The Giver: Measuring Across Mediums

With The Giver adaptation now on DVD, it's a great time to revisit the classic story and compare it across two different mediums.

By Elijah Ammen


Camera and book

For better or for worse, all of our favorite books as children are being given the movie treatment. This can be a positive experience for many, but a harrowing and childhood-destroying experience for others.

As for myself, I often undergo a Gollum/Sméagol-style conversation whenever one of the books I love is adapted into a movie:

"This is great! A movie of such a great book!"
"No! They'll ruin it!"
"But now more people can appreciate it!"
"If they really wanted to appreciate it, they would have read the book!"

Fellow book lovers can understand my dilemma. Few movie adaptations can live up to the power of the book. The limitless expanses of your imagination can rarely be contained in a two-hour visual experience. Even the better adaptations like The Lord of the Rings can't encompass all the material. (Tom Bombadil! The Razing of the Shire! Glorfindel!)

All this is to say that The Giver is a remarkably good adaptation with a stand-out performance from Jeff Bridges who has been trying to make this adaptation for many years. While any adaptation lends itself to nitpicking, the overall themes of the book translate well onto the screen, and the changes seem specifically calculated because of the visual nature of the film. This can help prompt discussion within your class and lead to an analysis of books and movies as two mediums that communicate in very different ways.

As a courtesy, I'll tell you that the rest of this article contains major SPOILERS for both the book and the movie. Though, honestly, if you haven't read The Giver yet, you should drop everything and read it right now.

Similarities and Differences

Many movie reviews, such as these articles from Collider and the Huffington Post, highlight the difference between the book and movie.

There are innumerable minor alterations or elaborations in the movie, but one of the chief differences is the increase in age for the characters. The book has characters just entering adolescence and undergoing confusing physical changes; however, the movie updates the ages to teenagers just entering adult responsibilities.

Another significant change is the addition of a distinct antagonist to clarify the conflict. Whereas the book had a vague, ominous government, the movie puts a face to that Big Brother persona in the form of Meryl Streep as the Chief Elder. She embodies the new culture and provides a specific villain for Jonas to rebel against.

Finally, the movie alters the third act, turning it into an elaborate chase scene where Jonas attempts to reach the boundary of the society in order to reverse everyone's memory loss, while simultaneously adding a romantic subplot that hardly existed at all in the book.

Those are the primary plot and character changes. The tone is also slightly altered; the movie skews to more futuristic science-fiction style technology. This gives the film a more modern tone than the book, which seems almost rustic in comparison. 

Analyzing the Changes

Once you have identified the similarities and differences, it's important to identify why. There are different articles that can do this for you, such as this explanation of 10 major differences between the movie and the book, or author Lois Lowry herself on the changes.

But it's better to have your class members reach these conclusions themselves. For instance, the first major change (updating the characters' ages) is a great discussion point. Your class can brainstorm reasons—perhaps it's easier to work with older actors, or they wanted the characters to be the same age as their audience. Perhaps they felt like the action sequences and romantic subplot required characters with more maturity. The important part of this discussion is not being right or wrong—it's getting your class to think critically and empathetically by putting themselves in the place of the director and attempting to figure out his thought process. 

For the other plot changes, there are a host of reasons for the sci-fi settings and action-packed chase scenes—primarily that movies are a visual medium and need to have visually compelling images. While I am perfectly content to watch a two-hour movie of Jeff Bridges talking, the movie needed a visible antagonist and more action in order to be communicated visually, and not only through dialogue. 

Many of the choices in the film are for aesthetics, and worth discussing (for instance, the choice to film the beginning of the movie in black and white, or the vivid colors in the video clips of memories). Try to step back and ask open-ended questions that allow your critical thinkers to analyze these choices. Instead of asking, "Why do you think they shot part of the movie in black and white?" try, "What did you notice about the choice of colors in the film?"

Launching Discussions on Social Issues

With any remaining time, use the story as a prompt to discuss social issues of euthanasia, governmental control, and artistic expression. Use an activity like mapping the community to discuss the job assignments in their society and whether or not that would be a beneficial thing for a young person.
Have teams create their own "perfect society" with rules to protect that society, and have the audience comment on the feasibility of the proposed rules.
Teach a lesson where you discuss the value of memories and whether or not it would be worthwhile to exchange memories for a peaceful community. 
Finally, have your readers explain how they connected to the characters. Even decades after reading The Giver, I know why I loved the story so much—in my heart, I felt like Jonas. I felt the confusion, the internal conflict, and the turmoil over growing up and making difficult decisions. At its core, that's what all great fiction does, and it's where The Giver succeeds, so allow your class the opportunity to share this amazing story to which everyone can relate.

Lesson Planet Resources:

Giver Lesson, Mapping the Community, Giver Plot, Perfect SocietiesCharacter Connections