My Return to “The Giver”

the giver novel coverLast week, I wrote about my reaction to “The Giver” movie’s first trailer. While I have my doubts that the movie will capture the understated power of Lois Lowry’s book, I knew I needed to put some distance between it and my emotional ties to it if I ever wanted to appreciate the movie. To do that, I reread it last weekend.

Like a lot of kids, I originally read “The Giver” as part of my sixth-grade curriculum. It was unlike anything I’d ever read before. It disturbed me. It haunted me. I loved it.At the end of the school year, each kid was allowed to keep a copy of one of the books we’d read. You can guess which one I chose.

My teacher recognized how much the book affected me and suggested reading “1984” and “Brave New World”. That led to the Great Dystopian Novel Phase of 1997-2000. Looking back, I think my interest in such sad, cynical stories had something to do with its timing. Those years were particularly turbulent for me and I could relate to the themes of feeling strange and detached. My treatment for depression sometimes felt like scenes from those novels. I think that’s why similarly themed novels are so popular with teenagers now. It’s easy to identify with their characters when you’re overwhelmed with feelings and don’t yet understand that your lack of control over your life is not due to some malicious conspiracy.

Time and Timelessness

The copy of “The Giver” I reread is the same one I’ve kept for 18 years (or 17, depending on when in the school year I read it). My name is written on the inside cover in a softer, more childlike style than I have today. There’s a little flourish at the bottom that must have looked quite elegant back then. It’s in decent shape for a mass-market paperback thanks to the thick tape over the spine.

The story holds up even better. Lowry doesn’t say how far in the future it takes place, which keeps the novel from dating itself like, well, “1984”. In addition, “The Giver” doesn’t focus on technology and the community described in it enforces language precision, which eliminates the opportunity for slang. These measures also give it plausibility. (For example, we’re not expected to believe that kids will still wear jeans and use early 21st century slang after the number of years it would take for a refined city-state to emerge from a post-apocalyptic landscape. But I diverge. I mean digress.)

Other Second Impressions

***Spoilers Ahead***

  • “The Giver” is a short book. No feature-length movie adaptation could be 100% faithful to it because there simply isn’t enough material to fill much more than an hour. About 2/3 of the book is dedicated to establishing the community and Jonas’s role in it. Specifically, there’s a lot of expository dialogue. In writing, this is generally looked down upon, but it’s necessary to the book’s audience and structure. The movie would probably have less of it since it takes much less time to visually convey the same information that would take pages to describe.
  • On a related note, “The Giver”‘s dedication to setting and character building makes it a slow burn of a novel. The plot is almost mundane until things really start to go wrong in the later chapters. There is foreshadowing, but it’s subtle enough that the disturbing bits still are still very effective.
  • I’d totally forgotten about the scene involving Jonas’s dad and the twins until the story started building toward it. I thought I remembered just about everything else, including Rosemary’s fate, so I don’t know how that scene escaped me. Maybe I blocked it out.
  • I felt bad for Asher. I remembered him simply as Jonas’s fun-loving friend, but based on the descriptions of his difficulty with vocabulary and coordination, he seems to have some kind of mild disorder too. I wonder what exactly Lowry had in mind when she created the character.
  • It’s a lot more obvious now what “release” means. Even if I had no prior knowledge of the book, I think it would have been easy to guess.
  • I didn’t remember that Fiona learns to “release” the Old as part of her training. This unsettling plot point was told in a sentence and never mentioned again. Jonas doesn’t dwell on it, so it could have been easy to miss, but my underdeveloped mind probably didn’t get the gravity of it either.
  • The biggest surprise was that despite my earlier claim that Jonas doesn’t challenge the community, he does work with the Giver to subvert it. Jonas’s escape isn’t just for Gabriel’s and his own good, which is what I’d originally perceived. It’s also for the good of the community. They all would suffer from Jonas’s absence because his received memories would be returned to them. They would be exposed to all the things the Elders had been trying so hard to suppress. If the people were devastated by the return of Rosemary’s five weeks worth of memories, then Jonas’s year’s worth would cause enough psychological damage to permanently change their society. I think I missed this part of the ending because it’s not very explicit and the story ends before the full effect would take place, but again, my critical thinking skills weren’t then what they are now.

In the End

All in all, my return to “The Giver” was about what I expected. It was fun to revisit all the familiar parts, but I was glad to find undiscovered parts of the story as well. It’s clear to me now that so much of the novel depends on Jonas being 12. (Sadly, that will not be the case in the movie version.) So much of my initial reactions to the novel depended on my being 11 or 12 too. However, I think “The Giver” would still move me even if I’d only read it as an adult. I was worried that I’d built up the book in my mind so much over the years that it would disappoint me upon my second reading. It didn’t. That doesn’t mean I won’t give the movie a chance, but it will never replicate the resonance of that quiet little book.

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