Recently, I was informed by a couple of friends that there was a film coming out soon that was “a total rip-off of Equilibrium, but with kids.” The name of this travesty? The Giver.
I quickly informed them that The Giver was not only not a rip-off of Equilibrium, but actually predated it by almost a decade.1 A fairer statement of the relation between the two would be that Equilibrium is The Giver with grown-ups and guns.2 Why, The Giver won the Newberry Medal and was even a contested/banned book (and that’s always sexier than an award, right?).
Yes, but would I recommend the book, my friends asked.
Of course I would. The story and the characters are compelling.
The Giver Quartet
For those who haven’t read the book or the synopsis of the film on IMDB, The Giver is about a young boy named Jonas who lives in a society where people are content, happy, and free from war, hunger, and most disease. Their lives are lived according to the edicts of the Elders and each child advances to the next age with all of his or her peers, with exciting rites of passage such as receiving a bicycle or finally having pockets on trousers because they are responsible enough to keep track of belongings now.
The biggest way in which the Elders govern their charges is the selection of jobs for the members of the community. This takes place at the age of twelve, and each child is given a job to pursue for the rest of life, with no exceptions or returns. Jonas’ task? To be the next Receiver, a job that is mysterious and special. There is only ever one Receiver, apprenticed to the Giver.
The Giver himself is the retainer of all memory of life before the community Jonas has grown up knowing. This includes memories of nature’s beauty, of religion, of war, of pleasure, and of pain. These are the collected memories that are too dangerous or bothersome for the populace to be aware of, and so they remain with the Giver until it is time for him to pass on his memories to the Receiver.
As Jonas begins to receive these ancient memories, his world changes. The biggest change for Jonas in the book, and the one that caused the most uproar when the initial trailer was released, is that he begins to see color. Yes, Jonas’ world is one of monochrome, which has always been one of its more cinematic elements. Jonas also is given permission to stop taking his emotion-blocking pills. In this section, Lowry implicitly deals with the nature of emotions and sexual awakening in a world where emotions (particularly sexual ones) are repressed via daily pills. While this forms a small part of the book’s worldbuilding and plot, it’s so subtle that I didn’t even comprehend it fully until my most recent reading of the novel, which I commenced in honor of the release of the third companion/sequel book, Son. However, this is likely the main reason the book was challenged. I can even remember my mom being concerned when the book was first introduced at our elementary school.
The Giver stands out not only as a well-written book for adults both young and old, but as an introduction to and commentary on themes and ideas that are pervasive in literature, not just dystopias. It deals with the necessity of emotion and the value of life (as evinced by Jonas’ reaction to the suggestion that Gabe, an infant Jonas’ family is caring for, might be “Released,” or euthanized, because he isn’t growing at the standard rate required by the community). These are weighty issues, but The Giver doesn’t weigh itself down with them. Instead, it opens the reader to the discussion of these matters and questions how much should be done for the sake of “the greater good,” a theme Lowry continues in the first companion book to The Giver, Gathering Blue.
Gathering Blue follows a young girl named Kira in a community that is in many ways the opposite of the one seen in The Giver. Whereas the former book focused on a community with technological savvy and the advances and protections that come from that knowledge, the world of Gathering Blue is rural and somewhat feudalistic in nature. Despite the seeming contrast, the two are similar in their disregard for the less than perfect. Kira has a twisted leg, which by rights would make her life forfeit, but she was saved by others standing for her and defending her right to life. Like The Giver before it, Gathering Blue stands tall as a well-written dystopia that deals with weighty issues without overburdening the story. It is really about the characters and their hopes, desires, and failings.
The direct sequel to Gathering Blue, Messenger, suffers from a rushed ending, but the story is still solid. Following characters from Gathering Blue, it also reveals the fates of two characters from The Giver, which ends ambiguously enough. While shorter than its predecessor, Messenger still conveys a great deal about its world and characters and continues Lowry’s use of big themes focused in a small community. It is only Lowry’s pacing in the final chapters that makes that book suffer as it does. The fourth book in the loose quartet, Son, fills in some gaps in the timeline of The Giver from the perspective of a character who is, from Jonas’ perspective, absent or even non-existent, before moving on to a less-than-thrilling middle3 and a fun, loose-ends-tying finale that makes Son both the first and last book chronologically (as I described it to my friends, it’s a prequel/parallequel/sequel).
Overall, the four books of The Giver Quartet are fun, entertaining, and thought-provoking works that explore deep ideas.
