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'The Giver' that keeps on giving

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"The Giver" is one of those rare books loved both by teachers and students. Our guess is that the movie version produced by Walden Media will have similar success.

Kevin and Marilyn

What if we could erase violence, pain and discord? Could a society regularize emotions and end war? What if reproduction and sexuality could be completely divorced from family life? Wouldn't it be lovely? In the acclaimed movie-from-a-book, "The Giver," an ideal community is based on this premise. There is a price, of course.

The film is based on Cambridge author, Lois Lowry's story which has become a literary fixture in our schools. "The Giver" is one of those rare books loved both by teachers and students. Our guess is that the movie version produced by Walden Media will have similar success.

In the movie, inhabitants of a highly controlled and regimented world are smiling, uniformly handsome and beautiful. All happily work on various state-run activities. They are fed, clothed and recreated and quietly controlled by the smiling and seemingly benevolent dictator (played chillingly by Meryl Streep), who at one point says, "When people have the freedom to choose, they choose wrong."

They also live in a colorless world, but one with a perfect climate. But here comes the price. People have to get their regular injections to suppress their emotions, so that they, too, are colorless. They don't bear their own children, only those designated as "birth mother" carry this out. After delivery biologically unrelated host families inculcate the children into society's rigidly collectivist ethos. Presumably there are no squabbles at the dinner table, no complaints about veggies or sulky teenagers.

Central to this dark utopia, babies that don't measure up to mandated standards of weight and length are "released," quietly and efficiently put to death. So, too, with the elderly.

This seemingly idyllic world is intentionally cut off from the past. Only one person (Jeff Bridges) has knowledge of the human history, the world the ruling creators left behind. Since he is getting old, his task is to teach his successor to be "the receiver of memory." The basic plot involves Bridges' efforts to teach Jonas, a bright teenager, the wisdom of the past, about a world of good and evil, a hidden world of unknown emotions such as love and hate.

Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) is to be the new "receiver of memory," but he must keep the history of peoples found in books from the rest of this "perfect community." Jonas is shaken by what he learns, but the turning point comes when he learns that the baby Gabriel, who is living in his home, is to be "released." We suppose Jonas is the last vestige of what humans once were.

While "The Giver" is clearly popular entertainment about a futuristic society, it is riddled with social warnings and spiritual messages, all delivered in a low key way. Christians will find plenty of symbols in the movie. The apple, in this gender abridged era, is given by Jonas to his female friend (Katie Holmes). Gabriel (God's messenger?) is the one who brings truth and love back to these unknowingly enslaved people. A sled saves the teen hero as he escapes to the real world and finds refuge and salvation in a snowy house decorated for Christmas. New Englanders will be glad to see snow as a happy part of the resolution.

The film's rich social messages focus on what happens to people who have given up their freedom and put their wellbeing into the hands of a state that promises to take cradle-to-grave care of them and to solve all their very human problems. Watch points for Catholic viewers deal with treatment of defective people. In total disregard for the dignity of human of life, the "unfit" and elderly are ritually done away with. Where they go is not disclosed, but, as the saying goes, they have their methods.

But many modern trends and themes resonate below the surface of this compelling story: An education system that is devoted to fitting people in collectivist roles rather than developing youth into fully flourishing humans is one; the trend toward individuals giving up bits of freedom and slices of liberty in exchange for comforts and security; a government sifting information, shaping history and spinning the truth; another is the control of acceptable language with words like "death" eliminated and a bland term such as "released" in its place. But basically we are reminded that our messy human natures are part of being alive.

"The Giver" is due for release Aug. 15 in local theaters. It is the work of Walden Media, a local film production company, which in a few short years has brought us spectacular films, such as "Tales of Narnia," "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," and one of our favorites "Waiting for Superman."

As a priest with whom we saw the film said, the film is "a perfect end of summer date movie." On the other hand, we say it's a perfect family movie. Lots to talk about over the dinner table.


Kevin and Marilyn Ryan, editors of "Why I'm Still a Catholic," worship at St. Lawrence Church in Brookline, Mass.

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