The Giver — Christian Movie Review

Writer Kevin Ott At Rocking Gods House

According to IMDB’s summary,The Giver tells the story of “a seemingly perfect community without war, pain, suffering, differences or choice, where a young boy is chosen to learn from an elderly man about the true pain and pleasure of the ‘real’ world.”

The day has finally come. The beloved book The Giver by Lois Lowry has finally reached the big screen.

I say finally because the film’s producer (and lead actor) Jeff Bridges has had the film in development since 2007, if not earlier, according to a 2007 interview with Lois Lowry. Critics are not being kind to the movie adaptation thus far, but I disagree with them. I absolutely loved it. Yes, they rush through the exposition — sort of hurriedly introducing the dystopian world before beginning the plot — but frankly I liked that brevity. Granted, I’ve been a fan of the book for years and I’m familiar with it, but I doubt that newcomers to the story will have a problem with the film’s punchy introduction.

And, in answer to the question, “Will Christians like this movie?” the answer is a resounding yes — although we must be careful not to misunderstand the author’s original intent with the book and assume it is an explicitly Christian book or movie.

Before we get into all of that, let’s look at the content in this PG-13 film that might require parental guidance.

Parental Guidance Issues at a Glance

Sexual Content/Nudity: None. The closest it gets is innocent kissing and embracing between a young couple.

Violence/Gore: As poachers shoot an elephant, we see the bullet strike the animal in the head, and we see it fall and die. It’s not gory, but it is so realistic that I strongly suspect that they used actual footage — perhaps found in some historical archive — of an elephant being shot and killed. It’s incredibly saddening to watch. There are scenes of war, and we see a soldier standing over a body firing his machine gun into somebody, even after they’re clearly dead. A woman in a tree — a female soldier — is gunned down mercilessly. Another soldier is shot in the chest, and we see a small red spot. None of these war scenes is gory — just disturbing and frightening. A teenage boy gets punched in the face. A teenage boy holding a baby falls into a river. The boy and the baby have cuts on their face, and later they are weary and in pain as they travel in terrible weather conditions. A different baby is killed using an injection at the top of its skull, and, although not gory, it is very realistic and upsetting. These scenes are what push the film into the PG-13 zone.

Language: None.

Alcohol/Drug/Smoking Content: None, at least not in a recreational sense. The citizens of the Community receive morning injections with medication each morning — that’s as close as it gets.

Frightening/Intense/Emotionally Heavy Content: Besides the scenes of violence above, we see brief images of sick people with tubes in their nose as if in a hospital. We see a fast montage of various scenes of suffering: children crying, a tornado spinning into a house, people fighting.

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“I think, on one level, the book can be read supporting conservative ideals—it challenges the tendencies in any society to allow an invasive government to legislate lives.” –Lois Lowry, author of The Giver

Entertainment Value and Film Craft

The Giver 2014 Movie At Rocking Gods HouseThe film stars Hollywood heavyweights Jeff Bridges and Meryl Streep, and any scene with them is riveting to watch simply because of their acting. Movie fans will also recognize Katie Holmes in one of the supporting roles, and she does an excellent job as well. The teenage actors all held their own with their roles considering that they had to convey a very nuanced emotional journey in the second and third acts — though I wish some of their scenes had been directed differently; the chumminess between the three teenagers in the beginning didn’t feel entirely authentic. It felt a little wooden in the beginning, probably because I was still getting used to the “emotionless” society. But as the plot got going that problem in the ensemble acting mostly went away.

But overall, I thought the film wonderfully captured the atmosphere of the story that Lois Lowry created. The memories of the giver produced all the emotions I experienced while reading the book: wide-eyed wonder, overwhelming nostalgia, horror, stabs of joy, longing, bittersweetness, and the vague, diffuse ache and magic of life that rests over everything in this world, even when evil is present. The visual effects and the way the film began in black and white in a colorless society — just like the book — were all done exactly how I would want them to be. Everything looked the way I had imagined it (or better) when I read the book years ago. I don’t think the script will nab a Best Picture at the next Oscars, but it was deserving of a much higher rating on Rotten Tomatoes. This is definitely a situation where I beg people to ignore the Ivory Tower critics. Go and see this powerful, thought-provoking film.

The Political and Religious Debates about “The Giver”

It’s interesting, a fair amount of Christians and conservatives have claimed The Giver to be a champion of their worldviews. On a certain level, Lois Lowry has agreed with them, though — as she told the School Library Journal in 2007 — she never intended to write a book with overt theological overtones or political messaging. She was not setting out to make some kind of symbolic statement with it. The plot was born from an experience she had while visiting her elderly parents in a nursing home. In fact, she did not foresee that people would use her book to discuss religious or political topics. She has acknowledged, however, that the book does tend to support politically conservative views, as she confirmed in her 2007 SLJ interview when asked about her use of Old Testament names for her characters:

I wasn’t conscious of adding any theological symbolism. If I had begun to think in literally Christian terms, I would have backed off of the project because I have no interest in writing “religious” books. Still, clearly, the theology is there, inherent in the story. Many Christian churches have taken The Giver up as part of their religion curriculum, and many Jewish people give it as a bar mitzvah gift.

At the same time, some fundamentalist leaders want it removed from everyone’s hands. I am still, I must be honest, mystified by the challenges from the very conservative churches. I think, on one level, the book can be read supporting conservative ideals—it challenges the tendencies in any society to allow an invasive government to legislate lives.

The book and movie could be interpreted as some to be offering a scathing criticism of any government-induced “culture of death” that sees babies and the elderly as dispensable and deserving of “liquidation” if they’re inconvenient to society in any way. In the film, when Jonas realizes that his community is murdering babies who don’t fit certain genetic and developmental requirements, he summarizes the whole thing in one line: “They hadn’t eliminated murder, they just brought it home and called it by a different name.”

