From Page to Screen Review: The Giver (2014)

Book Review

In 1993, Lois Lowry wrote and published The Giver, a book that has sold over 10 million copies and received critical acclaim, winning several awards including the Newbery Medal the year following its publication. Over the next twenty years, Lowry penned three books within the same era. The Giver isn’t beloved by all its readers, and certainly not all of its critics, but regardless, it is considered successful based off its sales alone.

Most of the people I have asked about The Giver told me they read it in middle school or high school. The rock I must have been hiding under was huge, because I hadn’t heard of the The Giver until I saw the first teaser for the film adaptation. In June, I read The Giver, along with its three counterpart sequels. Personally, I would consider The Giver the strongest read out of the quartet, although I enjoyed all four books.

What I appreciated most when reading The Giver is how simple the plot is. Jonas is about to turn twelve years old, reaching the age where his childhood is complete and his life job is assigned to him. Pills are administered to each inhabitant of the area, where people speak with limited vocabulary, live in a colorless world, and are void of emotion. The Giver‘s universe strives for utopia, but the book’s setting is dystopian in nature as the plot builds and Jonas comes to terms with his assigned life position, Receiver of Memories. The Giver transmits memories of the world’s history to Jonas, who discovers color, experiences feelings, and understands that more exists beyond the borders of his small, limited world.

Comic by Brian Warmoth

Unity is what Jonas’s world consists of. Uniqueness, self-identity, and love are all new concepts he learns from the Giver’s memories. Lowry was onto something as many other future authors, including Suzanne Collins (The Hunger Games), Veronica Roth (Divergent), and James Dashner (The Maze Runner) have all been informed and inspired by her work to pen their well-received dystopian book-turned-film series.

I would give the book The Giver 

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Have you read The Giver? If so, what did you think of it? Please join the discussion below, because I would love to know your thoughts!

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Film Review

Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) brushes his teeth with a certain number of strokes. He walks a precise number of steps to the bus each morning. He combs his hair, dresses himself, and carries his life in a predictable nature not because he is a creature of habit, but because habit conclusively defines his life. His existence is based upon following his strict code of patterns that he has fully succumbed to.

 

Harold Crick would fit well within the The Giver‘s universe, but unfortunately his character exists only in the lovely 2006 film Stranger Than Fiction. It is not until Crick hears his life narrated by the author, horrified to find that she is killing him off, that Harold chooses to stray from his pattern-formed life. Unfortunately for the movie The Giver (2014), the characters stray far from their built-in nature, and not for any reason that would make sense within their universe.

I have learned that when I see a movie based off a book, I have to accept that certain licenses will be taken, whether it’s to fit into a film narrative better, or perhaps certain dialogue or actions would be communicated better on screen. In the case of The Giver, I think all of the wrong liberties were taken with the source material. Given its star-studded cast, led by Meryl Streep and Jeff Bridges, it’s certainly a disappointment that The Giver went off the rails almost immediately, failing to get back on the rest of the film’s short runtime.

Other than a very short explanation opening the film, the universe of The Giver was never well-established. From the get-go, we don’t care about rooting for Jonas (Brenton Thwaites), even with all the charisma the young actor put into the role. The film pushes on, forcing viewers on a ride that fails to pause on important moments, defining dialogue, or pressing exchanges between characters. Even when the Giver (Jeff Bridges) is transmitting his memories to Jonas, the memories lack the warmth, terror, or joy in which they are described very earnestly in the book. Chicago film critic Richard Roeper described the memories as “something you’d find in an Apple commercial,” appearing to look more like stock photos or video footage you could find anywhere on the Internet.

The screenplay stumbled over itself, and no matter what came out of the Giver’s or the Chief Elder’s (Meryl Streep) mouths, the words felt forced to move along with the screenplay, because that is what they were written for. I found myself asking constant questions throughout the movie, like the following:

Why did Fiona (Odeya Rush) stop taking her pill if she was programmed never to question the idea of taking a pill?

Why did Asher (Cameron Monaghan) suddenly choose to trust Jonas and not kill him when he had never experienced an emotion?

Why would the Chief Elder select Asher to hunt down and kill Jonas if he was only a first-year recruit?

