'The Giver': Why Jonas's casting proves that fan rage is sometimes justified

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On some level, big screen adaptations of beloved novels are always doomed. Hew too closely to the source material, and they’re accused of slavish fan service; diverge too much from the original story, and they risk inciting mobs of obsessives who demand to see S.P.E.W. in all its glory. A successful adaptation must show respect for its root without attempting to translate it literally — something that would be impossible to do anyway, since every reader will necessarily imagine that book’s characters and settings differently.

That, of course, is why book fans often react with violent negativity after an actor is cast in an upcoming adaptation — regardless of who they are and what the role is. And because YA behemoths tend to have younger, more devoted followings than any other genre, the reactions of those followings tend to be particularly hostile.

When Twihards learned that little-known Brit Robert Pattinson would be playing the Adonis-esque Edward, they responded with “unanimous unhappiness.” (Well, until they all fell in love with him.) Jennifer Lawrence’s Hunger Games casting was met with moans about her age, her appearance, and her general aura. Shailene Woodley faced similar criticism when fans learned that she was up for the lead in Divergent; they won’t know until March of 2014 if their bellyaching was justified.

Given all this, Jeff Bridges’s long-gestating adaptation of The Giver would have inspired grumbles no matter who it chose to play Jonas, the young boy at the center of the story. That said, the movie’s decision to cast 20-something Australian hunk Brenton Thwaites — born in 1989 — is particularly misconceived. While it indicates that Bridges and co. aren’t taking an overly literal approach — which is a good thing, in theory — it also implies that they may fundamentally misunderstand the soul of Lois Lowry’s original novel –which is a very bad thing.

The Giver recalls The Hunger Games, Divergent, and any number of post-apocalyptic tales for young readers — except that it was published in 1994, over a decade before the dystopian genre became an inescapable trend. Its story beats will seem familiar to anyone who’s read its heirs — the plot contains an oppressive totalitarian society, a protagonist (Jonas) with unique and mysterious powers, a grizzled mentor (the titular Giver), and a dramatic moment when Jonas discovers the horrible truth his community’s authority figures have been concealing from its citizens all along.

But there are also several essential differences between The Giver and the novels it spawned. For one thing, it’s a lot shorter than them; Lowry’s novel clocks in at just 192 pages. Its limited pages feature much more conversation and less action than THG et al, meaning that any screenplay would have to change and add things to make the story more cinematic. And unlike those of its successors, The Giver‘s protagonist isn’t a heroic teenage girl — instead, he’s a pensive, cautious boy who turns 12 just as the novel begins.

Age ain’t nothing but a number… unless it’s one of a character’s crucial traits. Lolita, for example, loses much of its transgressive, icky power if the title role is played by an actress in her mid-teens, as in Adrian Lyne’s unsuccessful 1997 adaptation. Jonas’s age — as well as his story’s comparative simplicity, its length, and its ’94 Newbery Medal win — indicate that The Giver isn’t actually YA at all: it’s a book for middle-grade readers, not adolescents.

Unfortunately, middle-grade stories generally don’t become action-packed four-quadrant hits — which is probably why Jesse and Leslie went from 5th graders to 14-year-olds in Disney’s Bridge to Terabithia (2007), Ender and co. seem to be in their mid-teens in Summit Entertainment’s upcoming Ender’s Game, and Jonas has been upgraded from tween to… whatever age Thwaite is supposed to be playing.

The Weinstein Company’s choice to alter The Giver‘s lead so drastically could change Lowry’s story on a fundamental level. This casting also indicates that the screen Giver may try to ape The Hunger Games and co. by inserting unnecessary action setpieces that allow Jonas to play a Katniss-style badass hero. If that happens, The Giver will no longer be a gentle tale that’s more parable than plot-driven narrative; instead, it’ll transform into a generic adventure story, an imitation of the book’s own imitators.

When I spoke with Lowry last fall about her new sequel to The Giver — a similarly lyrical  novel called Son — the conversation eventually turned to Bridges and his proposed film adaptation. At the time, Lowry was doubtful that the movie would ever get made: “The film rights have been out there for 15 years now,” she said. “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…So it’s out there, and I should be feeling excited, as if now is the time it’s actually going to be made. But this has happened so often before that I’ve become kind of sanguine about it.” Lowry had read four different Giver screenplays over the years, each of which “tried to inject action and drama and suspense” — none of them entirely successfully.

Perhaps that long, tortured development process was a sign that The Giver actually isn’t meant to become a film– particularly if the adaptation could only get off the ground after adding a hunky, Hemsworth-ian lead. No big-screen version of The Giver can ever match the visions conjured while reading the book — but an interpretation that warps and disregards the core of Lowry’s masterpiece is worse than no movie at all.

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