Actor Jeff Bridges, Director Phillip Noyce Bring Lois Lowry’s Novel “The Giver” To Screens
by Brad Balfour
That it took two decades for the social science fiction book The Giver to be made into an effects-enhanced film well after The Hunger Games, Divergent, and other dystopian teen tales could be viewed either a blessing or curse.
Based on veteran author Lois Lowry’s 1993 young adult novel, the cinematic rendition is directed by Phillip Noyce and stars Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep, Brenton Thwaites, Alexander Skarsgård, Odeya Rush, Cameron Monaghan, Katie Holmes and Taylor Swift.
Set in a society that at first appears utopian, but is revealed to be a totalitarian dystopia, The Giver follows 18-year-old Jonas (Thwaites), who is about to be placed in his future job by the community’s elders. This future society has eliminated pain and strife by imposing “sameness” on everyone through a regimen of drugs, euthanasia and social engineering, along with the eradication of emotions and artistic expression.
Only one person is allowed to retain a full sense of humanity — the Receiver of Memory, a person who has all the past memories of humankind stored in him before the Sameness, in case these experiences are needed. But by gaining this knowledge, Jonas learns the truth about his society and struggles with its fundamental flaws. To acquire this knowledge, he trains with an old man called The Giver (Bridges). From the Giver, Jonas learns about pain, sadness, war, and other unhappy truths of the world and humanity. He quickly realizes that his community’s peaceful state is a fragile artifice, one that is seriously flawed.
This was the book that sort of set the recent young adult publishing trend in motion, having sold millions of copies after it was published in 1993, so one could say all the others owe it a debt. Yet to a less knowledgeable public, this film may seem to be mining already too-familiar territory, and thus has models to follow, or may seem to be just another one in a sub-genre.
The following Q&A is culled from a press conference that included main cast members Bridges, Streep, Thwaites, Rush, Holmes as well as Swift, Cameron Monaghan and Emma Tremblay. Director Noyce, author Lowry, producer Nikki Silver and screenwriters Michael Mitnick and Robert B. Weide were also on hand.
This begins with you Lois. This book came out 20 years ago. When did you think a film might be on the horizon, and was it welcomed?
Lois Lowry: It was 20 years ago, but two years after that, producer Nikki Silver and Jeff came to me. They didn’t come to me personally, [but] their people suggested that we turn it into a movie, as if it would be easy at the time. But maybe good things never come easy — it was a very long haul.
Finally the movie’s on the screen 18 years after that day. Most of the people who are here with us today would not have been a part of it 18 years ago, so good things come to those who wait.
Jeff, you act as producer, and your association goes way back. Why does this resonate with you on a personal level?
Jeff Bridges: It goes back 18 years. I wanted to direct my father in something, and wanted it to be something that my kids could see. They were all young, now they’re all in their 30s. I got a catalogue of children’s books, and was looking at the different covers… I see this photograph of an old, grizzled guy and I thought my dad could play that part. I noticed the Newberry Award stamp on there. I said, “Oh, this might be good!”
I read it, and it knocks me out. It’s a kids’ book, but as an adult I love the story and the themes in it. I’m very excited about it, and I bring it in to tell my wife about it. Then my kids told me, “Oh, we know that book. We’re taught that book in school.” My excitement grew, and then I found out it’s also on the list of banned books, and I then get more excited. It’s a little dangerous.
I said, “Oh, this is going be a cinch to get made. Over 10 million copies in 21 countries, the money guys are going to go crazy over this.” That did not prove to be true. The controversy of it being one of the banned books, and selling so many copies, being popular in school – it freaked them out.
When we finally got the script together, it was very challenging to put this world that Lois had created in the book up on the screen, because so much of it was in the dialogue that this guy, Jonas, was having with himself.
Bob Weide was our first writer. We spent a week or so up at my place, jammin’ on the story. It was challenging, but we dug it. We took it around and the financiers were too shocked, so it took this long.
