Many people and organizations deserve credit for the unmistakable shift taking place in the decades-long battle over abortion, but a culture-shaping book should also be part of the conversation. Since 1995—when 56 percent of Americans described themselves as pro-choice, to today when pro-choice and pro-life viewpoints are statistically tied—public and private schools have widely assigned Lois Lowry’s The Giver (1993), a 192-page book depicting a supposedly utopian society with no disorder, hunger, or war, but plenty of infanticide, euthanasia, and totalitarian rule.
The Giver is now opening on the big screen as Walden Media’s latest family friendly production. The thought-provoking film comes complete with leading roles for Oscar-winners Jeff Bridges and Meryl Streep, and even a small part for Taylor Swift (she plays the piano but doesn’t sing).
The story (rated PG-13) is told through the eyes of a teen named Jonas (Brenton Thwaites), who grew up in a culture without race or religion, winners or losers—only “sameness.” Community elders choose him to be the society’s lone keeper of memories, a great honor, but he quickly observes the cost of neutralizing pain and conflict. After watching his father cheerfully administer a lethal injection to an imperfect baby, Jonas realizes, “They hadn’t eliminated murder—they had brought it home. They had just called it by a different name.”
The film is only 94 minutes, but the profound subject matter, including life, liberty, and self-sacrifice, will stick with viewers far longer. Chip Flaherty, co-founder of Walden Media, told me that was one of the goals: “It really gives families the opportunity for really deep discussions. It’s what C.S. Lewis did with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.”
With Lowry’s help, Flaherty said, the production team remained mostly faithful to the book, which has sold 11 million copies, because extraneous information would have only distracted from the powerful plot line. He said it took a long time to find a studio interested in the project, but the rights to The Giver were the first Walden Media (producers of The Chronicles of Narnia series) sought when the company launched 14 years ago: “It was being taught in schools, and we knew kids were reading it.”
Ironically for a book about choices being removed from society, people have repeatedly sought to ban the novel from various schools, challenging everything from sexually explicit material (none appears in the movie) to descriptions of lethal injections. Yet Lowry’s dystopian depiction, not unlike The Hunger Games, is a skillful, believable presentation of where society’s trajectory could take us. If we can kill unborn babies in the name of “women’s health,” is it a stretch to envision a future society summarily executing its elderly—using a sterile title like “release to elsewhere”—in the name of the common good?
Today’s hypersensitivity to political correctness makes it easy to imagine an overtly positive spin on grisly policies. Early in the movie, when a family discusses an acquaintance who the elders decided should be “sent to elsewhere,” Jonas’ younger sister exclaims, “I want to be released to elsewhere”—unknowingly using the euphemism for death.
At its heart, the movie is a glimpse of life without love. It’s not that love is outlawed; members of the community simply have no frame of reference for what it is. Everyone’s actions are polite but selfish. “If you sum up the gospel, it’s love,” Flaherty said, and like Jesus, Jonas acts in self-sacrifice to save his society.
The Giver is sure to provoke spirited debate and controversy among many who watch it, not because the film makes a political statement as much as it provides an uncomfortable reflection. Killing innocent life, using drugs to suppress emotions, and demanding societal conformity are realities affecting us all—and those with the resolve to push back are becoming an increasingly rare breed.
Listen to WORLD reviewer Emily Whitten discuss The Giver on The World and Everything in It: