Young adult film adaptations and the perils of “dust-free” art

There were countless indications that the film adaptation of “The Giver” would be a letdown: the constant production delays, the dumping-ground release date; the casting of Taylor Swift.

I regret to confirm, dear reader, that these indications were accurate.

Oh, sure, the cinematography is handsome, and Jeff Bridges gives good Giver in the title role, but the dialogue is painful (“You can’t just show me a map and then leave out the rest of the memories!”), the music is so ambient that it’s somnolent, and the special effects look like scraps tossed down from Joss Whedon’s table.

But “The Giver”’s biggest problem is not a technical one. It is, I’m afraid, a philosophical one. Ultimately, this “Giver” lacks a necessary virtue of any good young adult work: courage.

It is that fundamental lack of courage that I wish to discuss for the rest of this article. By seeing what makes the “Giver” film a failure, we can also see what makes the great young adult adaptations of our time, “The Hunger Games” and the “Harry Potter” series, so successful.

“The Giver” is the story of Jonas, a young man who lives in a futuristic community where emotion has been outlawed in favor of a safe, sterile “Sameness.”

To his shock, Jonas is asked to be the community’s Receiver and to serve as a repository of mankind’s past, in case that past is needed to make decisions in the present. The man responsible for showing him that past is (you guessed it) the Giver. As Jonas is exposed to the beauty and brutality of the past, both he and his teacher began to question the present.

Not surprisingly, Jonas’s exposure to human history ultimately renders him decidedly anti-“Sameness.”

What is surprising, however, is how much the film dumbs down and deadens Jonas’s journey into the past. As Jonas sees everything from the blooming of flowers to the horrors of the battlefield, he is equal parts exhilarated and traumatized by the past.

Or at least he is in the book.

In the film, his exhilaration registers, but not his trauma. After watching an episode from the Vietnam War, Jonas reacts with all the terror of one who’s just had a flat tire.

This scene is, unfortunately, typical of how the film treats the book’s darker material.

I am not sure whether it’s due to actor Brendon Thwaites or to the folks behind the scenes, but this “Giver” simply lacks the courage to venture into the inner darkness of Jonas’s journey.  The script tells us where he is physically, but the film rarely lets us know what troubles he is experiencing psychologically.

Compare this to the deliberate, haunting scene in “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2″ when Harry comes to grips with his impending death.

Better yet, compare it to the indelible moment in “Catching Fire” where we close in on Jennifer Lawrence’s face as we process her furious grief.

Part of what makes those YA films so good is that they treat young adults like, well, young ADULTS. How do they do this?

By being honest with them. By leveling with them about the evil and despair embedded in their fictional universes.

And, most importantly,  asking the viewer to remember that these worlds, like our real one, are both beautiful and fractured, wondrous and cursed.

“The Giver,” by comparison, patronizes young viewers by giving them a world so wimpy that it comes off as false. Because the film does not ring brave, it does not ring true. And falsity is a flaw that no good YA movie can overcome.

In short, the makers of “The Giver” should have remembered the words of Flannery O’Connor, who said that, “Fiction is about everything human and we are made out of dust, and if you scorn getting yourself dusty, then you shouldn’t write.”

Unlike its superior YA movie predecessors, “The Giver” is, I am sorry to say, dust-free.