How could the Chief Elder be able to use words that didn’t exist within their world to converse with the Giver?

How did Taylor Swift weasel her way into the movie in the first place?

The answer to all of these questions deals with the poor screenplay of the film. In a fictional universe, there is an established set of rules. Once you start breaking the rules, the writing falls flat, and the story implodes. This was the fate of The Giver and the reason it performed so poorly with both critics and fans alike. The point of The Giver is lost on viewers, because the movie wanted to be something it wasn’t, losing both its focus and viewers’ attention.

I feel generous in giving The Giver 

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It’s your turn. Did you see The Giver? If not, do you plan to? If so, what did you think of it? Please join the discussion below, because I would love to know your thoughts!

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Compare/Contrast THE GIVER’s Book and Film

Which did you hear of first, the book or the film? I actually heard about the film first, but I read the book before seeing the movie.

What was your favorite and least favorite parts of the book? I loved the simple plot, and I liked how the Giver introducing Jonas to history changed Jonas – and made him want to change the way things are too. I didn’t really have a “least favorite” part. I didn’t think it was a perfect book, but I thought it was very well-written. It was definitely a page-turner.

Do you think it was inspired by any other books? Definitely – I kept thinking of Fahrenheit 451 the entire time I was reading it.

What was your favorite and least favorite parts of the movie? One thing I appreciated about the movie was the B&W in the beginning. I think they could have done more with it, like drawing out the color of the apple in the book when Asher and Jonas were tossing it. The screenplay was certainly my least favorite part. It really destroyed what could have made a great movie.

Do you think the movie was inspired by any other movies? I thought it had a similar universe to Equilibrium (2002). Very devoid of emotions.

Will the book, movie, or both forms, stand the test of time? Definitely the book. The movie fell short, and it’s sad, because Jeff Bridges had wanted to make the film for years. If he had had the chance earlier, perhaps more time could have been spent on the screenplay.

I answered fewer questions for the compare/contrast section, considering how short both the book and film were. Which form will stand the test of time to you – the book, the movie, or both? Please join the discussion below, because I would love to know your thoughts!

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Guest Post – Will Tom Hooper Be Able to Tackle Les Miserables?

Hey all! I’ve been in need of a serious break from blogging, so today, my sister, Jennifer, will be guest posting on the Tom Hooper’s upcoming adaptation of Les Miserables. The first half of the post is more introductory on the story of Les Mis, and the second half is a “Recast Edition,” a fun type of post where the author will recast a film if he or she thinks there is a cast who can better fill the roles. Feel free to chime in and share your opinions below. Scroll down to the bottom of the post to find out more about Jennifer!

–Kristin

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By Jennifer Griffin

A Little Introduction to Les Miserables

There’s been a great deal of hype regarding the upcoming film adaptation of the novel (Victor Hugo) turned musical Les Miserables (Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg). According to director Tom Hooper and cast member Hugh Jackman, the casting is still being finalized, and the actors are just being to learn the music this month.

Les Miserables has been credited as the most successful musical ever written. A little over three decades ago, Boublil and Schönberg finished adapting the novel to musical format and premiered the musical in Paris. Five years following the premiere, the musical opened in London as a 3-month touring group engagement. The show sold out within the first week, and the box office received several record orders. Two years later it hit Broadway and did not close until after 6,680 performances. Les Mis is the third longest running Broadway show today and has been since revived on Broadway as one of its most successful shows. Altogether, the musical has been produced in 38 countries and translated into 21 languages, with over 70 different official recordings.

All of that to say . . .

Hooper obviously has a huge legacy to live up to in his bold decision to make this musical a successful film. Despite already having 6 film adaptations, Hooper’s version will be the first to actually have the musical–not just the book (or dialogue only)–adapted for film. Converting Les Mis to a musical film production will be an incredible task for Hooper to take on for several reasons:

  1. The music is extremely hard for actors who are not trained singers to perform.
  2. The novel is one of the most well-known pieces of historical fiction, and like adapting any novel to the film format, doing it justice is not easy—(it was debated that writing a musical based on the novel would be “sacrilegious”—there are many negative reviews in England and France if you look at articles from the 1980s!)
  3. The musical itself is extremely beloved, so living up to it in film with singers who can equally sing/act the roles is a challenge.
  4. Finding a cast that have ample acting experience both on stage and screen is normally necessary when making this sort of film—actors like this are not as common as they used to be.
  5. A great nonmusical film adaptation of the book with Liam Neeson and Geoffrey Rush came out in 1998 and was very successful, possibly making this film version look unnecessary until more time had passed.
  6. The resources—the elaborate prison, battle, and abbey sets, the rights to the music, the large stage and off-stage chorus needed, the orchestra, etc.—are very expensive.