The Giver film and spiritual themes
The film adaptation of The Giver releases to theaters next Friday, and I can’t help but view it as a slightly belated birthday gift from Jeff Bridges, as I’ve been waiting with gleeful anticipation for the last 10 years or so to see this film. It’s been in development a lot longer than that; so long, in fact, that Bridges has taken over the role of the titular Giver, a role he originally envisioned his late father portraying.
My anticipation for the film has only increased in recent weeks due to my discovery that Lowry has apparently praised the film not only for presenting her story on film without destroying it, but has actually improved on it in some respects. That’s high praise in my book, since most authors I’ve seen tend to view adaptations of their works as entirely separate at best or horrible manglings at worst.
Also of note is that Lowry specified that there should be “something from the world of Islam” in the many memories Jonas receives. This is surprising to me as a reader because of the role religion and spirituality play in the books.
In the first book, religion is largely a thing of the past. I don’t recall any specific mentions of it or its trappings, but all the memories Jonas receives in his time with the Giver, many of which are mentioned only briefly if at all, leave it open to the reader to assume that there are memories of religion and all of its facets included in Jonas’ training.
In Gathering Blue, the history of the community, especially its telling and preservation, take on an almost religious status. In Messenger and Son, there is little if any religion, but there is spirituality; a person named the Trademaster enters the scene of Village, the third utopia Lowry explores in the books and the most idyllic and ideal of them. Trademaster’s role in Messenger is that of the deal-maker, a bit like the devil and trickster figures we’re familiar with both in Christian belief and in world folklore. He trades with people the things they want for things they are willing to give up (and sometimes things they didn’t realize they would give up).
Mentor, the schoolteacher, trades his birthmarks and other physical defects in order to pursue the woman he is attracted to; the drawback is that he gives away much of the compassion and understanding that had made him a good person as well, because those traits were part of the character that grew from his deformities.
This situation speaks to the Christian’s understanding of how personal weaknesses and trials can be turned for good under God’s sovereignty, often in ways too subtle for us to realize; though it’s true that past sins and trials are integral to all humans and their characters, this illustration has always struck me as being driven by the knowledge of God’s utilizing our struggles to improve and equip us for ministry later in life. As Mentor was made compassionate because he once needed compassion, our struggles and past sins can become opportunities for ministry to others under God’s leadership.
Trademaster’s role is both expanded and narrowed in Son. He transforms from minor devil or trickster to a full-bodied representation of Evil (and to some extent, death) and he not only continues making trades with people that are too good to be true, he stands in the way of Claire and her titular son, taking diabolic glee in telling her where to find her son and removing all chance of their recognizing and reuniting with each other.
Despite the seeming lack of spiritual matter in these books, The Giver and its sequels offer a lot to someone coming from a Christian background or worldview. The novels all attest to the value of life, even of those who are too young, too old, or too imperfect to be considered valuable on a societal level from the materialist perspectives the communities hold in those novels.
The books also support the belief that people have purpose in life, even if it isn’t what everyone else thinks they should do (as with Jonas in The Giver) or what an individual person wants (as with Mattie in Messenger). While that purpose’s origin is never attributed to God, it is seen as transcendent to man; in Messenger, Leader offers each member of Village a Name based on what he understands about them, and this understanding is understood by the community to come from outside of Leader, not within his own mind. Mattie’s quest for the Name (and purpose) he wants reminds me of my own struggles with my purpose in this life and, like Mattie, I may just be surprised by the true result of that quest.
Trademaster’s role in the last two books delivers the most explicit spiritual content in the series due to his role as a n embodiment of jealousy and covetousness in Messenger and later as evil and death in Son. His presence in both books allows the characters to discover the power of sacrificial love that puts others and their welfare ahead of personal safety. In one case, the sacrifice is total as Christ’s was, and in the other, the sacrifice is two-fold in that two characters are each willing to die for the other, and their love is what saves them from evil and death.
Though the books are not explicitly Christian they do offer a platform from which to jumpstart discussion of ideas and themes that can be better understood from a Biblical perspective.
- I had to look up the exact dates. The Giver was published in 1993; Equilibrium was released in 2002. I always thought The Giver was older than that. ↩
- There are a number of similarities, most notably the emotion-blocking pills, but I think most of them stem from the now firmly established tropes of dystopian stories; there are also several influences from Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. ↩
- Seriously, skip the middle section of Son except for the last couple of pages. It doesn’t advance the plot much at all. ↩