Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Politics Of: The Giver

The Omnivore's reviews grow more timely: With The Giver almost out of theaters, The Omnivore got a chance to see it and is here to tell you about it! The first half reviews the movie--the second assumes you have already seen it.

The Giver
The Giver is the latest in a series of Young Adult dystopian book adaptations to the silver-screen. In this case the aftermath is set in a community that has abolished war, fear, and anguish--it has also abolished difference. Everyone lives in the same model house. Instead of families we get 'family units.' Young people all grow up the same way and are assigned jobs when they hit 16 by The Elders.

The story introduces us to three friends: Jonas (fresh-faced Brenton Thwaites), Fiona (fresh-faced Odeya Rush), and Asher (fresh-faced Cameron Monaghan) who are all about to be assigned. They go through the requisite big ceremony (a staple of YA books) and it's Jonas who gets the weird assignment: he will be The Receiver.

He will receive memories of the past from Jeff Bridges ('The Giver') who is tasked with not only holding the knowledge of the past but using it to advise the community controllers (head controller: Meryl Streep). It's these memories that could destabilize everything if they were allowed unchecked. It's these memories that open Jonas' eyes ... and lead him into danger.

The Giver has a slick modern-FX look to it: it's utopian community does look like a pretty nice place to live if you can handle intense same-ness everywhere. The film does a good job of putting a happy face on the three kid's lives and then slowly unwinding it as Jonas learns more and more about what The Elders have done to keep it that way.

The movie uses the black-and-white-to-color transition as its main character becomes more alive that was done in Pleasantville and before that, The Wizard of Oz. The movie is fairly gutsy in giving us a LOT of the washed-out Giver-verse before letting color creep in. It's a fairly effective technique.

Ultimately, though, The Giver is a product of the Young Adult fiction model and while it was (and is?) much loved, it most probably owes its existence as a high-gloss movie to the runaway success of The Hunger Games and the follow-up hit Divergent. It's a good piece of YA fiction--but unlike Hunger Games, it doesn't quite rise above its genre as highly (attempts to be more modern than the original books with the addition of drones and surveillance don't do that much to modernize it, either). It also, unlike the others, isn't exactly a trilogy and has to get its story done in 97 minutes.

YA fiction can contain televised Roman-style atrocity (The Hunger Games) or slaughter families (Divergent)--there are few places it can't go (the obvious being sex and drugs--see Lev Grossman's The Magicians for some actually mature fiction that follows all the tropes of YA stories). No, YA fiction isn't defined by what it keeps out--but what has to be in it.

YA fiction is coming of age stories for people who haven't quite (or are in the process of) coming of age and wonder what that's like exactly. This is why all three movies have big amphitheater scenes before their heroes go on to their next stage of life (Divergent & The Giver: Jobs. The Hunger Games--to die ... which one is more like college?). The Giver shines here: the transition isn't quite as ominous as Divergent and the society--although aggressively bland--does give a real sense of sheltering the characters (very explicitly) which is exactly what that part of the book / growing up is supposed to feel like. The Giver-ville is a much happier seeming place than Divergent's ruined city-scape.

We also see the conflicts in romantic triangles (not so much The Giver) and fighting City Hall (totally The Giver). The battle has to be winnable: YA novels are not studies in hopelessness (unlike, say, 1984 where there was no off-switch to beat the government). In Divergent we get a central computer--The Hunger Games has district 13 ... The Giver has to come up with something and even by the end of the movie it's not exactly clear what it was.

The final YA piece is themes. YA fiction has to give its audience some heavy human-condition stuff to work with. This can come in the form of real-life tragedies but, when turned into dystopic science fiction, becomes a streamlined metaphor that is made real in the form of the book. It isn't that these sometimes strain belief a bit (real life and real history certainly strains belief more than a bit). The problem comes when the metaphor doesn't sustain the issues grappled with. Hunger Games came close to that when we are asked to believe that the Capital would watch the slaughter of 12 year olds with excitement (rather than vengeance or horror). In the end, it pulled it off.

The Giver starts to ask questions about what you'd give up for a "perfectly safe / clean / pleasant" society--but then mixes in its conceit that whatever happened, it's not just that the kids in Giver-ville grow up without learning any history but also it seems that history has kind of been "bottled" and ... even the Elders are not allowed to know it? It's not clear. It's also not clear why: Jonas is the Receiver--essentially a kind of historian who can tell the Elders if they are going to make a mistake (or will when he's trained)--but The Elders seem pretty well versed in things like the use of force when push comes to shove.

