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28 August 2014

The Giver (Film Criticism): "Science and Secularism versus Christianity" and More

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"Art criticism is not about agreeing or disagreeing with the critic. It is mostly about opening a discussion to test our beliefs." (from the critic)

Film adaptations often dilute the potency of the written text, and Philip Noyce’s interpretation of Lois Lowry’s novel is no exception. Some moviegoers compare this film with "Divergent." In fact, the two films have the same premise, which is:  the community assigning specific roles to teenagers based on their personalities during a graduation ceremony. Lowry's book, however, predates Veronica Roths' "Divergent" by 18 years. Still, if “Divergent” is considered as a reaction paper assignment for sophomore high school students, “The Giver” is for senior students.

The film deviates from the book on many different levels. The most obvious is the main character’s age. In the novel, the lead character Jonas is eleven years old, but in the film version, Jonas is a teenager. The film is still entertaining especially if you have not read the book. 

To put it bluntly, the movie is great in the same way a swimming pool is great, that is, if you have not swum in the ocean yet. However, the swimming pool becomes a disappointment once you had seen the ocean, and the original book is like the ocean.

Science is a woman in white  (as represented by Meryl Streep's character)
versus Christianity as a man in dark blue (as represented by Jeff Bridges' character)

Philip Noyce’s version is a conservative Christian movie in disguise. Whether this is intentional or accidental is debatable. The film plainly presents the evils of secularism, scientific advancement and, to stretch it further, the dangers of a communal ideology, communism perhaps.  In the community, a child is monitored until he reaches adolescence, and based on his potentials, he is assigned a specific role. He cannot question his prescribed role because everything is designed for the good of the community. Emotions are considered as dangerous and selfish. Ironically, the wisest in the community must possess all the knowledge of good and evil, which comes from having free will, and the cacophony of desirable and undesirable feelings.  However, this knowledge is not achieved through real experiences but through collective memories deposited in just one individual, the Giver.

The film clearly dramatizes its opposition against pre-marital sex, abortion, euthanasia, and death penalty; these are issues that Conservative Christians espouse. Secularism and science are like drugs that numb and prevent us from being human and exercising free will. In a way, the film inadvertently re-envisioned Karl Marx’s statement that “religion is the opium of the people.” This time, “science, with its evil twin secularism, is the opium of the people.”

One scene best encapsulates the message of the film. During his training, the teenage Jonas received a memory from the Giver. Jonas discovers snow for the first time, and then rides a sled that takes him to a cottage. Inside the cottage, he sees a family. It is Christmas and everyone is singing a Christmas song.

Jonas asks, “Why can’t we have that?”

Jonas’ escape from the village is also reminiscent of Moses’ solo Exodus from Egypt, or Joseph’s escape from the soldiers of King Herod who wanted to kill the symbolic Messiah. Unfortunately, the Mary of the film chose to stay behind. The names are also Biblical, Jonas and the baby Gabriel, named after the messenger of God. In the “Book of Daniel,”  the angel Gabriel’s task is to reveal and interpret Daniel’s dream. I think the baby named after this particular angel is appropriate because Jonas was beginning to have dreams and visions.

While the book is more philosophical than political, and more ambivalent than obvious, this film version is more simplistic and dogmatic.

In the end, “The Giver” perhaps wants us to return to a more God-centered community, and the film denounces science and secularism, which are both dramatized in this film as evil and manipulative.


This film is yet another example of the commercialization of adolescence in both literature and film. “The Giver” is not the first time a prepubescent character in a book is transformed into a full-pledged teenager in the movie version. Children in science fiction movies do not always result in box office hits. Child protagonists belong in animation where the cash flow is enormous. In the past five years, science fiction has been the domain of teenagers, beginning with "Hunger Games," "Divergent" and even "The Host," a film based on another book by Stephenie Meyer. Yes, she wrote the book that spawned the massively popular teen romance and horror flick, "Twilight."

Simply put, a bleak science fiction movie about a child realizing the meaningless of a prescribed existence will never bring in the money. Many viewers perhaps want children to be perennially happy and content. Disappointments from adulthood can come later, but in mainstream movies, children must stay joyful. Teenagers, on the other hand, are a different story. 

Science fiction centered on teenagers cleverly disguises the commercialization of adolescence, specifically their feelings.  Although teen characters often face adult challenges and are forced to make life and death situations, most science fiction movies, even teen horror movies, trivialize teenage sentiments and issues. These movies pander on adult stereotypes of teenagers, which sadly, some teens often see as the norm. Movies like "Hunger Games," "Divergent" and the teenage-centered "The Giver" put the teenager in the center of the conflict, but betrays him or her by offering a quick fix, and unrealistic images and solutions. We cannot really blame the filmmakers, these movies aim to make money, and teen demographic is a big market. What is the best way to tap into that market? Turn them into consumers before they earn their first salary.

Filipino moviegoers must also be aware that such commercialization of teenagers has also started in the Philippines, beginning with “Diary ng Panget,” “She’s Dating the Gangster,” and recently “Talk Back and You're Dead.” I hope to discuss this further in future articles.

Katie Holmes may be indirectly telling us how Scientology operates, and her presence in the film is eerie. Alexander SkarsgĂ„rd stood out among the supporting cast, and as expected, Meryl Streep was good but this movie was just “Tuesday” for her.

“It’s just Tuesday for her (him / me / you)” is an expression that I often used when people think I did great work when in fact, it was just ordinary for me, and done without much effort.

Tuesday because it is after Monday, a day usually filled with new challenges and new set of workload. Wednesday is the mid point, a temporary respite. “Tuesday” is also before Thursday and Friday when we mostly start to wind down for the weekend so we are less concerned about our output. We just want to finish the week. Tuesday is that point when all great challenges are done, and all our skills are on autopilot, but we are not on our toes anymore.

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