While I look forward to seeing Hooper’s take on Les Mis, I have two major reservations:

  • the cast
  • the way Hooper has decided to film/record the singing

Recast Edition: Tom Hooper’s upcoming Les Miserables

Below is Hooper’s main cast, and who I would cast in place of them:

Jean Valjean: Hugh Jackman

Character Description: Dramatic tenor—very, very high voice in this musical—burly French peasant imprisoned for 19 years who vows to turn his life around after he escapes prison and in so doing helps Fantine and later adopts her daughter, Cosette.

Hugh Jackman actually does have screen and stage experience as well as singing experience, but Jean Valjean is probably one of the top 2 hardest tenor roles in all of musical theatre (the other one being the Phantom in the Phantom of the Opera). Perhaps Hooper feels like he needs an actor with a big name in the title role in order to successfully market this movie, but in the case of casting this particular character, he would actually do well to err on the side of screen experience because of the difficulty level of musicality as well as vocal range and ability the role demands.

My first choice for casting Jean Valjean would be Alfie Boe because he has a great deal of screen and stage acting experience, and he played Valjean in the London 25th Anniversary version of Les Mis (check out the video here). Other singer-actors I would choose include Matthew Morrison (Glee) and James Marsden (EnchantedHairspray), although both would have to buff up.

Inspector Javert: Russell Crowe

Character Description: Baritone—high officer of the law, sets out to bring Valjean to justice.

I believe Crowe is miscast altogether. The police inspector is a commanding force in the novel and the musical, but not physically. He is commanding because of his reputation as a successful inspector, his reputation of dedication to the law, and the nobility as well as the rest of the police force supporting him. Javert needs to be smaller than Valjean, not bigger; plus, Javert is a vocally-demanding role. I have never heard Crowe sing, and I fear that this will remind us all of the “lovely” singing of Pierce Brosnan in Mamma Mia (2008).

Norm Lewis (25th Anniversary edition as Javert) or Michael Ball (the original London cast of Les Mis as Marius) tie for my first spot in casting Javert, because both have a great deal of screen acting experience. Philip Quast would also be an interesting choice, despite his older age.

Fantine: Anne Hathaway

Character Description: Mezzo-soprano or alto—sickly woman that sells everything, including her body, to support her daughter Cosette after Cosette’s father leaves her.

Based on a couple of instances on SNL, the Oscars, and Princess Diaries, I think Anne Hathaway sings decently. The role of Fantine, however, is known as one of the toughest belter roles in all of musical theatre, including the iconic “I Dreamed a Dream” song. I wish Hooper would have picked someone with more singing experience. The only trait about Hathaway that matches Fantine’s description is the that the character looks like she is dying of consumption or suffering from anorexia.

My first choice for Fantine is Kerry Ellis. She was in one of the original casts of Wicked as Elphaba and in the televised version of Chess in London a few years ago. Depending on the age of the Valjean casted, other options I would consider include Lea Salonga, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Idina Menzel.

Eponine: Taylor Swift Samantha Barks

Character Description: Belter or low alto—daughter of the Thénardiers, peasant, tom-boy in love with Marius.
As of January 31, Taylor Swift is no longer in the works to play this role. In her place, Hooper has chosen Samantha Barks to fill the role of Eponine. Barks’s experience includes screen acting on BBC television as well as playing Eponine in the 25th Anniversary edition performance of Les Mis.

Despite Swift no longer filling the role, I did want to give my opinion on the casting: most well-trained singers and musicians do not like Swift for the sheer fact that she is rarely on pitch when she sings live, her voice is weak, and she tends to whine. I won’t say any more as to not offend anyone who is a Taylor Swift fan, but nevertheless, it was a 100% miscast if nothing else.

Aside from Barks, my next choice for Eponine would be Lea Michele (Glee, Les Miserables).  Other options I would consider include Amanda Bynes (Hairspray) and Felicia Day (Dr. Horrible). I’m sure there are many others that would be better for the role than Swift, but these are the first ones that come to my mind.

Cosette: Amanda Seyfried

Character Description: Soprano—innocent, beautiful, cultured daughter of Fantine, adopted by Valjean, in love with Marius.

I am extremely excited about this casting; Seyfried is typecast and sings very well.

If Seyfried couldn’t play Cosette, other people I would consider include Emmy Rossum (Phantom of the Opera, film version), Hilary Duff (Raise Your Voice), and Katie Hall (25th Anniversary edition).

Marius: Eddie Redmayne

Character Description: Baritenor—student revolutionary, friends with Eponine, in love with Cosette.

I have never actually heard Redmayne sing, but he has both a big screen acting and musical theater background, so I will be eager to see what he brings to this role.

My first choice in casting Marius would be Josh Groban, because he is absolutely typecast in looks and voice. Darren Criss (Glee, How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying) would be my runner-up, and other considerations include Zac Efron (Hairspray), Ben Feldman (Drop Dead Diva) and Jamie Campbell Bower (Sweeney Todd).

Enjolras: Aaron Tveit

Character Description: Baritenor—leader of the student revolutionaries, good friend of Marius.

Tveit is the other cast member I have yet to hear sing, but he has a nice resume as well including both screen acting and musical theater.

Ramin Karimloo (25th Anniversary edition) is the first person I would cast as Enjolras. Other people to consider include Adam Pascal (RentChess), Norbert Leo Butz (Wicked, original cast), and Neil Patrick Harris (Rent, Dr. Horrible).

Madame Thénardier: Helena Bonham Carter

Character Description: Alto—married to Monsieur Thénardier, Eponine’s mother, Cosette’s aunt, despicable pickpocket and thief who manages the inn with her husband.

I am also excited about Helena Bonham Carter in the role of Madame Thénardier. She’s also typecast and sings well (Sweeney Todd).

After Bonham Carter, other options to consider for the role include Bernadette Peters (Mack and Mabel, Annie Get Your Gun), Brooke Elliott (Wicked touring cast, Drop Dead Diva), or Dot-Marie Jones (Glee).

Monsieur Thénardier: Sacha Baron Cohen

Character Description: Baritone or tenor—married to Madame Thénardier, Eponine’s father, Cosette’s uncle, despicable pickpocket and thief who owns the main inn in town.

Sacha Baron Cohen fits the role characteristically and physically; however, has anyone even heard him sing? I just don’t know about this one.

Jason Alexander (Jerome Robbins’ Broadway, The Producers) has an incredible singing voice, so he would be my first choice to play Monsieur Thenardier. The only other option that came to mind was Johnny Depp (Sweeney Todd).

The second issue is due to the way Hooper has decided to record the singing. Hooper plans to record the scenes with singing live as opposed to pre-recording with lip-synching in the actual scenes like most musicals are filmed. Normally, as a singer myself, I would be all for this; however, when you have a cast in which most are mediocre singers and fairly inexperienced musicians, I don’t think it is such a good idea. Those who are Broadway vets are obviously used to having to sing, dance, act, and do crazy staging all at the same time. Those that are not used to all of these aspects will struggle though, and it will come out in the recording process.

Again, I am very excited that they finally are making a film version of this awesome musical, but unfortunately I do not have the highest hopes of it coming close to measuring up to actually seeing it in a theater live with well-experienced singer/actors. I hope Hooper and the rest of the cast prove me wrong.

The seventh film adaptation of Les Mis will hit theaters December 7.

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Jennifer Griffin is an Adjunct Music Professor at Northern Illinois University. With two Masters degrees in Vocal Performance and Musicology at the ripe age of 25, she makes music a priority in her life. In her free time, Jennifer teaches voice and piano at private studios, accompanies singers and instrumentalists, and daydreams about making it big someday at the Lyric Opera. You can follow Jennifer on Twitter at @jgprimadonna