So. After a week’s hiatus due to a bout of the flu, I’m back in the saddle (sort of). I watched a lot of Netflix while in bed (mainly Adventure Time, which I’m even more excited about since I discovered it’s post-apocalyptic), and picked up some digital downloads for entertainment as well. One of the films I scored was The Giver (2014) with Jeff Bridges, but it was one of the few I couldn’t actually bring myself to watch. Why? Because I’m afraid it will fit too well into the ranks of the YA dystopia blockbuster, a genre I generally love (and sometimes love to hate).
This is the part where I admit that I’m a huge fan of Lois Lowry’s original book version, published in 1993. Like many people, I read The Giver as part of a school summer reading programme, which is also how I came across other great books like Island of the Blue Dolphins, Bridge to Terabithia, A Wrinkle in Time, Hatchet, and other Newbery award winners. The AV Club actually has a great review of that last title, as well as The Giver, from the perspective of someone re-reading it as an adult.
Having recently re-read it myself, I was surprised at how well it holds up so many years (and literature courses) down the line. Until a few months ago I was unaware that there are actually three ‘sequels’ to The Giver (in my defence the last is very recent), and so I decided to pick up a nice hardcover edition containing all four books. The fancy new edition finally convinced my husband to read The Giver as well. He, also a YA dystopia fan, blazed through it in a day, and though he enjoyed it, he also wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. It’s not quite like any other YA dystopia out there, and that’s largely why I still haven’t seen the film remake – although Lowry is apparently largely responsible for the screenplay. I’m afraid that what it leaves out will also be what I love most about the story.
For the sake of this blog post, what I love about The Giver boils down to five simple things. This list obviously reflects my personal preferences, and isn’t in any way meant to put down the many other YA dystopias I also enjoy. I, too, will be shelling out the money to go see Insurgent and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 (just writing that title makes me die a little inside).
Without further ado: spoilers ahead.
1. It really feels like a utopia
I should admit that I like my dystopian futures to be more Brave New World than 1984. For me the really mind-blowing dystopias are the ones that genuinely seem pretty nice. In The Giver, the community where Jonas (the protagonist) lives advocates Sameness, designed so that everyone will get along with as little trouble as possible. Jonas’s family shares their dreams and their feelings with each other at breakfast, and then they thank each other for sharing. Pointing out other people’s differences is considered rude, and is discouraged, and apologies for unintended inconvenience or upset are frequent and genuine. There is no pain outside of the occasional accident. There is no need to make difficult decisions, and everyone is placed in a job designed to engage them as thoroughly was possible.
Everything has its place and the community does its best to gently encourage its citizens to be more polite and precise. To this day the phrase ‘precision of language’ still makes me smile and think of Jonas’s friend Asher, who has no patience for finding the right words. Even when we learn that unconforming citizens are ‘released’ or euthanised, and even once we see what the community has given up to achieve peace and stability, it still genuinely seems like a place where people are doing the best they can to ensure everyone lives well. The Giver himself, whose name we never learn, has only come to the conclusion that the sacrifice may not have been worth it after many years.
2. It’s full of subtle little touches
The Giver has its share of plot twists, as does any YA dystopia, but most are extremely subtle. This is not a novel driven by explosions or daring acts of physical prowess. Most of the action takes place inside Jonas’s head. Given the intimate nature of the story, it’s actually amazing that it can offer any surprises, but it does. The first time I read it, I was halfway through the novel before I noticed that colour was missing. Objects are described as ‘light’, ‘dark’, or ‘unremarkable’ but never more, until Jonas first discovers the colour red in the apple, and in Fiona’s hair. Fitting in perfectly with the community’s standards, Lowry’s prose throughout the novel is simple and precise, without all the superfluous adjectives – I’m looking at you, Divergent – but manages to be poignant nevertheless. Honestly I still got a little choked up when I read this passage, even though I knew it was coming:
‘It was so – oh, I wish language were more precise! The red was so beautiful!’
The Giver nodded. ‘It is.’
‘Do you see it all the time?’
‘I see all of them. All the colors.’
Jonas is so deeply struck by all the things his community has given up, that he is immediately certain it’s a mistake. An equally poignant moment occurs when he tries to share his discovery of colour with Asher and Fiona, who remain unable to understand.
3. There’s no romance subplot
Jonas has naughty dreams about Fiona (his parents call it ‘stirrings’), but that’s the beginning and the end of that. Though this is partly the result of the emotionless community in which Jonas lives, I honestly didn’t miss it at all. The love triangles and heterosexual puppy love that never fail to pop up today’s YA dystopias have been overused to the point of ridiculousness. While I can certainly accept that we need other people to be truly special, I draw the line at the assumption that this has to involve a romantic a relationship. Additionally, the marked lack of sexuality in The Giver helps keep it from feeling too gendered. Aside from the role of Birthmother, everyone can do anything (Rosemary, the Receiver before Jonas, was female), and no one chases after anyone or experiences crippling self-doubt because they feel they aren’t worthy of love.
4. Its about relationships
Like many YA dystopias, the plot of The Giver is simple. In a future where people have given up feeling and memory in favour of security, one person realises that the system is broken, and sets out to change it. What really drives the story is not the events, but the relationships, and ultimately the novel is an exploration of how the community’s sacrifices impact those relationships. Some of the novel’s most shocking moments are relational, as when Jonas receives his new job instructions and the fifth line simply reads ‘You may lie.’ He wonders whether all adults receive this instruction after the Ceremony of Twelve, and then realises that even though he is now permitted to ask, he would never know if the answer he received was true. Another striking moment comes once Jonas has experienced love in one of the Giver’s memories. He asks his parents if they love him, and they clearly can’t comprehend what he means, laughing at his use of such an old and imprecise word.
It’s Jonas’s relationship with the Giver that moves him to save Gabriel, and to leave the community once and for all. The Giver is perhaps the most moving example of what Sameness does to relationships; his partner, who never really understood him, now lives someplace else with the other elderly, and Rosemary, who was like a daughter to him, applied for release after receiving one painful memory too many. The Giver is alone, as are all the members of the community. He is simply the only one who is in a position to recognise his solitude.
5. It doesn’t end
Or rather it does, very abruptly. Many readers have found this unsatisfying, and I will admit it also left me wondering. Upon re-reading, though, I actually found the abrupt ending rather refreshing, especially in a world where everything seems to be wrapped up with a nice little epilogue (a la Harry Potter or The Hunger Games trilogy). It shocks you and leaves you with unanswered questions, which you will definitely spend the next couple of days unravelling in your mind. It stops The Giver from falling into the familiar ‘good guys triumph over bad guys’ pattern, and makes you wonder whether Jonas really made the right choice. (Edit: this interview/article on The Wire actually has a great exploration of the importance of choice in the novel, and how that’s reflected in the fact that you as a reader have to choose how you believe it ends.) If you really must have answers, Messenger (2004) and Son (2012) tie up a few loose ends.
I could go on, but for the sake of brevity I’ll leave it at that. If you’ve never read The Giver, or if it’s been a while, I can definitely recommend picking it up. If The Giver wasn’t your cup of tea, or you’re looking for a different kind of YA dystopia fix, you should check out this Twitter account, where Dana Schwartz is tweeting bits and pieces of a parody that’s part Divergent, part Maze Runner, and all fun.