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Precision of language: The Giver movie’s faulty concept of memory

Lois Lowry’s dystopian novel The Giver takes place in a society where pain does not exist, but apparently nobody told Meryl Streep’s six-inch heels in the film adaptation by Walden Media. The shoes worn by Streep’s character, the Chief Elder, are far from the only liberties to stomp on Lowry’s original work. 

The Giver follows Jonas, a boy in a Community that can only see in black-and-white. Here sameness is the key to a perfect society, one without envy or discrimination, and most importantly without war, greed, and famine. The key to harmony in the Community is the lack of any individuality or free will. 

Jonas has the rare gift to see colors, and to receive memories of the past, before the Community came into being. When he comes of age and receives the Assignment of Receiver of Memories, he meets the mysterious Giver. 

"Giver" is what the old Receiver tells Jonas to call him. His job is to retain humanity’s collective memories of emotion, war, selfishness, natural disasters, and other phenomena that don’t exist anymore in the "perfect" society. 

The Giver Movie Poster

Each Receiver advises the Elders on which rules best serve the Community based on his unique knowledge. Jonas begins to receive memories from the Giver, of color, of snow, and of feelings of exhilaration and sorrow.  

The Elders control every facet of life in the Community, from birth rates to acceptable dress to physical touching between members. There is no awareness of death among the members, though there is a Ceremony of Release for members who leave for a distant place know only as Elsewhere. 

 

Reproduction is limited to Birthmothers, who have the Community’s babies through artificial insemination. The Elders arrange family units with two children each, and decide which babies will go to which family unit. 

Jonas learns about things the Elders blocked to help the Community, like how climate control prevents snow that might threaten crops. Other things, like love, went the way of emotions like hate and jealousy. Yet others, like over-population, are controlled at a terrible cost, as Jonas eventually learns. 

The turning point in both the book and film is after Jonas learns what death is, and that it still exists in the Community. What the Elders calls the Ceremony of Release is really a lethal injection for members they find superfluous. Twin babies are one child too many, so the smaller one is “released,” as are the elderly after age seventy - except the Giver. 

Most of the liberties the filmmakers took with Lois Lowry’s story are understandable. Jonas and the other young members of the Community receive their Assignments at 18-years-old, not 12 as in the book. Since one Assignment is Birthmother, 18 is a less problematic age to impregnate a girl than 12. 

Although the book does not describe the Community as the futuristic tech hub in the movie, there had to be an explanation for how the past Elders wiped everyone’s memories. Advanced technology accounts for the collective memory and color loss, and climate control. 

There is also a daily injection all members of the Community have to take to numb their emotions. While Lowry’s story mentioned no such injection, Jonas’ Mother in the book did give him pills to control his hormonal “Stirrings” when he began puberty. 

Book-lovers, whether they loved to read The Giver or not, will appreciate that the only books in the Community are in the Giver’s house. One can practically hear the Reading Rainbow theme song as those million bookworms agree yes, books are the ultimate retainers of humanity’s collective memory. 

The Giver’s psychological burden of carrying all of humanity’s memories is more apparent in the film than the book. His transference of the memory of war to Jonas accidentally happens in a scene where the Giver writhes in terror at the memory, apparently from post-traumatic stress disorder. 

For the most part, the script and direction of the film kept to the spirit of the book, if not every detail. The Community sits atop a massive plateau, with steep cliff-drops on all sides. A thick mist obscures everything beyond the edge, isolating its inhabitants further. 

Early on in Jonas’ training, however, the Giver finds a map of the area surrounding the Community in one of his books. On the map, a barren desert lies beyond the mist, and beyond that is something called the Boundary of Memories.  

Jonas guesses that that boundary is what blocks all the memories, except for Receivers. He posits that if he crosses the boundaries, everyone in the Community will receive all the memories he has been receiving from the Giver, like memories of love. 

If there were such a technology that could make everyone remember the past simultaneously, the Community members would presumably only have their personal memories. However, the premise of Jonas’ mission to “free” the memories is that everyone will have his and the Giver’s universal memories. 

The ability to see beyond into humanity’s collective experiences is supposed to only belong to Receivers. A birthmark on the wrist of each Receiver sets them even further apart from the rest of the Community. How, then, can everyone experience memories of things they have never experienced, like Jonas and the Giver can? 

The discrepancy between Receivers’ gift  to see beyond, and how everyone might suddenly have the supposedly unique gift, stands out as awkwardly as Chief Elder’s high heels. For someone so hell-bent on having no negative emotions, Streep’s character seems to wake up on the wrong side of the bed a lot. 

When the Giver begs her to stop the execution of a young girl, she callously tells him, “If you don’t want to see it, sit down with the other Elders. Close your eyes.” 

Jonas and the Giver defy Chief Elder’s emphatic defense of the absence of emotions and free will, that “when people have the freedom to choose, they choose wrong every single time.” While humans can choose to cause suffering and pain, they can also choose love, faith, and hope. 

Despite the gaping plot hole, the silent question in the book flows as an undercurrent in the movie. How far would you go for the freedom to make your own choices, even the wrong ones? Perhaps, in the end, love will save us all. And perhaps Chief Elder will buy a comfortable pair of shoes.

 

vintageanchorbooks:

On this day in 1818, Emily Jane Brontë was born in Thornton, West Riding of Yorkshire, England — the fifth of the six Brontë children, three of whom will grow up to write fiction.

“I have to remind myself to breathe — almost to remind my heart to beat!”
―Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

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