So. After a week’s hiatus due to a bout of the flu, I’m back (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 I picked up some digital downloads for entertainment as well. One of the films on my list is The Giver (2014) with Jeff Bridges, and I’ve been excited to watch it, but it was also one of the few I couldn’t bring myself to start. 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), but which has little in common with The Giver in my mind.
I’m a huge fan of Lois Lowry’s 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).
Until a few months ago I was unaware that there are actually three ‘sequels’ to The Giver, though in my defence the last is very recent), and so I decided to pick up a nice hardcover edition containing all four books. On re-reading The Giver, I was surprised at how well it holds up so many years (and literature courses) down the line. 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 it will leave out what I love most about the story in favour of the usual, more marketable conventions.
For the sake of the blog post format, what I love about The Giver boils down to five things (spoilers ahead).
1. It really feels like a utopia
I should admit that I like my dystopian futures to be more Octavia Butler (Lillith’s Brood) than George Orwell (1984). For me the really mind-blowing dystopias are the ones that start off as almost-believable utopias. 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 in their dealings with each other. Even when we learn that unconforming citizens are ‘released’ or euthanised, it still genuinely seems like this is within the realms of consent—like it’s a place where people feel they are doing the best they can to ensure everyone lives well. It is only after many years that the Giver himself, whose name we never learn, comes to the conclusion that the sacrifices the community has made to achieve this harmony may not have been worth it.
2. It’s full of subtle 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 it manages to be poignant nevertheless. I still got a little emotional during this passage, even though I knew it was coming on the re-reading:
‘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.’
As the Receiver, Jonas’ discovery of colour, of deep emotion, and of the pre-apocalyptic world’s memory, is joyful and electric. He 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 are unable to understand. The thing that brings Jonas so much joy is also what isolates him from his community.
3. There’s no romance subplot
Jonas has dreams about Fiona (his parents call it ‘stirrings’), but that’s the beginning and the end of it. The love triangles that regularly pop up in today’s YA dystopias are absent. I am definitely not against a good romance, and the lack of one is partly the result of the emotionless community in which Jonas lives, but I found there were plenty of deep, nonromantic relationships to invest in. Which brings me swiftly to the next point.
4. It’s 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 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 the infant 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 too many painful memories. 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 unexpectedly and ambiguously. 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 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). The Giver leaves you with unanswered questions, which you will definitely spend the next couple of days unravelling in your mind. It stops the story 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 know what happens to Jonas and Gabriel, the sequels Messenger (2004) and Son (2012) answer a few things.
If you’ve never read The Giver, or if it’s been a while, I can definitely recommend picking it up. 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! 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.