Lois Lowry's prize-winning novel The Giver pre-dated Divergent by a couple of decades, yet the film version of her beloved book feels like a re-hash of that dystopian sci-fi thriller.
While the 1993 book was a thoughtful, subtle meditation on mind control and the blandness of life in a pseudo-Utopia, the movie doesn't convey that depth (** out four; rated PG-13; opens Friday nationwide). It changes some plot points, but more important it lacks the resonance and mythic quality of Lowry's literary allegory.
While the adult performances are strong, especially Jeff Bridges in the title role, youthful characterizations are not nearly as illuminating as they were on the page.
Overall, the long-awaited adaptation is visually handsome, but disappointing and thematically flattened. It suffers from comparison to the surfeit of teen-centered dystopian thrillers in recent years, such as Divergent and The Hunger Games, also based on popular books.
Bridges, who has wanted to make a film of the book since he optioned it in 1996, is convincing as The Giver. It's an honored position in his well-ordered community, but takes its toll on the bearded recluse.
His job is to pass on his compendium of intensely felt memories to young Jonas (Brenton Thwaites). In the novel, Jonas had just turned 12 when he's selected to be the new Receiver of Memory. In the movie he's clearly older, looking about 16 (though Thwaites is actually 25). The film also introduces a youthful romance that feels forced.
Jonas lives in a world of sameness. Conflict and strong emotions have been eradicated through strict rules, imposed politeness, language precision and medication.
It was decided much earlier that the community should not be burdened by memories of how life used to be, One brave person is selected to be keenly aware of a wide range of experiences that others know nothing about: love, excitement, war, suffering, colors. The aging Giver is passing the baton to the young Receiver.
Jonas' lost innocence and subsequent outrage at what his world lacks worked better with his character being younger. In the book, Jonas found the adult role difficult, longing to return to his carefree days of childhood play. Lowry's powerful but simply written narrative takes its time as Jonas' anger mounts. The film leapfrogs over some of that progression and tempers the effect of Jonas' reaction, rendering the concept far less involving on screen.
Meryl Streep plays the Chief Elder in a more villainous way than the character was written. In the book the elders were not nefarious, just misguidedly determined to preserve the peace and ignorant comfort of their society. Director Philip Noyce has decided to make her more of a fearsome Big Brother figure. She appears repeatedly as a hologram, for no good reason, and seems like a stock character from other dystopian dramas.
Lowry's prose was more evocative than the dialogue in the film. The memories featured here don't have the poignant quality of those in the book (the first experience of snow or a glimpse of a family celebrating Christmas). Instead, memory montages feel impersonal and broadly global, as if they were a United Colors of Benetton ad.
The movie's weakest segment is an extended action climax that turns this potent allegory — and its open-ended denouement — into a generic action thriller, complete with drones and menacing enforcers racing around on motorized bikes.
For those who have not read the book, the movie will seem derivative. And for those who have read it, it is likely to feel disappointing for the dimension it leaves out.