I’m really so pleased it did take this long though, because this is the right team. We got the right director. Casting is everything — not only the actors, but the crew and certainly our director and our director of photography, Ross Emery. Our director Phillip Noyce was like the key to the cast that we scored. If it was made earlier, Odeya wasn’t born. We would not have had Odeya with us and the whole team wouldn’t have been there. So I’m glad the gestation period was that long. Here we are.
Lois Lowry: I’m just glad it didn’t take any longer, because I’m 77 years old!
Bob wrote the original screenplay way back when. What were the challenges at that point?
Bob Weide: People have asked me if I felt the pressure of how loved the book is, and all those readers it has. Of course at the time I wrote my drafts, the book was only a couple years old and didn’t have a following. But I loved the book.
A book is not a movie; changes had to be made and things had to be added and revised. But all that was done with the notion of being true to the spirit of the book.
Lois and I were in touch during that time, we had phone calls and I would run things by her, and she’s very non-territorial and not precious about her words. I’d suggest what we needed to change and she said it all sound[ed] good. As Jeff said, a lot of the book is sort of internalized [with] Jonas’s thoughts and reactions to what’s going on. How do you put it up on the screen?
The other big challenge, without giving anything away, is in the book. Once Jonas flees the community, the book stays with him on his journey, and then goes back to the community to see how his exodus has affected the people in the community. That basically meant creating storylines.
It all felt quite organic. Years later it was honed and perfected by Michael Mitnick. One thing about our two scripts, our drafts, is that they are seventeen years apart. Michael and I hadn’t met until last week.
When I read Michael’s finished script, it really felt like a true collaboration, as though we had sat down side-by-side and wrote it out together. I read his changes and I felt it was very challenging, but we took a shot at it.
By the way, I suggested everybody should collaborate. That’s the way to do it, because [there’s] no arguing, no firing.
Michael, what were some of the things you brought to the table as a writer of the drafts?
Michael Mitnick: I first encountered the book in fifth grade and the book stayed with me. What I tried to do was be invisible and hopefully be a successful extension of Lois’s voice. There are added beats into the movie, things that are extrapolations of waves that run throughout the book. But what I tried my best to do, and I know everyone did, was to both honor the book and try to make a good movie.
Nikki Silver: Michael always undersells things. Michael came in with a really big vision, to make this a movie for all audiences. Jeff talked about how we started out with this vision of just the book, and Michael really took it and created the film that we see today. Being able to take the spirit of Lois’s book, bring it all together and create a thoughtful summer blockbuster is incredible.
Was there any discussion of changing the black and white visual style that shows the sameness of the society?
Phillip Noyce: No. We just wanted Jonas’s and everyone’s limited perception, and Jonas’s gathering perception of color, and structured the color scheme of the film around that. You don’t have to see black and white when you’re reading Lois’s book, but you can imagine you’re watching the events in color. But we had to make some pretty hard decisions and we laid out the film from first frame to last and then shot it that way.
Meryl, this is a different part from what you’ve done before. What hit you when the script came in?
Meryl Streep: I like to be the boss, so (laughs) that was a good thing. I always wanted to work with [Jeff Bridges] my entire career, but I never got the chance somehow. So that was a big, big part of it.
Also, I’m a big admirer of Phillip’s films, He’s pure filmmaker with great taste to bring this to life — especially the colorless parts of it, it would take a great artist. It’s really magical.
Jeff Bridges: Did your kids read the book?
Meryl Streep: Mine did, yeah. They had a list of required reading over the summer and it’s always [a pain] to get them to do it. But that one was put in front of the two younger ones and they devoured it.
Meryl, when an actor makes a movie, it’s all about the emotions and it’s all about that intensity of emotions. Here, your character is deprived of them. So how do you still build and deliver with that constriction?
Meryl Streep: It’s interesting to play people who have suppressed emotion, but I felt that the chief elder didn’t take her medication as well on certain days. Do you know what I mean? (laughs) Because clearly, she had some deep history with the Giver, the Receiver of Wisdom, right? That was something that intrigued me about this script.
