Clearly, Lois Lowry had it all wrong when she wrote “The Giver.” The book, which came out in 1993, was the original Young Adult Dystopia, a chilly little tale about a future society that seemed safe and civilized until you started peeking under its surface. “The Giver” was written with subtlety, originality — imagine a world that had managed to snuff out color — and powerful ambiguity. Sequels aside, a lot of people still think that final scene is about death.
But — silly author — Lowry only wanted to get her young readership pondering things like free will rather than make a bundle for herself in Hollywood. Books that “The Giver” has subsequently “inspired” (I’m being kind here), like “The Hunger Games” and “Divergent,” have focused on teenage protagonists and their hormonal dilemmas. By contrast, Jonas, the hero of Lowry’s book, has just turned 12 and is only beginning to feel “the stirrings.” Where’s the hot yearning, the smooching? Where do you put the pop songs? And where are the bad guys? You can’t just have “society” be the bad guy. Can you?
So “The Giver” has taken 20-odd years to reach the screen, during which time producer- actor Jeff Bridges has gone from hoping his father, Lloyd Bridges, would play the ancient keeper of memories of the title to taking the part himself. (Bridges senior died in 1998.) Jonas, the young hero tasked with remembering the past, is now 16 and played by the thoughtfully dreamy Brenton Thwaites, and he’s feeling more than stirrings for classmate Fiona (Odeya Rush). There is kissing. There is a cameo appearance by Taylor Swift. And there is now a hissable villain in the person of the leader of the film’s Council of Elders (Meryl Streep), although Jonas’s mother (Katie Holmes) is a creepy number on her own.
All this market-driven retrofitting still doesn’t manage to kill what made “The Giver” special: its hero’s patient inner journey to understand the terrible truth about his world and act on it. It’s not the most cinematic tale, but director Phillip Noyce (“Rabbit-Proof Fence”) and production company Walden Media have done what they can, filling in the blanks of Lowry’s artful, minimalist storytelling. Now the well-behaved community of “The Giver” exists on a mesa-like plateau, above and out of sight of the fallen world. Each person has his or her assigned place, including the parents to whom children are given after being born in birthing centers. Everyone’s polite and no one lies. Everybody takes their meds.
During the ceremony in which the new 16-year-olds are given their lifelong professions — yes, “Divergent” ripped the scene off, and I think I see where the Sorting Hat in “Harry Potter” came from — Jonas is chosen to be the Receiver, the repository of all the cultural memories the society has chosen to repress. The previous Receiver, now very old and redubbed The Giver (Bridges), brings the boy into a study lined with mysterious objects called “books” and instructs him in such arcane matters as snow, animals, and war.
Perhaps the biggest gamble the filmmakers have taken is opening “The Giver” in black and white and only slowly letting colors leach in. Home-viewers, no need to kick your TV sets or laptops; this is called “production design.” And it works, to a point, allowing us to access the world’s greater beauty at the same speed with which Jonas does. The sequences between the hero and the Giver are easily the film’s most interesting — they dramatize the birth of awareness — even if Bridges pushes his character’s great age into caricature at times. Thwaites does sincere well and existential agony rather less well. Streep seems to have summoned the minimum amount of her immense talent for this very sketchy role.
Elsewhere “The Giver” has been beefed up for popular consumption: Jonas’s friend Asher (Cameron Monaghan) is now a jet pilot instead of going into child care, and the Giver has a grand piano in the basement that is apparently a magnet for the aforementioned Swift. (She’s onscreen for only a few minutes and nothing gets broken.) Most important, the critical role of a child named Gabriel has been cast with a charming pair of infant twins (Alexander and James Jillings), making it easier for Jonas and the audience to care about what happens to the character.
Toward the end, Lowry’s quiet urging to live an ethical life, to think deeply about the world into which you’re born — to think, period — dovetails neatly with the faith-oriented Walden Media’s worldview, and the result is a family-friendly dystopian nightmare that won’t offend anyone but won’t get them very excited, either. (Treating the final scene literally just robs it of its nagging power.) The movie runs an hour and a half. Lowry’s book can be read in less than a day. It still gives anyone — child or adult — more than enough to wrestle with.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.