The Giver: Pseudo-Rebellion for Conservative Sheep

by Armond White
Phillip Noyce’s latest passes clichés to the next generation..

Because we live in an era of liberal audacity when Hollywood regularly espouses “progressive” propaganda, indifferent to the offense to flyover America’s (conservative) views, some conservative commentators have found reason to praise the movie The Giver. They’re happy to recognize similarities to their own political values. But should political beliefs be so easily appeased? Need moviegoing conservatives be so uncritically grateful for crumbs of acknowledgment from a disingenuous, untrustworthy Hollywood?

The main problem with the film version of The Giver (based on the 1993 bestselling young-adult novel by Lois Lowry) is its essential silliness: Jonas (Brendon Thwaite) is a youth in a futuristic society called “the Community” that, after some dystopian event called “the Ruin,” uses drugs and indoctrination to purge its citizens of emotion and distinction. Jonas learns history from the Giver, the single, official repository of human memory and values. This bearded, bleeding-heart sage (played by Jeff Bridges), who lives surrounded by books, passes his knowledge on to Jonas, representative of the next generation.

Once Jonas discovers what the New Wave band Devo called “freedom of choice,” his rebellion is opposed by the Chief Elder (Meryl Streep doing an Anjelica Huston impersonation), a gorgon devoted to keeping society in a state of “sameness.”

Sameness is Hollywood’s true politics, the status quo it almost always purveys. Through a hands-on ritual, Jonas receives the Giver’s emotional transmissions, which look like movie trailers. And no wonder: This film’s premise is embarrassingly similar to that of The Adjustment Bureau, The Hunger Games, Divergent, and others ad nauseam.  Despite the film’s cautionary message, it is no different from most apocalyptic sci-fi movies, whether Blade Runner, The Matrix, or this year’s Tom Cruise–Johnny Depp–Marvel Comics extravaganzas, all blandly critiquing a fantasy totalitarian culture in favor of some blandly defiant hero. Skeptical conservatives should grasp the dishonesty and apolitical pandering on display.

Like every Hollywood film professing the importance of “individuality” and “freedom,” The Giver promotes the idle daydreaming of passive ticket-buyers and romantic teenage dissidents. The Giver is not a conservative film even though its story seems to express the fears conservatives have about a permissive culture and the current administration’s tendency to micromanage individual choice, increase government involvement, and shout down opposition. The film appeals to rabble-rousing sentiments that are predictably, thus marketably, popular — the essence of commercialized conformity.

The Giver reduces those conservative fears to trite paranoia, then bogus uplift. It relies on a chase-and-expose scenario in which Jonas must unmask and outrun his opposition. He doesn’t stand for a traditional morality or way of life but insists on change and opposition for their own sake — the same power struggle of all Hollywood “rebels.” Conservatives ought to be wary of a formula that, in the end, converts what should be political reasoning to cartoonish simplicity: youthful optimism versus old-age cynicism — the conventional way Hollywood appeases Jonas’s demographic, which is already indoctrinated into the clichés of blockbusters.

In one of Elvis Costello’s shrewdest political songs, he warned, “You never see the lies that you believe.” The Giver is just newly dressed, pseudo-political pabulum, part of the entire Young Adult franchise designed to boost sales and naïve notions rather than connect to the eternal verities of classical literature. This unfortunate film, directed by Australian hack Philip Noyce (The Bone Collector, Rabbit Proof Fence), stunts cinematic expressiveness by going from near-monochrome to obvious color in the style of the insipid chromatic games in the 1998 film Pleasantville. No reason for conservatives to fall for this commercial propaganda without realizing that it is, indeed, one of the most insidious forms of propaganda.

— Film critic Armond White is the author of The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook the World and the forthcoming What We Don’t Talk about When We Talk about the Movies.