The Corner

‘When People Have the Freedom to Choose, They Choose Wrong:’ Watching The Giver

Thanks to my wife’s work with Walden Media, I’ve had a chance to get a sneak peek at Walden’s new movie, the The Giver (opening Friday), based on Lois Lowry’s book of the same name. The book — which has now sold roughly 10 million copies — was a teen dystopia before teen dystopia was cool, published long before Hunger Games or Divergent or any of the other myriad less-popular books where kids wake up to the oppression around them and change the world.

Before I talk about the movie, however, let me say this: I absolutely hate it when people tell me that I need to see a movie because of its message. I want to see good movies, not message movies, and sometimes find poorly delivered conservative messages more irritating even than preachy liberal screeds. Because I want conservative ideas to be persuasive, it’s like fingernails on a chalkboard when movies fail as movies, yet I’m still expected to see the film out of some strange sense of tribal loyalty.

So, let me get this out of the way before I talk about some of the themes in The Giver. The movie is very good (and I’m not the only one saying so). With Meryl Streep, Jeff Bridges, Katie Holmes, and — yes — Taylor Swift, the acting and star power is exactly what you’d expect from a well-crafted summer movie. The book’s “utopian” world is brought to life, and the movie brings together the right mix of action, suspense, and thought.

But it’s the thought I want to discuss. 

Unlike in the more recent dystopian films, great calamity has led not to a Panem-like violence and oppression but instead to an artificially created utopia, where the state has systematically imposed equality, narrowed the range of individual choice to meaninglessness, and places each person in their designated place. This is a utopia organized not around the seeking of pleasure but instead the avoidance of pain. As Meryl Streep’s character explains, “When people have the freedom to choose, they choose wrong.” 

Daily injections alter body chemistry to inhibit the normal range of emotions, and the world is literally drained of its color. Without passion, there is no conflict. Without pain, there is no sadness. In this utopia, humanity’s memories are passed down through two people, a “giver” and a “receiver.” Only they can see and experience the joy and pain and loss from humanity’s past.

Without giving away too much of the plot, suffice to say that the “receiver” (a teenage boy) soon understands a great truth of human oppression. There is no escaping choice. Someone always chooses. Yes, when people have freedom, they often make wrong choices. But so do the people who run the “utopia.” In this instance, the leaders choose to perfect the community through infanticide and euthanasia, through murder. The imperfect and inconvenient are “released” in scenes that are among the most chilling and, yes, ultimately pro-life ever seen in a major Hollywood feature. At its heart, the film rebukes not just the idea that life can be engineered to perfection but the idea that painlessness is even desirable for the human heart.

If you permit me a bit of a philosophical and personal digression, one can’t live long in this world without experiencing pain, loss, and real grief. Some can live charmed existences and postpone the experience of real loss for decades, but it comes to us all. The current fashion seems to be to do all one can to “get past” or “get over” or “get through” grief, through the use of powerful pharmaceuticals, if necessary (echoes of the movie). The goal is a “happy” life, whatever that means, and thus sadness must be banished. But sadness is also remembering. Sadness reminds us of the vital importance of the person we lost. We can smile at the good times, yes, but it is that pang deep in our heart that tells us how deeply that person was loved. There are some losses I don’t want to “get over,” and if by not getting over the loss I’m remembering that person all the more, well then that’s pain worth experiencing.

In the movie, the young hero sees and feels it all — the joy and horror of what it means to truly “choose life.” In the world of The Giver – as in our world — someone always chooses, and those choices, even when well-intended, can have catastrophic consequences. As we drift ever-closer towards a regulated nanny state, it’s not that choices are removed, they are instead reserved — reserved for the technocratic few who feel confident they know how to maximize our happiness and minimize our pain. But aren’t the technocratic few also “people” too? Subject to all the failings that come along with their humanity? 

In other words, “When technocrats have the power to choose, they choose wrong.”

Go see The Giver. You’ll be glad you did.

David French — David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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