The gestation period for The Giver by Lois Lowry, winner of the 1994 Newbery Medal, to make it to the big screen, was 18 years. "I'm glad it didn't take any longer," Lowry joked at a press conference in New York City last week, "I'm 77 years old."
Jeff Bridges, who plays the Giver, was originally interested in the project as director, with his father, Lloyd Bridges, to play the lead. But he couldn't get the backing for it, he explained at the press conference. It's striking that so many people involved in the film--which was released last Friday by the Weinstein Company and Walden Media--had read the book and loved it, and wanted the film to "preserve its spirit," as many them put it.
Devotees of the book may be surprised that Jonas, chosen to receive memories from the Giver and to succeed him, and his friends Fiona and Asher, are not Elevens but more like Sixteens. But the change was necessary for the plot threads developed for the film to work.
In a film of only 97 minutes, the world-building is briefer than it was in the book, partly because we can see the world, watch these detached relationships, observe the Sameness, the identical buildings and the curfews, and hear the silence. The filmmakers had to convey quickly how Jonas figures out what he and his fellow Community members have given up--because of climate control, the lack of color, music, celebration, family bonds, and no knowledge of history. Only the Giver keeps these things, and he shares them only when called upon by the elders--and to pass them on to the new Receiver.
|(Back row, l.-r.) Producers Nikki Silver and Neil Koenigsberg, actors Odeya Rush, Meryl Streep, Katie Holmes and Jeff Bridges, director Phillip Noyce, actor Cameron Monaghan, actress/musician Taylor Swift, co-screenwriter Robert B. Weide, (front row, l.-r.) actors Brenton Thwaites and Emma Tremblay, author Lois Lowry and co-screenwriter Michael Mitnick at a press conference for The Giver. (Photo: Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for The Weinstein Company)
The chemistry between Jeff Bridges (the Giver) and Brenton Thwaites (Jonas, selected as Receiver) carries the film, as well as the relationship between Thwaites and Odeya Rush (Fiona). Director Phillip Noyce gracefully achieves aesthetically what could only be done on film: Jonas's gradual awakening to color, which begins to leak into the black-and-white frames. First, it's the red of an apple, then Fiona's hair, until the whole world lights up like fireworks for Jonas--and for moviegoers.
Although the movie develops an action-packed original plot line, layered upon Jonas's difficult decision about what to do when he learns the baby Gabe's fate, Lowry seemed visibly pleased with the film. She has noted that the lack of action and suspense in the book made it "more difficult for the filmmakers who have tried to make a film of it."
Key to the look of the movie was the lure of Elsewhere, the area outside the Community. Noyce found the location when he took a shot of his son during a trip to South Africa. In that image, Noyce could picture Jonas at the cusp of Elsewhere. "Shooting the film in South Africa meant a quality of light--and everything else--that was just a little different," Noyce said.
Writers Michael Mitnick and Robert B. Weide expanded the role of the Chief Elder (played with chilling depth by Meryl Streep) and explored more deeply the misfire in the training of the previous Receiver (played by Taylor Swift in flashbacks). "Help him hold in the pain," the Chief Elder tells the Giver as he trains Jonas. In the role, Jeff Bridges is a picture of stillness. He hardly moves his mouth as he speaks, as if trying to contain his emotions. At one point he tells Jonas, "Feelings are fleeting; emotions are deep." His stoic stature makes him the embodiment of ancient wisdom.
Still processing the recent news of Robin Williams's death, Jeff Bridges (who worked with Williams on The Fisher King) opened the press conference with, "I want to acknowledge the fullness of life, the joy and sadness of it all. My dear friend Robin's passing, and the joy of giving birth to our child, The Giver. It reminded me of what the Giver and Receiver might have felt."
|Author Lois Lowry and director Phillip Noyce. (Photo: Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for The Weinstein Company)
For Bridges, coming to the film meant a shift in perspective. His own vision of it was very close to the book. But Harvey Weinstein approached the actor with a different vision. "I thought, do I say, 'bon voyage'? How will I feel if I let this go?" Bridges asked himself. "I decided I would surf this wave."
Asked why she took the role of Chief Elder, Meryl Streep replied, "I like to be boss," she said with a laugh. "I've wanted to work with this gentleman [indicating Bridges] my entire career. He somehow eluded me. I've always admired Phillip [Noyce], and I thought to bring to life the colorless parts of the story would take a true artist." Streep's children read The Giver in school, and the actress said that while she usually had to "crack the whip" to get them to read, "my two younger ones devoured it."
Taylor Swift and co-screenwriter Michael Mitnick both read The Giver in fifth grade. "It changed my perspective on things," Swift said, when asked why she chose this project as her first acting role. "It stuck with me. When I got the script, I thought, if they treat the film anything like the book, I want to do it." For Mitnick, the goal was to make the film "an extension of Lois's voice."
The respect for Lois Lowry's creation among this group was palpable. But perhaps never more so than when the credits rolled, and at the very end was the film's dedication: "In memory of Major Grey Lowry," Lois Lowry's son. --Jennifer M. Brown