The Giver

Jeff Bridges and Brenton Thwaites star in The Giver. (Courtesy of the Weinstein Company / August 7, 2014)

It’s taken nearly 20 years to get “The Giver” — a popular science-fiction Young Adult novel and winner of the 1994 Newbery Medal — to the big screen. “I’m glad it happened while I was still alive,” 77-year-old author Lois Lowry says with a laugh, during a Los Angeles visit to help promote the film release.

The film had been a longtime passion project for actor Jeff Bridges, who originally wanted to direct and cast his father Lloyd Bridges. He went as far as shooting, with his own video camera, an entire movie with his father as the title character of “The Giver.” But despite its popularity as a book, selling over 12 million copies worldwide, it wasn’t until the recent explosion of Young Adult books to screen ( “Divergent” and “The Hunger Games” among them) that Hollywood finally fulfilled Bridges’ dream.

“In some ways I think it was good we waited so long,” says Lowry. “Jeff never wavered. He wanted to get this made and I think we finally found the right director and cast, and technology in movie-making has advanced so we could make a much better movie.”

With well-regarded Australian director Phillip Noyce at the helm ( “Patriot Games,” “Rabbit Proof Fence”) and Jeff Bridges as producer, a star-studded ensemble was recruited to the project: Meryl Streep, Katie Holmes, Alexander Skarsgard, Taylor Swift and young Australian newcomer Brenton Thwaites.

“The Giver” tells the coming-of-age story of Jonas, a young man raised in a seemingly utopian future world where everyone appears to be happy. There is no war, no crime, no prejudice, no hunger, but this comes at a steep price. In this world humans are genetically engineered to not feel emotion or even see color. They live in a world of complete sameness — identical homes, clothes, and identical family structures (mother, parent and two children, one boy and one girl).

In this society there is only one holder of memories — the Giver (played by Jeff Bridges) and the time has come to pass them on. The Chief Elder (Streep) selects Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) to inherit the position of the community's Receiver of Memories. In this most-honored position in the community, he will become the keeper of ancient memories before the time of “Sameness.” But once this knowledge of past feelings of emotion are unlocked in Jonas, he is not content to merely keep them to himself, and at great risk he endeavors to expose his community’s secret past.

While it may paint a bleak dystopian future, Lowry says she was more inspired by the idea of human memory when she wrote the book. “I had never been interested in writing science fiction but I became fascinated with the whole subject of human memory. It was inspired by my father who at that time was very old, and his memories were fading. He was living some distance from me and I’d pay him a visit every six weeks. Over time it became more apparent that he was losing memories that to me were so important. I also saw that he was content, as he had forgotten every sad and scary experience,” she says. “No human being has the same memory as another. It is such a personal thing and what if we could manipulate them? How frightening would that be?”

Lowry says she is amazed at the response she has had from the book over the years. “I have received letters not only from children, but from men on death row in prisons, from monks. Its quite incredible the people who have been touched by this story,” she says.

One big change readers of the book will notice in the film is that the lead character, Jonas, is considerably older than the character in the book. Thwaites, who last appeared in “Maleficent” is 24 (but looks a lot younger), and says he was surprised he was cast. “In the book Jonas is 12 so I really didn’t think they would look at an actor at my age, so I’m glad they decided to make Jonas older,” he says.

Says Lowry: “I was concerned that in the movie Jonas and his friends are 16. I didn’t want this to turn into some teen romance movie, but once I met Brenton I knew he would be perfect for Jonas.”

The role of Chief Elder was also expanded for Meryl Streep. “They made her a much more complex character and then she just bumped it up another notch with her posture and her facial expressions and the way she speaks. She is incredible to watch,” says Lowry.

“I have to say watching this movie for the first time made me weep. The visuals, the sequence of memories of human history. The film is very powerful to watch,” says Lowry. “This is a cautionary tale on what can happen when for the best intentions we try to create a peaceful society, but I don't think the book or the movie tries to answer any questions but hopefully it will get people thinking.”

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KATHERINE TULICH writes about film and culture for Marquee.