Director Phillip Noyce’s “The Giver,” opening Friday, will look familiar to moviegoers who have seen dystopian films such as “The Hunger Games” and “Divergent.”
It follows a teen narrator, Jonas (Australian actor Brenton Thwaites), who discovers that his seemingly perfect society has a dark secret, and that salvation may depend on his connection to the troubled title character (Jeff Bridges), who is entrusted with the truth.
We’ve seen similar tales before and recently. The March release “Divergent,” based on the book by Veronica Roth, shares many of the themes seen in “The Giver,” with its teen characters forced into professions and (worse) bland uniforms. Meryl Streep shows up in the new movie playing an anti-humanity government official, a character that almost mirrors Kate Winslet’s role in “Divergent.”
But audiences should know that “The Giver” isn’t a knockoff. It was in the works long before the dystopian tales that preceded it onto the big screen. New England author Lois Lowry’s Newbery Medal-winning novel was published in 1993, about 15 years before “The Hunger Games.” “The Giver” was first optioned for a film by Bridges 18 years ago. (He intended to direct his father, Lloyd, in the role of the Giver, but it took so long to produce that he wound up playing the title character himself.)
Last week, Lowry was in Boston to promote the movie, along with Thwaites, 24, and Odeya Rush, 17, who plays his love interest. Among other things, they talked about why “The Giver” took so long to make, and why the film stands out among its peers.
Q. Were there points when you thought the movie just wouldn’t be made?
Lowry: You know, it was ups and downs, and every now and then it would rev up and become exciting, and I would think, Oh, it’s really going to happen, and then it would disappear again. The one who stuck with it for all those years was [Bridges].
Q. How involved were you in making the film? I know you traveled to South Africa during the shoot.
Lowry: In my contract with the filmmakers, they have no obligation to consult me whatsoever, so it’s actually very gratifying that they elected to seek my advice from time to time. The director, Phillip, e-mailed me last summer and asked me to come and meet with him in Los Angeles, and while I was there, Brenton came over, so I met Brenton for the first time. We also had a Skype interview with the costume designer. I made some suggestions for costumes, and we talked about the set design. When they all went off to South Africa . . . Phillip had been e-mailing me several times a day with just small questions. He’s very meticulous about details. He would seek my advice and sometimes he would take my advice. And sometimes he would very rightly ignore it.
Q. When did you two [actors] read the book? I know it’s part of the curriculum in many schools.
Rush: I didn’t read it in school because I was going from school to school, but they’d read it in both schools. My brothers were reading it as we were filming.
Lowry: Your brothers are 12 and 13.
Rush: Yeah. They were reading it in seventh grade. I read it after reading the script and after auditioning for the part.
Thwaites: I picked it up because of the film.
‘I think because some of them are older, because they grew up reading these books, they’re a little bit more calm. They have really smart and interesting questions.’
Lowry: Did you read the screenplay first and then the book?
Thwaites: Yeah. And we had so many screenplays. We would reference the book all the time during the shooting, so it was almost like, you know, we had a shooting script, and we would add to it every day with new ideas from the book.
Q. There is a frustrating moment when you start watching “The Giver,” and think, Why didn’t this movie get to come first? “Divergent” owes a lot to your book and yet that film was made so quickly after the book’s release.
Lowry: They were easier to make, I think. I mean, they may have been more expensive to make, but they had a lot more action. The book of “The Giver” is a pretty introspective, quiet sort of book compared to, say, “The Hunger Games.”
Q. I do remember that when the trailer for “The Giver” came out, a lot of fans were upset because it looked reminiscent of “The Hunger Games.”
Thwaites: They did show the most “Hunger Games”-y looking part of the film.
Lowry: And also they were outraged because the first trailer was completely in color, and I think the filmmakers had not realized the passion on the part of the fans who wanted that black-and-white [from the book]. And of course, they’d always planned to have it in black-and-white. They just hadn’t thought to put it in the first trailer.
Thwaites: The [fans] want what the book represents. It was almost like they wanted the original story, not the “Hunger Games” stuff. Which was kind of a relief and surprising to us.
Q. Let’s talk about the casting. One surprise for me was Katie Holmes as Jonas’s rule-abiding mother.
Lowry: Seeing her in the final version of the movie was a tremendous surprise to me. I thought she was terrific. I mean, I didn’t expect her to be bad, but I, I think of her as a pretty face and a warm, lovely human being, and then to see her play that role so chillingly, I think, was fabulous. I think [Alexander Skarsgard, who plays Jonas’s father] was a surprise, too, because I didn’t know much about him. I think I’d seen him in a couple of movies, but he has a reputation for being glamorous and sexy. And here he’s playing a role where he is to be neither. I think those were interesting choices for those two roles.
Q. We get a lot more of your character, Fiona, in the film, than we did in the book. How did you define this character for yourself?
Rush: She’s mentioned a few times in the book but she’s not a key part of Jonas’s journey. I think she just puts her foot down more in the film. She goes through a bigger transformation. I think that also comes with making her older, because I think, at 12, there’s only so much you can take.
Q. And that was another fan concern, that the main characters are preteens in the book and much older in the film.
Thwaites: I couldn’t think about that when I was acting, you know? I wasn’t going to play half my age. My job was to just bring as much of myself and my own innocence to the character as possible . . . and do an American accent [laughs].
Q. I have to ask whether the success of “Divergent” and “The Hunger Games” is what helped this film finally get made.
Lowry: You know, “Hunger Games” and “Insurgent” or “Divergent” or whatever they are . . .
Thwaites: “Detergent,” I think it is [laughs].
Lowry: I think the popularity of those movies last year, or whenever it was, certainly was instrumental in getting [the Weinstein Co.] to come aboard and finance this.
Q. Are the expectations similar for a movie like this? That it’ll be the same kind of hit?
Thwaites: I think they’re all crossing their fingers that it’ll make a lot of money and that’s fantastic, but, you know, I think it’s very different. We don’t have as much money as “The Hunger Games.” We’re not that huge kind of powerhouse.
Q. You have the benefit of younger people being able to see this film. It’s not as violent as those other movies.
Lowry: At the same time I think the fact that Jeff and Meryl are in it will bring in an adult audience who might not go see a teenage film.
Q. Speaking of those two actors, they have some great scenes together. There’s almost a sexual tension between the Giver and her character, the chief elder.
Lowry: The tension between them is terrific. And that’s not in the book. I’ve said before, I wish I could go back and rewrite that and beef up the role of the chief elder and make her more complex, the way the movie does.
Q. How imposing is it, as young actors, to walk into a room and be faced with Meryl Streep and Jeff Bridges?
Thwaites: Well, it’s one of those things where you just tell yourself, you know, This is your job. Be cool. But no matter how many times you repeat that mantra, you’re still really nervous and anxious and shaking and scared and excited when you meet these great actors. But Jeff has a wonderful energy about him and a wonderful way of saying I’m scared too.
Rush: Just meeting Jeff was already nerve-racking. But he’s very calming.
Q. You’ve done fan events and appearances at shopping malls to promote this film. Who are the fans and how do they respond to you?
Rush: I think because some of them are older, because they grew up reading these books, they’re a little bit more calm. They have really smart and interesting questions.
Thwaites: For me, it’s similar. They’re huge fans of the book, so that comes first, which is great. It’s, “I don’t know if I’m going to like you. In case I do, let me get your autograph.”