to try to claim “The Giver” for the anti-abortion movement, conservatives who are championing the movie as pro-life seem to be making the same sort of aesthetic error as liberals who think that every movie even marginally about economic inequality is necessarily progressive. Fictional dictatorships can be animated by corruptions of conservative ideals as well as by ostensibly progressive ones. And stories about inequality can argue for benevolent stewardship of the lower classes just as they can make the case for radical actions to eliminate the wealth gap.
In the case of “The Giver,” progressives could easily claim that part of the nightmare of “The Giver” is the way it turns some women into professional baby vessels, stripping away their reproductive choices. They might also point to the movie’s addition of drones and dead-eyed drone pilots to Lowry’s story (a move in keeping with Hollywood’s recent obsessions) as a jab at the Obama administration’s tactics in the war on terror. The Community’s elimination of racial difference and religious faith could be interpreted in any number of directions. “The Giver” is ultimately a political grab bag, rather than a particularly clear statement of any political worldview.
I suspect the reason that liberals have not rushed to contest the politics of “The Giver” is that the movie is not particularly worth claiming. I am sympathetic to conservatives who feel as though it is a rare opportunity to claim a big-budget Hollywood production as their own. But they — and anyone who goes to the movies purely for entertainment — deserve better than this.