“If the Giver movie sucks,” declared my sister-in-law’s friend, age about 30, “I will burn myself alive.”
Those are pretty extreme words, but when you’re in love with a book and have been for a good 20 or so years (it was published in 1993 and won the 1994 Newbery Medal), it’s scary to contemplate what some Hollywood studio will do to your beloved text. Look at the movie of The Dark Is Rising, or the adaptation of The Lightning Thief—ugh.
But Lois Lowry, the book’s author, laughed when I asked her for a response. “I love it that people are so passionate about the book, but I’m kind of bemused by the fact that they don’t seem to perceive that a book and movie are not the same thing.”
No, they are not, in so many ways. I caught up with Lowry in the farmhouse on a western Maine hilltop that she shares with her cat, Lulu, and her dog, Alfie, and the occasional visitor—and, this summer, an apparently endless parade of intruders, including yours truly, all agog about the upcoming Giver movie. She had just come back from her first-ever appearance at San Diego Comic-Con, where she and the film’s star and guiding light, Jeff Bridges, had addressed an audience of some 6,000 people. Shortly before I arrived, she had learned that Buzzfeed had dubbed her one of Comic-Con’s “winners” for her “feisty, lively presence.” (This was clearly another bemusing experience.)
The movie’s been a long time coming. Bridges optioned it some 18 years ago, hoping to direct a movie starring his father, Lloyd Bridges, that his then-young daughters would be able to watch. Leafing through catalogs of children’s books, he was captivated by the book’s haunting cover—the photograph for which, incidentally, was taken by Lowry herself.
Lowry describes most of the lead-up to the film’s making as “almost like a Rubik’s cube….They would have to have a director, financial backing of the star, the screenplay, and they would get almost there, and then something would click loose.” Director David Yates, for instance, had been lined up, but then the powers that be decided to turn Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows into two films, “so his blue square fell to the side.”
But when the squares finally all made it into alignment, Lowry was astonished at how involved she was in the project. According to the contract she signed, there was no obligation to consult her, but consulted she was at nearly every step of the process. Director Phillip Noyce (whose Rabbit-Proof Fence Lowry greatly admires) contacted her, asking her to go to California to talk. It was July, and try as she might to inveigle him into coming to Maine (“The house is large, and you would have a separate bedroom and bath,” she coaxed) or even meeting halfway at a Holiday Inn in Iowa, she ended up going to Los Angeles.
Once in LA, she met with Noyce and several of his assistants, as well as the costume and set designers (some via Skype), and “they kept turning to me and asking my opinion, and I suddenly thought, ‘Oh, they really care about what I think.’ ” They proved they did over the next several months, via email, telephone, a visit to South Africa to watch some of the filming, and another to a New York soundstage to watch some of the editing (“that’s really where the making of the movie lies,” she said with enthusiasm).
With her input or without, in the translation of book to film, changes were made, changes Lowry appreciates were necessary. Events such as the two-day ceremony that launches Jonas’ journey were compressed into moments. Action had to be introduced into the profoundly introspective story. The role of the Chief Elder—Meryl Streep’s character—is expanded from the “figurehead in the book…with no personality whatsoever” into the Giver’s antagonist. “It’s very effective, and I wish I could go back to the book and write that in,” she said.
There were sacrifices. For the sake of compression, the scenes at the House of the Old are gone, and with them Lowry’s jokingly wished-for cameo as Larissa, the elderly woman Jonas bathes. The ending is now a more clearly happy one than in the book—though Lowry maintains that she has always felt that it was a “hopeful ambiguity,” a hope borne out in the three books that followed, of course. And the main characters are no longer 12 but 16, a transformation that distressed Lowry and almost caused Bridges to leave the project altogether. (After seeing an early cut of the first scenes, she says all her “fears on that score were completely laid to rest.” Brenton Thwaites, as Jonas, on his bicycle “is young, is vulnerable, is everything he needs to be.”)
But the linchpin scene in the book is still there, the scene that is so brutal it’s easy to imagine Hollywood wanting to take it out, the scene where Jonas’ loving father, whose job is to take care of the youngest babies, kills the smaller of a pair of twins, per community rule.
So what Lowry felt 18 years ago would be a signature on a contract has turned into something like a full-time job. She’s been maintaining a schedule that would cripple a person half her age, yet she is bearing up, her greatest concern for the disruption to her pets’ lives. When she’s not promoting the film, she’s been lightly revising and updating her Anastasia books to bring them into the 21st century. “I’m looking forward to the end of summer, when my life will be quiet again, and I can go back to writing.”
Over and over, Lowry referred to Bridges—whom she calls Jeff, with clear affection—and his dedication to the book she wrote and its vision. Over and over, the filmmakers kept going back to the book. If that shouldn’t assure us that the Giver movie won’t suck, I don’t know what will.
Vicky Smith is the children’s & teen editor at Kirkus Reviews.
Photo above left is of Lois Lowry, photographed by Matt McKee.