Brow Beat

How Faithful Is The Giver to the Lois Lowry Novel?

Jeff Bridges and Taylor Swift sit at a piano in a still from the movie.
Jeff Bridges and Taylor Swift in a scene that was added for the movie. © 2014 The Weinstein Company

The movie adaptation of The Giver, Lois Lowry’s Newbery Medal–winning YA novel, was years in the making.* While Lowry has been blunt about the need for some changes—she told Hypable, “a movie has to have visual stuff, so there’s been action added that is not in the book”—audiences have been vocal from the start about their desire for faithfulness. When the first trailer came out in color (the world of The Giver is devoid of colors) fans were outraged. And as Laura Anderson writes in her review of the movie in Slate, the movie warps the source material so that it more closely conforms to all the teen-marketed dystopias that have come since.

So, sorry, middle school students: You won’t be able to write a paper based on the movie, with its drones and its love triangles. But you should read the book anyway, since it’s wonderful no matter your age. And if you’re curious about the differences between the two, we’ve broken them down below.

The Premise
The movie takes place in the confines of “the community,” something that started after “the ruin,” when all memories were erased and everyone became equal. Things like “precision of language” and “sameness” are valued. Families are units of a mother and a father and a child or two—children are applied for and birthed by birthing mothers.

While the book has no discussion of “the ruin,” the basic premise is the same. But the look and feel of the movie is more futuristic than the sense one gets from the book. For example, in the book characters take pills to stop “stirrings,” what readers understand to be sexual desire, while in the movie all characters get a daily injection. There are no retina scans to open doors in the book; instead, there is a secretary-like person.

Other small differences: Animals don’t exist in this world in either the book or the movie, but stuffed animals are called by their traditional names in the book, while in the movie Jonas’ father misidentifies a stuffed elephant as a hippo. There is also a weird clap they do in the movie where they bang their left hands on their left thighs and keep their right hands in a fist on their right thighs. In the book they clap like regular people.

Like the novel, the movie begins right before Jonas’ Ceremony of Twelve—except in the movie it’s the Ceremony of Sixteen, an age that makes the love triangle, which is not present in the book, more believable than it might have been otherwise. Jonas is selected as the Receiver of Memories in both book and movie and in both he is lauded for his virtues. In the book he has “funny eyes” which are lighter than most people’s, a sign of his capacity to be a receiver of memory. In the movie, Jonas and the other receivers are identifiable by birthmarks on their right wrists.

In both the movie and the book Jonas’ father is a Nurturer and his mother works at the Department of Justice. His father is compassionate in both the movie and the book, but in the movie his mother seems like the enemy. This is not the case in the book.

Jonas also forms a special bond with Gabriel, a baby his father brings to their dwelling for extra care before his naming ceremony. While the timeline of how long he stays with Jonas’ family differs in the book and movie, Gabriel’s role in influencing Jonas’ decisions, especially after being slotted for “release,” appears in both. And, as Lowry told the New York Times Magazine, the actor who plays the baby deserves a baby Oscar. 

Fiona and Asher
In the movie, Fiona and Asher are Jonas’ best friends. While he knows Fiona in the book, they are only casual acquaintances and volunteer together with the old members of the community. (In the movie they volunteer at the nurturing center, where the babies live before their naming ceremony.) Fiona’s red hair is one of the first things Jonas sees “beyond,” that is, in color, and he does feel “stirrings” for her, but he never acts on them in the book as he does in the movie. The movie’s makeshift sled ride, kissing scene, and everything involving her near the end of the film are new.

Asher, meanwhile, is a goofy, clumsy, and good-hearted sidekick who is selected as Assistant Director of Recreation in the book. In the movie, on the other hand, he is a serious, unsmiling busybody who is selected as a drone pilot and later begins to suspect Jonas of breaking the community’s rules. Their relationship is drastically changed in the movie for the purpose of creating conflict.

The Giver
The Giver was the Receiver of Memories before Jonas, and he trains Jonas. He is much friendlier in the book and a lot less jaded and drunk-seeming. He doesn’t butt heads with the Chief Elder in the book like he does in the movie. He transfers memories in the book by placing his hand on Jonas’ back, while in the movie he hovers his hands over Jonas’ wrists while they sit face-to-face. The book makes it clear that the Giver loses access to each memory when he transfers it to Jonas, but in the movie it seems that the Giver still remembers things he shares with Jonas.

Many of the memories we see Jonas receive are changed slightly from the book’s versions: Instead of experiencing pain from a sunburn, for instance, Jonas gets a bee sting; a very old memory of war—from a time when horses are used in battle—becomes a memory from Vietnam. In the movie, the Giver accidentally transfers a violent memory to Jonas after Jonas finds him writhing on the floor in pain; this doesn’t happen in the book. In the book, the Giver is occasionally in too much pain to transfer memories, and when that happens Jonas gets the day off.

The Giver’s daughter, Rosemary, is a failed Receiver of Memories in both the movie and the book—but she is only briefly mentioned in the latter. The scene where Rosemary plays the piano is not in the book—Jonas refuses to accept a memory of music from the Giver, because he wants the Giver to be able to keep it—and was presumably added so that Taylor Swift could have more screen time. (Similarly, the role of the Chief Elder, a minor one in the book, was expanded for Meryl Streep.)

Releasing Ceremony
In both the book and the movie this ceremony is a bit vague until Jonas watches his father perform it on an identical twin who weighs less then his counterpart. Thanks to the memories he’s received, Jonas realizes that his father is killing the child, but his father doesn’t understand this. This scene is quite faithful to the book. But other aspects of “release” are different: In the movie, the entire community celebrates the release of the elderly at the assignment ceremony, while in the book the elderly are individually released in front of their peers.

In both book and movie, Jonas leaves the community with Gabriel. But in nearly every other respect the endings diverge. In the movie, Jonas leaves to save Gabriel from being released, while in the book he takes his time and plans his escape carefully, only expediting the plan when he finds out about Gabriel’s release. He does not punch Asher in the face or incriminate Fiona in the book. The Chief Elder doesn’t ask Asher to “lose” Jonas if he finds him with his drone (there are no drones in the book). In the book, after Jonas leaves the community—by biking away in the middle of the night, not stealing a motorcycle—we only hear things from his perspective, and we don’t know for sure what happens back in the community. The book also has a famously ambiguous ending—it’s not clear if Jonas and Gabriel survive—but, as Lowry told New York Magazine, “I had a little trouble with the ending: In the book, it’s ambiguous, but the movie ­people—and when I say ‘movie people,’ I mean primarily Harvey Weinstein, the head-honcho guy with the power and the money—felt that the ending should not be so ambiguous.”

Correction, Aug. 18, 2014: This post originally misspelled Newbery Medal. 

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