That’s sort of the point of the book. You can’t keep things in, you can’t suppress the things that make us human. It’s pointless to try.
Katie, what’s the challenge of portraying a full-bodied character that is muted and not able to express herself in the ways that all of us express ourselves day-to-day?
Katie Holmes: It was challenging. Phillip was reminding us not to touch each other, which I find to be something you just do naturally as a mother and as a human being. That was one of the things.
I just approached it as a mother whose child is leaving the nest. That’s what kind of made the character real to me. It was interesting to play someone who has no emotion.
Taylor, this is a step for you with offers coming your way. What were you looking for in a script?
Taylor Swift: It was an unbelievable concept that I would get to do this dream scenario where I have a very small role that has a pivotal part in the story. But it isn’t jumping into too deep water your first time in a serious, dramatic movie. And I get the opportunity to work with Jeff.
It was all those things put together: that it was a story that stuck with me from my childhood, by an author I really respect, and that it celebrates all the things that I hold dear, like our history, our music, our art, intellect and memories. That really had a great deal to do with why I wanted to be a part of this.
I’m seeing so many fans write me on Instagram and Twitter and letters, saying that they’re having such a tough time with life because they can’t imagine that we can experience such great pain, intense loss, and insecurity.
I wish I could tell them over and over again that we live for these fleeting moments of happiness. Happiness is not a constant, it’s something that we only experience a glimpse of every once in a while, but it’s worth it. That’s what they’ll take away from this movie.
At the last minute of the film, the lead character finds religion, specifically Christianity. Is that sort of the message of the film? That’s the last image audiences will see when they hear the Christmas music.
Phillip Noyce: Do you think he finds Christianity exclusively?
The last song we hear is a Christmas carol…
Phillip Noyce: But Christmas is not only celebrated by Christians, and Christmas carols are not only sung at that time of year by Christians. I don’t think it was anyone’s intention that he could be discovering Christianity, but rather that he should be discovering home, a concept of home.
In the book, there’s a memory where he experiences Christmas and celebration. I don’t think that he’s become a Christian. That’s certainly not the intention of the movie.
Lois Lowry: I’ve discovered over the years that many people have given the book as a Bar Mitzvah gift (laughs). They see it as a rite of passage, the boy taking on the responsibility of manhood. Of course, in the book he’s 12. In the movie, he’s older so it wouldn’t be a Bar Mitzvah. But certainly I never intended it to be a Christian allegory, though some people read it that way.
It took so long to bring out this movie, but technically and visually, the movie’s beautiful. Visually, technically, the special effects — how did you all work this out?
Phillip Noyce: That’s a long story. Lois had conceived a certain type of community, which was based on her experiences growing up in military bases all around the world. One of the places that she lived in was in Tokyo just after the second World War, where she, like Jonas, would leave the walls of the base and venture out into the madness.
Another story she told us was about growing up on Governor’s Island, surrounded by water. When you read the novel, you can see those two influences.
I went for holiday in Cape Town, South Africa, and took a shot of my son on top of Table Mountain. When I was coming home in the plane, I looked at it, and I looked into his eyes as he looked out into those clouds, and I thought, wow, that could be Jonas dreaming about going to the benevolent version of Elsewhere.
That became one of the ideas that we explored, which combined two of Lois’s ideas or experiences to produce this community, one of several communities on top of a mesa, another is surrounded by a cloud bank that was a barrier to the outside.
Going to shoot the film in South Africa was a big decision because it meant that the quality of light, the vegetation and everything were just a little different from most of the rest of the world. So the world looks a little different. It looks a little familiar, but there’s something weird about it.
The color schemes were inspired by Lois’s wonderfully visual writing, and Ed Verreaux was our production designer. We sort of had a bake-off as to how those houses would look, starting with the military style, houses of the 1950s that Lois had imagined, and going right through to mid-21st century housing, egalitarian housing as it might be built.
We ended up with about 12 different designs, passed them around [to everyone], including to our writer. She chose the same one as the rest of us, and that ended up being the architectural style.
