Like a lot of kids in my generation, Lois Lowry’s dystopian novel The Giver meant a lot to me growing up. I was about 10 or 11 when I first read the story about Jonas, a young boy who is named to receive humanity’s collective memories from The Giver, in a dystopian future where everyone else has suppressed emotion and embraced as near to total “sameness” as possible. When Jonas begins receiving memories he realizes that suppressing emotions has given his world freedom from pain, war, and loss, but it has also meant no true happiness, no diversity, no love. I remember it was the first book that ever made me cry.
Warning: mild spoilers for the book and movie ahead
I didn’t cry watching the new movie version of The Giver, which has been criticized for trying too hard to be “just another dystopian teen movie.” I agree with a lot of what’s been said by others on that front. Some of the changes – aging up the kids from 12 to 16, giving Jonas a love story and a happier ending, and having a more classic individual villain (Meryl Streep’s Chief Elder) – alter the original material in significant ways and make the film feel like it’s a copy of, rather than the inspiration for newer YA dystopias like The Hunger Games.
On the plus side, these changes do give the women characters, especially Fiona (Odeya Rush) and the Chief Elder, more screen-time.
Most disappointingly, the strong relationship between The Giver (Jeff Bridges) and Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) is established a little too quickly in the film. While their acting is exceptional, we’re denied somewhat the ability to really explore The Giver’s complex motivations and Jonas’ inner conflict as he is given more and more memories.
But I can’t say I didn’t enjoy the film or that I wasn’t intensely moved by it.
When I was 10 or 11 I never thought about what the books I read said about gender, beyond a surface appreciation for smart, strong girl characters (in a ’90s, Spice Girls-esque “girl power” kind of way). The Giver got to me because I was around the same age as Jonas and I could get deep inside his head and heart, feel his struggles.
In retrospect, the novel (like many other dystopians) had a fair amount to say about women’s roles and particularly about reproduction in a culture where even the most basic familial bonds must be severed. Women are denied any reproductive control – most have their “stirrings” suppressed like the men, but some are assigned to be “Birthmothers,” to give birth to three children who will be given away to artificial families, before being retired to become a labourer. In the book, Jonas remembers his mother saying being a Birthmother is a job “with no honour.” You can’t get into that level of detail in the movie, which is much more focused on the babies than the Birthmothers.
However, it was only after watching the movie that I realized The Giver‘s most revolutionary message might be what it says about men and masculinity.
According to Jackson Katz and Jeremy Earp, “In most media portrayals, male characters are rewarded for self-control and the control of others, aggression and violence, financial independence, and physical desirability.” Boys are constantly being shown role models of men who prove their manhood through dominating others. In that context, any kind of emotion – with the possible exception of anger – becomes a potentially emasculating weakness.
In the film of The Giver, both The Giver and Jonas are heroes leading an emotional revolution. Everyone else – including men – are shown as lacking their very human essence because they lack emotions.
Jonas is also shown as largely caring for others, rather than controlling them. The impetus for Jonas’ running away is his concern for a baby, Gabriel. While they’re on the run we get to see him feeding Gabriel and nurturing him by giving him happy, playful memories to keep his spirits up.
The moment I realized I was watching something significant was the moment I saw Jonas lean over Gabriel’s bassinet and whisper, “I love you, Gabriel.” And later that was confirmed, when The Giver grasps Jonas’ hands and says, “I love you, Jonas,” just before filling his mind with memories of inspiring images to give him strength.
Those two lines, just four words each, spoke volumes. I can’t remember the last time I saw a man in a mainstream Hollywood movie tell another man he loves him – platonically but clearly deeply – without even a hint of embarrassment or the need to make it more socially-acceptable through comedy (bromance style).
And in this one way I think the fact that Jonas was portrayed as an older teen actually made those interactions more significant. Had he been a young boy it would’ve been easier to interpret The Giver’s feelings as more socially-appropriate paternal love.
The Giver movie might not pack quite the same emotional punch or hold quite the same magic as the book (which you should totally read now if you haven’t already) but it’s definitely worth seeing for the acting, as well as occasional breakthrough moments that highlight the message that emotions and caring for others are crucial aspects of our humanity, just as much for men as everyone else.
Have you seen The Giver yet? What did you think?