Premise: In the far off future, humans live in a “utopia” where there is no hate, no fear, no sadness, and most prominently, no knowledge of human kind’s history. When a young boy discovers the shocking truth about that history, he knows he must escape the community.
About: The Giver was a book published back in 1993 and quickly broke out as one of the most popular dystopian novels ever written. It eventually made its way onto school reading lists. The adaptation I’m reviewing was written back in 2004 by Todd Alcott, who wrote the animated movie, Antz. However, since then, the script has obviously been rewritten a few times, and is now credited to Michael Mitnick (who looks freakishly like Ferris Bueller. Look him up!). I believe the film is almost done shooting, and has a fancy cast that includes Alexander Skarsgard, Meryl Streep, Taylor Swift, Jeff Bridges, and Katie Holmes. The film comes out in August of next year. “Salt” director Phillip Noyce directed.
Writer: Todd Alcott (based on the book by Lois Lowry)
Details: 118 pages – 12-14-04 (listed as “final” draft)
So after hearing 3 separate people over the past year tell me that The Giver was a great script (and 2 OTHER people tell me it was one of their favorite books growing up), I finally decided to take a whack at it (get it? “take?” Cause like, it’s called “The Giver?” Mm-hmm, good right?)
Truth be told, it’s the old “bad title bug” that keep me from chomping on this piece of script celery. The Giver?? It sounds like a depressing Western where a Silas Marner like character, homeless and half-clothed, offers kind favors to passerbys. Ugh, shrug, no thanks Doug. I want to read something called GOOD scripts. GOOOOO-OOOOO-OOOO-DDDD. Good scripts.
Shows you how important a title is. The wrong one makes readers run like Panama Canal workers from mosquitos. Of course, this WAS a novel adaptation, so they were kind of stuck with what they were given (get it? Because “The Giver” and then I just said… oh forget it). But if you’re writing a sci-fi spec, make sure you title it something a little more sci-fi sounding.
So is The Giver as good as the praise it’s been given? Or am I going to GIVE it a failing grade? Only one way to find out. Join me in my Scriptshadow time machine so we can travel faaaar off into the future, into the world of… The Giver.
Jonas is a 12 year old boy who’s a little brighter than the rest of the kids. More astute, I’d say. Jonas lives in a future town of 3500 people, and boy is this town rad. First of all, no cars! That’s because there are no streets. Everyone rides around on bicycles and wears trendy clothes and enjoys each other’s company and seems genuinely happy with life.
There are some negatives. Nobody ever questions anything. Nobody’s allowed to go outside the town. Nobody’s allowed to lie. And there’s hardly any color in this world. It’s like everything is muted. Oh, and your job is chosen for you.
That’s right. In fact, as the story begins, a ceremony is coming up where all the 12 year olds (12 is the last year of childhood in this community) will be told what they’re doing for the rest of their lives. So they all go, and out of the 50 twelve year-olds, Jonas watches patiently as his friends go one by one and get jobs like “fisherman” and “helping the elderly” and “director of recreation.” But when it’s Jonas’s turn… he’s PASSED OVER.
This draws a concerned muttering from the crowd and naturally, Jonas is freaked out. Finally, after all the twelves have been designated, Jonas is called up. His job will be “The Receiver Of Memory,” a job that is only given once in a blue moon. And it appears to be bad. Because Jonas’s family is FREAKING OUT.
Jonas heads home, but now everybody treats him like he has West Nile Virus (I don’t know what my obsession with mosquito-transmitted diseases is in this review – honest). Nobody’s too fond of this Receiver of Memory crap. Even his parents look at him weird. So the next day, Jonas meets with the current Receiver of Memory, an old man whose job it is to pass on all the memories of the world’s history before he dies (he’s our “Giver”). You see, the Receiver of Memory is the only one who knows what human kind’s past really was.
And so he begins telling Jonas about cars and sleds and Paris, as well as violence and murder and wars. Jonas learns it all. He’s both horrified and fascinated. But it’s when he learns about death – specifically the way in which death is secretly administered in the community – that he really changes. This is not a place Jonas wants to grow up. Which is why he decides to get out. But will he make it before they find out his plan? And what will happen if they stop him? What will be Jonas’s fate?