A lot of it, of course, is CG. A lot of the buildings are not built when we actually filmed, but were built much later, designed by Ed Verreaux, and then built by our CG team. All in the name of sameness, and creating a supposedly egalitarian world, free of conflict. So design came from Lois’s ideas, both written and ideas that she shared with us.
I could go on and on about the look of the film.
Since you’ve all worked on this project so long, how has the film evolved over time or did it stay pretty true to your original vision?
Jeff Bridges: I came to a crossroads on my adventure with this movie. I was going to direct my father, Lloyd, in the movie. I had spent 18 years going through many, many versions of the script, working with many directors, trying to realize the vision that I had. Generally, my vision was very close with the book. The book moved me in a profound way, and I really wanted to do the book justice.
When Harvey Weinstein and Walden Media said, “We’ll make this movie, but here’s how we want to make it,” I said, “That’s different than I imagined it.” I thought about that, and I figured I got a decision here to make.
I can either say, “Bon voyage, guys, I wish you the best of luck, I’m not going to be joining you, but make a good movie,” or I could say – this is something I do often in my life, when I get to this spot – how will I feel when I let this go? How will I feel if I engage? I pictured myself letting it go and felt really terrible. Then I thought, “I can engage.”
Usually it’s an experiment on myself to practice letting go of control, and almost use it as a spiritual exercise, getting involved. I knew that Harvey was an old-school movie maker. Look at the movies that come out of Harvey’s oven. Also, from Walden. So I figured I’m going to jump in here and just surf this wave here and see what happens. Then the casting started happening, met with Phillip and these guys. That was the big bump for me.
In the book, they’re 12, and for various reasons, some of the team wanted to make the kids older. That was really a struggle for me, to let that one go. Then I met these two, and that started to relax. And then Brenton made a great statement.
In the book, it’s The Ceremony of Twelve. And he said, “It could be the ceremony of the 12th grade,” where kids are 17 or 18. I remember going through that period with my three girls, and that was the age when they were questioning, “What are we going to be when we grow up?” That kind of worked. So it was a constant process of letting go.
Another spiritual question popped up for me. When do you yin and when do you yang? I’m mainly a yin-er. I just go surf, let it go. I came up with an interesting answer to that question: “When do you yin, when do you yang?”
You just take out that “when do you,” then it becomes, “you yin and you yang.” And I noticed, I’m yinnin,’ but every once in a while — it’s rare — I would yang, but it would just kinda come out, and that’s how I shared the project. I didn’t want to suppress that yang, but generally, I wanted to roll and take all of these different changes and different conceptions in line and let them be almost aspects of my larger self.
Did you ever have a conversation about the science fiction implications of this film? Maybe the back story led to this culture, the post-apocalyptic scenario.
Nikki Silver: We had a lot of discussion about what the future was. We talked to Lois a lot about it, and what was important to all of us is that the world was headed in a very bad place. Whether the cause was ecological, whether it was world war, it’s unimportant to the story.
What’s important to the story is that we went on a very, very bad path. so we’ve tried a lot of things. Phillip experimented with a lot of ideas, and we left that to what we think are very smart audiences, to try to figure out and have their own interpretation of how we got here.
Jeff Bridges: I was trying to remember what my scenario was. It went along with Nikki about something terrible happened, or our darker side kind of surfaced, and we put a stop to that by trying to perfect ourselves. This is an example of one of the things we try to get convenient. How wonderful, we have these water bottles. We can drink these whenever we can.
What a lousy idea, to have to have these. They say they’re biodegradable, but they’re not. They end up in the ocean, the fish eat ‘em, we eat the fish. It’s that immediate gratification that’s a part of being human beings. We tend to go that way. That’s a part of who we are.
One of the things I like about this movie and the book as well is that it’s not really shoving a message down the audience’s throat, but it hopefully is provoking them to ask some questions. What are we willing to do for our comfort and our safety, and what is the true cost of that as a human being?