The adaptation, according to several explainers, anyway, seems fairly credible (the great joy of Narnia's first book, The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe is that it is cinematic out of the box!). The changes seem to be things like giving Meryl Streep more to do (her matronly villainy is fun to watch) and amping up the "love triangle" (which both only barely manages the forbidden love and mostly still isn't much of a triangle).

It is certainly watchable and visually impressive. It's sometimes sleepy opening and lack of crystalline focus probably hurt it at the box-office

Let's do the politics.

The Politics of The Giver
The politics of The Giver are the politics of Utopian Unity. The idea, long standing, is that if we could just cleanly get rid of 'X,' humanity's need for conflict would go away. The good news is that we already mostly know what X is on a personal level: an excess of alcohol. On the other hand, on a geo-political level, the problems are a bit harder to solve. Key issues like resources (as in food in The Hunger Games) are at the top of the list--but expansionist pressures can come from a lot of places and trying to sort that all out is harder.

Still, when you look at conflict events it's pretty clear that very few wars are launched simply over high-tempers. Movies like Equilibrium think that chemically taking away our passion (and limiting art and emotion) will sooth the populace. The Book of Eli felt that demolishing religious texts was maybe the answer. In The Giver they've taken away all of it. Art, music, emotions, religion, race, pets, family, and even color.

Given that, it's almost believable that they'd need some control of people "in the know" to keep things on point. But then, it looks like The Elders (in the movie) are fairly aware of what they're doing--they know "releasing people" means killing them. In The Giver, it's also clear that "memory" exists as some kind of meta-physical data-base that the chosen one can tap into and utilize.

The Omnivore was deeply disappointed that The Giver didn't load up Jonas with black-belt level Kung Fu, combat driving, and assault / penetration expertise before sending him off to rescue the baby. The Giver could've used some Matrix level ass-kicking.

The question is: would this work? Does The Giver give us insightful commentary on the idea that a society that was entirely equal would be conflict-free?

For our use-case, let's compare The Giver to the mature-audiences gold-standard 1984 and see which has produced a more controlled / stable society.

Resources / Population Control
The Giver: We don't know what happened to society in The Giver--but whatever it was, the Community's strict population control speaks to resource management (else, why not just let elders die off). On the other hand, the one thing they don't have is land--they're on a gigantic mesa: maybe they have plenty of food, power, water, etc--and just can't fit more people? In any event, we know lack of resources is a major theme in conflict--both at a personal level and geo-politically. This is a good move--but relies on a complete head-game (no one minds the olds being 'released'). It's hard to achieve in reality.

1984: Orwell's nightmare world uses war as an excuse to limit resources. The putative lack of resources due to (eternal) war footage is manipulated to keep favored groups "on the brink" of hardship--to make them more compliant. We see that working in North Korea where a stream of goods is necessary to control the generals and, more generally, the somewhat less elite. This is working perfectly in real life (indeed, without even delivering an actual "war"). It requires no new-tech head-games.

Advantage: 1984

The Omnivore can't think of any war, other than, apocryphally, the Trojan one started over love. To be sure, there may have been some proximate wars started by emotions (such as the epic Guilder-Florin war)--but mostly? No. It is not at all clear to The Omnivore that emotions such as love or happiness are largely to blame for geo-poltiics. Even racial genocides, filled with hate as they are, are the result of geopolitical pressures more often than of emotions.

The Omnivore has heard that the inventor of the Public Address system felt guilt for its role in raising Adolf Hitler to power (he could address massive auditoriums rather than small groups). There may be something to that--but art and music's role in warfare is even less bright-line.

The Giver: The use of drugs to curtail strong emotions might work--but, again, it's new-tech. It's also not clear they need to. Certainly making sure everyone was on super-anti-depressants would help secure a society--but it might also make them less effective at things you'd want.

1984: They want emotions--specifically fear, rage at external enemies, and self-abasement to authority. Big Brother is the focal-point for love (like a religion). They have this figured out. North Korea is basically living this one too.

Advantage: 1984

Equality of Race & Class
It's perfectly possible to have races intermingle without there being any conflict: consider that the Irish and Italians were not considered "white" in America until relatively recently (and Jews, even more recently). In small enough numbers (so that there is no threat to resources), other races are seen as simply exotic. Consider that prejudice towards Asians is generally 'positive' (which is not saying it's a good thing).

The Community could add in race without much difficulty given everything else they are doing. On the other hand ... class in the society is more or less static. It's not clear how you become an 'Elder' (presumably live to be old and don't get 'released' due to being valuable?) but there's zero class or job mobility.

Having everyone live at equal levels, given this, is probably necessary: if you don't like your job assignment, at least you don't have to live in poverty.

