The dystopia next door
WASHINGTON — In 1993, Lois Lowry wrote a slim book for youth about totalitarianism, euthanasia, suicide, sexual awakening and infanticide. “The Giver” created a blooming genre — the dystopian youth novel — and considerable controversy. Some parents wanted the book banned from schools, thus unintentionally re-asking the book’s central question: How comprehensively should children (and other humans) be protected from risk and pain?
Now “The Giver” has been given the full Hollywood treatment: the biggest stars (Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep), winsome young actors and a small but important role for singer Taylor Swift. The early cut I saw (the film premieres in August) is an updated but respectful telling of the story — clearly the labor of someone’s love.
“The Giver” remains, however, an odd candidate for a blockbuster. “Not much happens,” Lowry observed to me in a phone interview. Or, more precisely, much of what happens is an interior moral struggle. The protagonist, Jonas, inhabits an orderly, polite, egalitarian world of enforced “sameness.” Even the ability to see color has been eliminated. Family units are assigned. Teen sexual urges — “the stirrings” — are dulled with daily pills. There is no more war, hunger or avoidable pain, and their memory has been erased.
But in order to make wise communal decisions, someone must be the lonely bearer of all the memories. Jonas is chosen, and discovers that the banishment of pain and difference has also involved the banishment of beauty, art, music and love. He begins (with cinematic effect) to see colors — the red of an apple, the red of a girl’s hair. He stops taking his pills. And he discovers that the utilitarianism of his community involves the emotionless murder of the elderly and imperfect newborns by lethal injection. Without spoiling the plot, it is enough to say that Jonas defies the authority of the Elders — expressing teen rebellion in the causes of memory, family bonds, human dignity and authentic emotion. In the end, Jonas finds that his newly found freedom is fulfilled in a willing act of sacrifice.
“The Giver” will provoke political commentary. Few movies make a stronger case for the value of diversity. No movie, in my memory, involves a more explicit depiction of infanticide, conducted at the Nurturing Center by Jonas’ father with a horrifying cheerfulness. “They hadn’t eliminated murder,” Jonas realizes, “they had brought it home. They had just called it by a different name.”
Yet the story is less a social statement than a philosophic one. In our conversation, Lowry denied such ambitions. “I don’t think thematically, but narratively,” she said. “The themes emerge in retrospect.” But in retrospect, Lowry’s theme is the problem of pain.
The answer offered by the Elders is essentially technological — using science and social engineering to remove the sources of suffering. Take a pill to dull disruptive emotions. Minimize differences to avoid envy and conflict. This is not really so unfamiliar; it is the dystopia next door.
In contrast, Lowry provides the old, frustrating spiritual answer to the problem of pain. The very things that make us vulnerable to loss — choice, emotion, desire — also make us human. “Joy and woe are woven fine,” wrote William Blake. And these unruly stirrings and feelings have their uses. They provide glimpses of another world, where the love is worth the loss. “There is more,” Jonas tries to convince his girlfriend. “So much more.”
This is fairly serious stuff for a summertime movie. But it is precisely what causes “The Giver” to transcend the genre of teen literature it created. This is, of course, what all parents hope for their adolescents — that they will find, in their own hormonal dystopia, that there is something beyond the edge: a world of love, freedom and obligation, an unseen world more real than real. We want them to visit Harper Lee’s Maycomb County, C.S. Lewis’ Narnia, and Lois Lowry’s civil, therapeutic tyranny and come away more human, and thus more impatient with the dystopias of our own making.
Lewis both wrote this kind of literature and wrote insightfully about it. Even in his time, some parents complained about stories including death, violence and cruelty. “I think it is possible,” he said, “that by confining your child to blameless stories of child life in which nothing at all alarming ever happens, you will fail to banish the terrors, and would succeed in banishing all that can ennoble them or make them endurable.”
This is the accomplishment of “The Giver”: It ennobles our terrors.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.