You know, I’m starting to understand the appeal of adapting these young adult novels to film. They’re relatively breezy in terms of plot and concept, making them ideal for the limited space that is a movie script. The more “adult” novels tend to be complex and heavy, and when you have a lot of layers (a lot of complexity), that’s hard to fit into 120 pages.
I will say I’m getting a teensy bit worried about all these dystopian movies hitting the circuit, though. When you read enough of them, they all start to blend together. But The Giver is good. What I liked about it was how it established its world. From the number of people (3500) to the geography (the town’s boundaries are laid out nicely) to the way people dress, to the way people learn, to the way people work – I got a great sense of this community right away. And that’s something I rarely see in amateur sci-fi scripts, where the worlds and boundaries all feel like they were conceived during an early morning Denny’s breakfast after a night of drinking (“Yo dude, check it out. What if everyone, like, has a third ear??” ”Yeah man! But then, ironically, they’re all deaf.” ”Yeah!!! Brilliant dude! Hey stewardess! Another round of pancakes! Future millionaires in the house!”)
I loved the way the opening act built. This is something I don’t talk about much, but you want your story to always build. You want to feel like everything’s getting bigger, heavier, more complex and harder. I read too many scripts where we just stay at that flat level the whole way through, and when you do that, the read gets boring.
It started with this mysterious community, continued with Jonas seeing strange things the other kids couldn’t see, and moved on to a mysterious old man who would watch Jonas at school. We then get the shock of him not being picked at the ceremony. The reveal of his unique job. How that job changes the way the town perceives him. The mystery of earth’s history. The mystery of what happened to the previous Receiver of Memories. And it just kept going from there. It never slowed down.
All this reminded me of the importance of the mystery box. I know some of you guys hate JJ and his mystery box. But it really works when it’s done well. And here, it’s used perfectly. This thread of “What happened to the last Receiver?” is powerful enough (we wonder, if it happened to the one before, will it happen to our hero? And a script is always more exciting when you think your main character may be in danger) to keep the pages turning. It’s a prime story engine.
Having said that, I moist sointantly have some questions. Let me ask you guys something? Would you want to live in blissful ignorance in The Matrix? Or would you like to be released and live in the “real world?” Because when I saw what the “real world” was like in those Matrix sequels, I wanted to stay in the damn Matrix! I am perfectly fine living in a pretend world if I don’t know it’s pretend. Sign me up.
And with The Giver, I kept asking the same question. Is this community that bad? I mean, everyone seems to get along. Everyone’s happy. People don’t ask questions about things but that’s because everyone knows they’ve got it good. I mean there’s no war. No hate. No fighting.
So what is it, exactly, that we’re running away from in The Giver? Free will? Choice? I mean, yeah, those things are important, obviously. But The Giver makes too good of an argument for its utopian community. Everybody is really freaking happy. I can count the people in my life who are happy on one hand! So I ask it again: What’s so bad about this society here?
Now yes, (spoiler) there is a baby killing scene. I am not for killing babies. But can’t Jonas focus on maybe amending that little policy rather than run away? He’d do a lot more good. And you know what The Giver was missing? A villain. It needed a big fat villain because we needed someone to represent the corruption of the system, someone who used it for his own gain. We needed EVIL. Like I said, beside baby-killing moment, there really wasn’t anything that bad about this place.
Of course, just the fact that The Giver is making me think about all this stuff is great. It’s breaking that elusive “5th Wall” (the 5th Wall is the wall that makes the reader actually place themselves in your story and ask what they’d do). And once you have your reader doing that, you’re golden, baby. You’re screenplay golden.
So yeah, this script is good. It just has a few anomalies here and there. I’m eager to find out what they changed in the shooting draft. Id’ be shocked if they didn’t add a bigger villain. I’ll definitely see this when it comes out.
[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[xx] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: You want your story to build. That includes, but is not limited to a) throwing bigger and bigger obstacles at your hero over the course of the script, b) a number of revelations/surprises that also increase in importance as the script goes on, and c) upping the stakes as the script goes on. The stakes for your hero on page 90 should be much higher than they were on page 45, which should be much higher than they were on page 10.