In addition, the film (and book) could possibly be interpreted (though I’m sure liberals would strongly disagree) as a criticism of liberalism’s obsession with “sameness” — i.e. allegedly removing all differences in order to make everyone equal. A conservative philosopher and geopolitical expert, Dr. Jack Wheeler, categorizes liberalism as a psychopathology that, at its foundation, is obsessed with envy and the fear of being envied. I could see conservatives with that viewpoint using The Giver, whether or not the author or filmmakers intended it, as an illustration of their beliefs; but again, Lowry did not intentionally set out to write a conservative manifesto, and I’m certain the filmmakers, which included liberals, did not set out to make an advertisement for conservatism.

We should also not come to the conclusion that The Giver is somehow a Christian book. The author states clearly that she did not intend it to be that way, and the film certainly steers clear of any overt Christian messaging. The film never offers any special recognition of any one religion, and it could easily please the pro-life secular humanist as much as it pleases a pro-life conservative Christian.

Why “The Giver” (Unintentionally) Provides a Lesson in Defending the Christian Faith

The movie — whether intentionally or not, I don’t know — does zoom in on a powerful Biblical theme: the absolute necessity of free will. The movie views free will in similar ways as Christianity* [see comments below]: the free will of humanity is so valuable that it is worth having all of the destruction and misery that comes with it. This is one of the core principles in the Christian’s answer to the common question, “If God is both good and all-powerful, as the Bible claims He is, why is there suffering in the world?” This film (unintentionally) answers that question in a similar way that a Christian theologian would: God could only remove all suffering in humanity by removing all of its free will, but He chooses not to exert His power and forcibly end all suffering and evil because free will has inestimable worth. Without free will, the concept of love would cease to exist.

—————

*A reader on IMDB.com had the following objection to my review:

And the specifically Christian perspective below. Honestly, as a liberal, I find this utterly baffling, the idea that religious and conservative people have a particular monopoly on concepts like free will and independent thought. How ridiculous! Since when?

http://rockingodshouse.com/the-giver-christian-movie-review/#.U-592VIg 9y0
The movie — whether intentionally or not, I don’t know — does zoom in on a powerful Biblical theme: the absolute necessity of free will. The movie views free will the same way that the God of the Bible does: the free will of humanity is so valuable that it is worth having all of the destruction and misery that comes with it. This is one of the core principles in the Christian’s answer to the common question, “If God is both good and all-powerful, as the Bible claims He is, why is there suffering in the world?” This film answers that question in a similar way that a Christian theologian would: God could only remove all suffering in humanity by removing all of its free will, but He chooses not to exert His power and forcibly end all suffering and evil because free will has inestimable worth. Without free will, the concept of love would cease to exist.”

I wrote the following in response, which led to a revision in my review at the asterisk:

As the writer of the review you’ve quoted and criticized, I’d like to clarify something. I was certainly not trying to claim that conservative Christians have a monopoly on concepts like free will. In fact, earlier in my review, I mention that a secular humanist would be just as pleased with the film as a Christian, and I go to pains to point out that, as a whole, this movie does not take sides with any specific religion:

“This does not mean, however, that The Giver is somehow a ‘Christian’ book. The author states clearly that she did not intend it to be that way, and the film certainly steers clear of any overt Christian messaging.
I was merely trying to say that The Giver shares similarities to what Christians believe about free will. Maybe I should change my sentence in my review to ‘The movie views free will in similar ways as Christianity’ instead of making a flat equivalence by writing ‘the same way.’ I will likely make this correction and notify readers of it.”

I was not trying to claim that Christianity is somehow the only belief system that recognizes the concept of free will; I was only pointing out that the film bears some resemblances to Christianity’s view of free will.

As far as whether the film is somehow exclusively conservative in its content, I would also disagree with that. The book and movie are generalized enough that there’s room for both sides of the political aisle to read their view points into the story if they really try hard enough. What matters is the author’s intent. As I stated in my review, the author did not set out to write some conservative manifesto, and any conservative who claims that Lois Lowry did so is mistaken. However, all of that being said, Lowry did make the following statement in a 2007 interview with School Library Journal (that I also mentioned in my review):

“I wasn’t conscious of adding any theological symbolism. If I had begun to think in literally Christian terms, I would have backed off of the project because I have no interest in writing “religious” books. Still, clearly, the theology is there, inherent in the story. Many Christian churches have taken The Giver up as part of their religion curriculum, and many Jewish people give it as a bar mitzvah gift.

“At the same time, some fundamentalist leaders want it removed from everyone’s hands. I am still, I must be honest, mystified by the challenges from the very conservative churches. I think, on one level, the book can be read supporting conservative ideals—it challenges the tendencies in any society to allow an invasive government to legislate lives.
The full interview is at: http://www.slj.com/2007/06/authors-illustrators/interview-with-lois-lo wry-margaret-a-edwards-award-winner/#_

I interpret her statement as meaning that, although she didn’t set out to write something conservative, she can see how the book might reflect certain conservative ideals and she didn’t necessarily discourage that — though, again, I do not believe that Lowry set out to do that. Clearly liberals find something wonderful about the book too otherwise it wouldn’t have been so widely embraced across the whole gamut of American society. I think the same applies to the film.

In my review I was only trying to answer the question, “Will Christians like this movie?” because I write for a website with primarily a Christian audience. So I was focusing on themes that supported my conclusion that, “Yes, Christians will like this movie because…” That’s the only reason I pointed out the similarities between the film and a Christian’s beliefs about free will.