The Giver: Their method of what is apparently ethnic cleansing (or maybe the disaster did that?) combined with a very, very small ruling class would probably work. It looks good because everyone is totally middle class rather than living in poverty.

1984: The Party appears to be a considerably larger body of elites or potential elites. The standard of living is both lower and more brutal than The Giver-verse. While there likely isn't much actual mobility, at least people in 1984 may think they can advance by being loyal.

Advantage: Tie

Yeah--Communism has the same issue: if you are to accept an ultimate authority in The State, there can't be a "higher authority." Religion would be more dangerous to The State than to other people--in a land of plenty, non-believers would probably still more or less get along. On the other hand, The Community left money on the table: they should've been the religion. There are probably elemental niches in our psyches that require religion and those would be suffering (then again, with anti-emotion drugs? Who knows).

The Giver: No religion at all--possibly with the help of drugs.

1984: Big Brother.

Advantage: Probably 1984. Humans seem to require religion and then will acquire religion if they can't get one. While wonder-drugs solve everything, the real-life example of North Korea's Great Leader(s) makes it clear 1984 would work.

Sex is not a first-order cause of geo-political war--but sexual pressure is. Societies with two many young-men-without-marriage prospects trend to war. Allegedly, the chance to "get some" on Jihad is a real recruiting point. Getting rid of sex will cool interpersonal relationship problems--but getting rid of sexual urges altogether probably would help on the geo-political stage as well. This is a good call.

The Giver: Drugs suppress libido.

1984: The State publishes pornography!

Advantage: 1984. Again, with wonder-drugs anything might work--but 1984 is savvy about it instead of hand-waving.

The Omnivore is aware of no geo-political conflict started over color. Indeed, with the exception of  familial clashes over room-painting, The Omnivore has never experienced a battle purely over hue. On the other hand, prisons and hospitals benefit from specific color-schemes designed to pacify people. Perhaps there's something to it?

The Giver: Making everyone color-blind doesn't make people non-racist. It might just be a side-effect of the drugs they're using? In any event, we'll assume it works.

1984: The Omnivore is aware of nothing like this.

Advantage: The Giver. It turns out their signature / most visible (!) achievement is possibly telling! 1984 didn't get rid of that.

Precise Language
While theories that our minds are strongly shaped by our language are out of favor, it's clear that controlling what you can say is pretty important in controlling what you do. Freedom of Speech is, after all, America's first right in the Bill of Rights.

The Giver: The characters are scolded for use of precise language which holds that "love" has no meaning.

1984: The government is creating a new language (which gets spelled out somewhat in the appendix!). It would make it impossible to write the Declaration of Independence!

Advantage: 1984 for scope and scale.

The Omnivore's assessment that 1984 scores higher on the dystopia insight scale doesn't mean The Giver is a bad movie or book--in fact, 1984 is never presented as a utopia ... The Giver seems, for a little while, like a place you might want to live. The questions of what is it worth for material and emotional security are as valid as "Wold taking away this stuff work?"

On the other hand the fact that the more-mature 1984 (yes, it's read in schools--but no, it wasn't written for a young audience) hits many of the same notes and doesn't rely on drugs to do it is telling. The Giver's politics of Utopian Unity are ultimately constrained by its YA implementation in a way that the more wide-open (and horrific) 1984 wasn't.


  1. The question of "what price Utopia?" has rarely been brought into sharper focus than by Ursula K. Le Guin's classic 1973 short story "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas". Worth the ten minutes it takes to read it, if you haven't already.

    Re conflict over color: 0x009B9B. This is obviously what H.P. Lovecraft was referring to in "The Colour Out of Space" back in 1927.

    -- Ω

    1. Indeed--I had almost cited it in there--but didn't quite fit it in. This is partly because 1984 -actually works-, The Giver -works with wonder-drugs-, Omelas works through magic--on that spectrum it didn't fit my format.

      But you're right--it's great.

      -The Omnivore

    2. Though it sometimes feels that way, I don't believe that happiness is any sort of zero-sum condition. Ms. Le Guin admits to being influenced by William James' The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life, in which he has this to say:

      Or if the hypothesis were offered us of a world in which Messrs. Fourier's and Bellamy's and Morris's utopias should all be outdone, and millions kept permanently happy on the one simple condition that a certain lost soul on the far-off edge of things should lead a life of lonely torture, what except a specifical and independent sort of emotion can it be which would make us immediately feel, even though an impulse arose within us to clutch at the happiness so offered, how hideous a thing would be its enjoyment when deliberately accepted as the fruit of such a bargain?

      -- Ω