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The Giver: The revolution will be pretty familiar, actually

Friday 19th September 2014

The Giver is The YA Dystopia, the text from which sprung The Hunger Games and Divergent and The Maze Runner and a million other pretenders. Since Lois Lowry’s novel was published in 1993, it’s been scavenged by literary magpies to such a degree that its 2014 film adaptation feels worn. But there’s more to it – in being the alpha-text, the template for these futures, it throws stark light on the more unseemly elements that keep popping up in the YA Dystopia.

So from the top:

A poster of the 2014 movie The Giver
The Giver

Photo: Facebook

The Giver stars Kmart-catalogue heartthrob Brenton Thwaites as Jonas, our lean, anime-eyed hero, a teen in a seemingly-perfect society. Governed by a simple set of rules and willingly controlled by a morning injection, Jonas and his fellow citizens never experience conflict, exploitation, disease or tragedy. That’s the beauty of ‘sameness’, an ideology pioneered by the Elders, the group of old people who run the show, led by a very tired Meryl Streep. Concepts of race, gender, sexuality, culture and illness aren’t talked about, so they don’t exist. Even colour’s been eradicated, reflected in some flat, inertly-lit black-and-white cinematography (the concept of ‘contrast’ apparently went the same way as colour).

The society holds big ceremonies every year to celebrate various milestones (nine-year-olds get a bike; old people get ‘released’). As his requisite job for life, Jonas is directed to hold the memories of a world long-past so that he can effectively advise the Elders. The only other Receiver, a grizzled Jeff Bridges playing a weird mix of Foghorn Leghorn and Owl from Winnie the Pooh, starts passing memories to Jonas – who then starts questioning the foundations his society stands on. As you do.

For a film in which a lifetime of monochrome is invaded by colour, The Giver’s not that good-looking. Aussie director Phillip Noyce doesn’t exactly play up the sensation, beyond the initial hit of a blue-orange sunset – and, as sunsets go, this one’s not even that good.

But neither is The Giver: it spends a long first act dumping the rules of the world on you, telegraphs character development through flat and expository narration, and condenses a whole lot of action and tension into a third act so rushed that it barely registers.

But The Giver suffers more for being the precursor, much in the same way that proto-sci fi John Carter suffered in a post-Star Wars, post-Avatar world. Equilibrium cannibalised the book’s central conceit in 2002; Divergent took the ceremony and added blood-letting; every YA Dystopia since has stuck to the trusty template of resourceful young people standing against the old people who maintain post-collapse dictatorships ‘for the greater good’. Following slow on the heels of those it inspired, The Giver feels rote, lacking an identity to call its own.

In lacking that identity, though, we get a better look at other sturdy tropes of YA Dystopia. Some of those are positive, like an inherent mistrust of exploitative and controlling adult leadership, and a critical view of how identities are constructed and denied in modern society. That The Giver doesn’t respect status quo-entrenching power structures is a given: The Elders are more religious zealots than politicians, but they’re fuelled by a familiar moral panic.

The Giver’s also better at investigating how we build identity than most, probing this society’s less palatable aspects by couching them in euphemism and ritual (apparently nice lights and a friendly demeanour will make anyone comfortable with the idea of an 18-year-old woman being made to spend the rest of her life having babies).

Our One Direction-looking whitebread goofball is this society’s Mandela, the film is saying with a phenomenal lack of self-awareness

But then there’s the lazier stuff: the creaky story structures, the bloated second acts dragging you through the character’s ‘up-skilling’, the fumbled romances. And there’s the casually insidious stuff, like the consistent prioritisation of white voices.

Despite a fairly large ensemble cast, every actor in The Giver of any consequence to the story is white. There are people of colour, but they’re there for Meryl to monologue at, or to flash by in stock footage montages illustrating ‘love’ and ‘strength’ and ‘war’.

Nelson Mandela’s shown at the end of the ‘strength’ montage, presented as the absolute pinnacle of the stuff – and immediately after his image flashes up, we cut to our One Direction-looking whitebread goofball cycling real hard down a tree-lined avenue. He is this society’s Mandela, the film is saying with a phenomenal lack of self-awareness. His suffering is directly comparable to Mandela’s suffering, and his courage in the face of that suffering is as same. It’s the most tone-deaf appropriation of a civil rights moment I’ve seen since gamers started comparing themselves to Martin Luther King Jr.

READ: It’s not just dystopian societies that prioritise white voices. Fern Seto and Saziah Bashir discuss a lack of diversity in this year’s general election.

Earlier this year, I wrote that the YA Dystopia says a lot about society today that’s worth hearing. What it’s saying this time, though, is unintentional. In passively filling its large ensemble cast with white people and giving those voices the most weight, The Giver, like Divergent and The Hunger Games, is creating the kind of revolution they think we find palatable – and avoiding the kind of revolution we don’t. It doesn’t reflect well on them or us that the revolution that ‘sells’ is one in which black kids and Hispanic kids and Asian kids and Middle Eastern kids all take a back seat while the photogenic white kids take the wheel.

Full disclosure: Taylor Swift’s in this movie, for all of a minute. You need to be informed.

Cover image from Facebook.

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“Really enjoying all these dystopia reviews! Keep up the good work :-)” — Harry Chapman

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