- - Thursday, August 14, 2014

“Imagine there’s no countries / It isn’t hard to do / Nothing to kill or die for / And no religion too,” John Lennon famously sang. “Imagine all the people / Living life in peace.”

“Imagine” has had surprising staying power, continuing to inspire optimists over three decades after its release. But as Lois Lowry understands, that dream, if made real, would quickly become a nightmare. A quiet, peaceful world wouldn’t just be mind-numbingly boring. It would be truly soul-crushing, as well.

The passions that make men do evil also give rise to their greatest achievements. A world without war also would be a world without music; a humanity that didn’t know hatred would be a humanity that didn’t know love.

It’s a lesson the world’s utopians never seem to learn — even though Ms. Lowry explained it clearly and movingly in her short 1993 Newberry Medal-winning short novel “The Giver.”

 Perhaps the screen adaptation, nearly two decades in the making, will do the trick.

Jeff Bridges bought the rights to the children’s book 18 years ago with the idea of directing a film starring his father Lloyd. Lloyd Bridges died in 1998, and his son has handed the directorial reins to Philip Noyce while taking on the title role himself.

Labors of love often manifest high quality, and the long-awaited adaptation of this beloved novel is no exception. Those who grew up reading the book and its sequels might quibble over a few things here and there: The 12-year-olds of the book have become 16-year-olds who face a great deal more treacherous (and cinematic) action.

But the movie admirably captures the story’s spirit and, more important, its insight.

At first glance, the indeterminate future of “The Giver” looks like a utopia brought to life. Sure, the monochromatic shades of gray might seem mildly depressing at first. But then you realize it means everyone looks and dresses the same, making the cliques of high school and beyond a thing of the past.

Even with “Sameness” as the order of the day, though, Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) has never felt like he quite fits in. (It’s a popular trope in young adult novels, of course, an easy way to gain reader identification.)

On graduation day, Jonas learns why. That’s when students learn what their role in the community will be. Everything is decided by the Council of Elders (headed by Meryl Streep): your job, your spouse, which children you’ll raise, even when you’ll be “released” to some even more utopian world beyond.

Childhood friend Fiona (immensely attractive Israeli actress Odeya Rush) is made a caregiver in the maternity ward, and no one is surprised. She seems born to nurture.

Jonas can’t imagine what he’s destined to do. But then, each generation has only one Receiver of Memories.

The postapocalyptic world of “The Giver” has wiped out all traces of its past — well, almost. One person is allowed the knowledge of what life used to be like, just in case that information proves needed to solve some future problem that puzzles even the Elders.

Jonas, who can mysteriously “see beyond,” is chosen to receive humanity’s memories from The Giver (Jeff Bridges). At first, he eats hungrily from the tree of knowledge. He’s never seen a book before, but The Giver has thousands of them. When he learns the injections citizens receive each morning blunt their emotions, Jonas quits taking his. He sees colors for the first time — and he starts to see Fiona in a very new light.

But, as the central theme of the story has it, with the good comes the bad (and vice versa). Jonas discovers the rush of a beautiful piece of music and the excitement of sledding down a hill on the first day of winter, but he also discovers the heartbreak of losing a best friend to an enemy’s bullet and the horrible realization of what “release” really means. He must decide whether he can live with the knowledge — and whether he should share it with the community.

The weakest point of “The Giver” is the dramatization of human history. Scenes of war and violence are hazy and short, probably to keep the film’s rating at PG-13. But the audience understands what Jonas is learning and can fill in the blanks.

What’s never weak, thank goodness, is the acting. Katie Holmes is deliciously cold as Jonas’ very law-abiding mother. (“Precision of language!” she constantly cautions him when he starts asking questions, like whether his parents “love” him.)

Taylor Swift is serviceable in her small role as the last, unsuccessful Receiver, while the Australian Mr. Thwaites will please young ladies with his looks and their parents with his ability to project real feeling onto the screen. Mr. Bridges centers the whole thing with gravitas and intelligence. We should thank him for helping bring this story to the screen — it contains a lesson humanity should never forget.

Three Stars

 

TITLE: “The Giver”

CREDITS: Directed by Phillip Noyce; written by Michael Mitnick and Robert B. Weide, based on the novel by Lois Lowry

RATING: PG-13 for a mature thematic image and some sci-fi action/violence

RUNNING TIME: 94 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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