Somewhere, on a VHS tape probably sitting in a family member’s garage, there’s an amazing artifact from decades ago: actor Jeff Bridges directing a homemade movie version of Lois Lowry’s best-selling young-adult dystopian novel “The Giver.” Veteran actor Lloyd Bridges, his father, plays the title character. Dylan Bridges — son of Emmy-winning actor Beau Bridges, Jeff’s brother — is the main character, a 12-year-old boy. Beau’s other son, Casey, films it. The whole thing is narrated by “Harold and Maude” star Bud Cort.
Setting aside the fact that this thing should really be in a museum, the tape is living proof that the feature film “The Giver” — which finally hits theaters Friday — has been in the works quite awhile. The movie, which stars, among its A-listers, Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep and Katie Holmes, is the result of an intense, thrilling, frustrating, exhausting process that began 18 years ago.
A couple of years after the novel was published in 1993, Jeff Bridges was interested in a kid-friendly project in which he could direct his father. While flipping through books, “The Giver” caught his eye. There was a depiction of a grizzled old man on the cover, which also featured a shiny decal of a Newbery Medal, the highest honor for children’s literature. His kids read the book in school and were huge fans.
“I thought, ‘This is going to be an easy sell,’ ” Bridges says, nearly two decades later. That is, until he began the most important part of the process: trying to find someone to make it. Bridges, who has been in show business since he was a child, had never experienced an uphill battle trying to make a project like the one he face with “The Giver.”
Initially, there was plenty of optimism. Bridges worked with his manager, Neil Koenigsberg, and partnered with former children’s television producer Nikki Silver to acquire the rights. Even Lowry, who secretly cringed when two of her books were made into low-budget TV movies, was excited about an adaptation for the big screen.
But convincing Hollywood that it would be a good investment? It turned out to be a brutally tough challenge that nearly brought the whole project down multiple times.
The biggest problem: At the time, “The Giver” was an incredibly controversial book that was frequently banned in schools. The story takes place in a futuristic world devoid of freedom and choice, which a committee of elders has decided is the best way to prevent pain and suffering. As a result, the world is literally in black and white. Everything, from your job to food to family, is regulated by a strict rule book. Citizens take daily injections to discourage emotions.
When a boy named Jonah turns 12, he is tapped as the next Receiver of Memory — the only person who can have access to knowledge of how the world used to be. The Giver is an older man (the bearded one from the cover) who gives him those memories. Over the course of the book, Jonah slowly starts to realize that despite the problems that plagued the world earlier, this new “perfect” society isn’t so ideal after all.
Some adults were upset their kids were reading about the complicated issues that came with living in a dystopian society, not to mention the brief sexual overtones in the novel. Many were troubled by how the book handled death. In the “Giver” universe, if people reached a certain age or broke a rule, or if a baby wasn’t developing quickly enough, they were euthanized.
“The book was considered a very dark, disturbing novel,” said Lowry, who came up with the idea for a world without sadness when her own father was ill and starting to lose his memory. “Some potential studios backed off from it for that reason.”
In addition, the book is very internal and experienced through the eyes of one character, which made it difficult for Hollywood executives to visualize how it would translate to a movie screen. Throw in the fact that part of the movie would be in black and white, and people simply could not figure out a marketing strategy. (Target it toward kids? Adults? Families?) The search for a financier grew nearly impossible. And discouraging.
“It’s a difficult book because the themes are very smart and mature, and yet it’s read in middle school. So those two don’t necessarily dovetail,” said Silver, the producer. “But the most common thing we heard around Hollywood was: ‘Who’s the audience?’ It wasn’t simple.”
Without a financial backer, the project faded away. Lloyd Bridges, initially set to be the star of the movie, died in 1998. In 2007, the team lost the rights, and Warner Bros. quickly snapped them up.
Everyone was devastated — at that point, they had invested so much energy and grown emotionally attached to the project. “During that period, we kept in touch with Lois and kept telling her how we were disappointed — but if it was meant to be, the rights would come back to us,” Silver recalls.
Then suddenly, they did. A few key things happened at once: In 2011, Jeff Bridges was riding high with a career resurgence thanks to his Oscar win for “Crazy Heart” and nomination for “True Grit.” Even more important, two very popular, very violent YA dystopian book series (“The Hunger Games” and “Divergent”) were getting serious international buzz with movies in development.
“The Giver” seemed pretty tame in comparison. Warner Bros. had been unable to get traction with the project, and when the rights became available in 2011, Bridges and Silver pounced.
This time, things started to pick up. And quickly. The Weinstein Co. and Walden Media agreed to finance the film. A screenplay by Michael Mitnick was green-lighted — he shares a screenwriting credit with Robert B. Weide, who took the first crack at the script in the 1990s.
At first, Bridges had some trepidation with changes the studio wanted (such as making the stars of the movie, Brenton Thwaites and Odeya Rush, a bit older than in the book) and almost walked away. Eventually, he decided that after all this time, it would be too painful to let go. Also, he acknowledged that he now had the look of the “grizzled old man” from the book cover — and agreed to star in the movie.
There were still some issues: carefully walking a fine line when it came to the most disturbing scenes. Deciding how much of the movie to film in black and white (an early trailer was all in color, producing a backlash). Plus, amping up the drama and action sequences while staying true to the book.
As the movie they thought would never happen is finally released, Bridges, Silver and Lowry all say they’re extremely happy with the way it turned out, especially with the directorial eye of Phillip Noyce. And now the seemingly never-ending experience has finally reached its endpoint.
“Movies and television series are fascinating things — somehow they birth when they’re ready,” Silver reflects. “The goal is to do all the right things. And then at a certain point, there’s just luck.”