Long before Katniss Everdeen entered the arena, a dystopian story of a more subdued nature introduced readers to an orderly world without complexity, complication, or pain. The Giver (HMH, 1993), Lois Lowry’s Newbery Medal-winning novel, centers on 12-year-old Jonas, who, according to the customs of his society, receives a life assignment to become the Receiver of Memory – the person who holds his civilization’s collective recollections from before the world converted to “Sameness.” Lowry’s story, which raises questions about what it means to live fully and freely, is now joining the legion of YA film adaptations. The film, a release from Walden Media and the Weinstein Company, opens on August 15 and stars Brenton Thwaites as Jonas, Jeff Bridges as the Giver, and Meryl Streep as the Chief Elder.
As movies like John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars and Gayle Forman’s If I Stay hit theaters this summer, to be followed by Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park (filming begins in 2015), signs point to a cinematic shift away from dystopia to more realistic stories being adapted for film. But The Giver – a dystopian tale being released at a time when the mania for dystopia may be subsiding – may have an appeal that other screen adaptations don’t: it has the potential to draw an adult audience nostalgic for a longtime favorite. Since its publication two decades ago, The Giver has been translated into more than 30 languages and has sold 11 million copies worldwide. Lowry published three additional books, forming a quartet: Gathering Blue (2000), Messenger (2004), and Son (2012).
Not So Black and White
Lowry’s novel is set in a world in which the human race can no longer see color. Yet the first trailer for the film adaptation boasted a broad spectrum, leading to complaints among readers expecting a black-and-white setting. Director Phillip Noyce has since told the Huffington Post that releasing a teaser trailer in color was a mistake: “It was an error. It doesn’t reflect our interpretation of the novel. It doesn’t reflect the movie.”
Such controversy over the impending release of a YA movie adaptation is familiar, calling to mind the questions surrounding the casting of Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games, or the hand-wringing among John Green fans over differences between the book and film versions of TFIOS. The concern over the use of color in the trailer speaks to the enduring significance of The Giver within the YA literary canon.
According to Betsy Groban, senior v-p and publisher at HMH, “[The Giver] is one of the most important and successful books in HMH’s long history. Its provocative message about the importance of memory is as true today as it was when it was when it was first published.”
Despite the book’s popularity, for a while it seemed unlikely that a film adaptation of The Giver would ever be made. Lowry expressed her own skepticism during a 2012 interview with Entertainment Weekly: “The film rights have been out there for 15 years. And every now and then, some big studio gets involved, and some major player gets involved. And then time passes, and it all collapses again.” She also speculated on challenges related to adapting the book to film in that interview, saying, “It’s a book with not a lot of action. And it’s largely introspective.”
On the Scene and On the Page
Zoom ahead to 2014, with The Giver’s theatrical release imminent. In June, at the ALA annual conference in Las Vegas, Lowry and Bridges appeared with ALA president Barbara Stripling at the ALA President’s Program. They spoke about the 20th anniversary of the book’s Newbery win, the role of libraries and librarians, and the translation of The Giver to screen. Following the ALA event, the author shared with PW her thoughts about individuals like Bridges, who have helped to steer the novel toward film development: “After all these years of working together to get this movie made, I have become genuinely fond of many of the people involved. They all care so much! So do I, of course. And so, I think, do the thousands of readers to whom the book has meant so much.”
It seems the resounding messages from YA fans demanding their favorite books be respected on screen has hit home with the film’s marketing team. A new movie poster – in black and white – contains a quote from Lowry, assuring fans that the film honors the book: “It’s all there. The boy. The old man. The baby. The sled. If you loved the book, take my word for it – you’ll love the movie as well.”
HMH is releasing new editions of The Giver in July: a movie tie-in edition containing cover art from the film and Q&As with cast members, a trade paperback edition, and The Giver Quartet Omnibus, which includes all four books in one volume. A boxed set of the Giver Quartet, featuring paper-over-board editions, will be out in October. With its impending cinematic debut and renewed presence in bookstores, it’s a pivotal moment for a novel that did dystopia long before it was cool.