Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Giver Quartet and the Power of the Written Word

Welcome to my series on speculative fiction! For it, I will be focusing on three different series of books, highlighting three different lessons that readers (and writers) can learn from some of the best science fiction writers in the business. Since whole series are taken into account, I won’t be focusing much on plots, but rather on what unique lesson we can learn from each series as a whole. Also, beware of spoilers, and enjoy the first entry, The Giver.

The Giver

The Giver by Lois Lowry

When Lois Lowry first wrote the Newbery Award winning first book in her quartet, she meant for the book to stand alone. It has a complete arc, an ambiguous but satisfying ending, and a clear message. Subsequent books weren’t really needed in this case.

Or at least, that’s what I thought. Her fans didn’t so much agree.

First they clamoured for sequels that told them what happened to Jonas and Gabe, whom the ending of the first book left dying, but close to the homes of people who could save them. When I first read The Giver as a child, no one was really sure if they would live or if Jonas was maybe just dreaming of their rescue. My theory as a child had always been that the vision was real and Jonas did get them to the village, but that he died of exposure protecting Gabe.

 So Lois Lowry wrote Gathering Blue. And answered none of those questions. Touché, Lois. Touché.

The answers did come later – in Messenger and Son – but Lowry was clearly less interested in writing a series than she was in writing books. Each book in the series more or less stands on its own, following new characters in a new city, somewhere within the remains of the post-apocalyptic world Jonas grew up in. It’s only in Son that the reader finally returns to the old Community of Jonas’s youth and, luckily, the experience as a reader is once again horrifying.

If I had to identify Lowry’s two greatest strengths in her series, it would be those two things – that each book stands somewhat separate from the others, and that at their best, the strongest books in the series have this slow building sense of dread. And those two reasons are why The Giver was meant to be read more than seen.

For a book I’ve loved since childhood, I cannot tell you how not excited I was to hear about when it was finally adapted for film. The stories just don’t lend themselves to the razzle-dazzle, Katniss Everdeen style battle sequences and special effects we currently associate with YA dystopias. Jonas isn’t in a life or death situation. Death, in some sense, is an acceptable outcome for him, since his death would still force the memories he holds to revert back to the Community. It would have been a kind of noble sacrifice. So there are no life-or-death stakes in the book, no point in threatening his family and no emotions.

Let me repeat that. THERE ARE NO EMOTIONS. Well, there are some, but they’re vague approximations of the real things, or they’re new and fragile. They’re not grandiose. No one is threatening anyone. No one is falling in love. Turning this sort of story into a film would require a pretty restrained and sophisticated hand. I’m not saying it can’t be done, just that it would be incredibly hard and the current YA film market was not up to it.

On top of that, while yes, there is an ongoing series, it’s one that kind of eschews the whole notion of a franchise. There are four separate main characters. There are long time lapses between each book. By the end of the series, twelve-year-old Jonas has aged up to his mid-twenties, has kids and has kind of retired from the whole “saving the world” thing. If they wanted to keep Jonas as the focal point, there’s a lot of shifting around that would need to be done to the later books. He doesn’t even make another appearance until Messenger. And if they did do that, the movies would stop feeling like adaptations so much as full-on rewrites.

“But Emily!” you say, “surely you’re being too narrow minded! Surely something about these wonderful books could still make it onto screen!”

And to that I say, yes, it could, but a lot of the books best moments by necessity couldn’t. The series is best suited to the written word, no matter how you look at it. In fact, some of what made it so powerful results from techniques that are only available to the written word.

The first book in the series relies on a reader creating their own idea of what Jonas`s world looks like. We get plenty of details about this stark world, where everyone cuts their hair the same and wears the same clothing. We can tell it`s bleak and empty. But how bleak and empty we know not, until Jonas starts receiving the memories of the past. Startled by what he is experiences, he asks the Giver for an explanation and in return, he hears one of the most powerful lines in literature.

“You’re beginning to see the color red.”

I remember at twelve what a knife to the gut that line was. I’d never noticed that in the whole front half of the book, Lowry never used a single color to describe her characters. Blue eyes were “light” eyes. Nothing more. There isn’t even any black or white or gray. There’s just an absence. The reader is denied color just as fully as Jonas is.

And this is something film could not replicate. Filming the movie in black and white tips you off that something is wrong. Again, the world ISN’T black and white. It’s colorless. The characters lack the ability to understand the contrast. The whole devise relies upon the reader needing to imagine the world on their own. The moment a film maker’s vision intervenes on behalf of the reader, the power of the revelation is dampened.

Oh yeah. This clearly looks normal. This CAN'T be symbolism!

Personally, this is something I love about The Giver. We live at a time where people use movies to substitute for reading. Or where people rely upon films to visualize stories. Sometimes it can be hard to argue with them that the best way to experience the visual aspect of a story isn’t through visual media. To me, The Giver is potent proof that the power of a reader’s imagination is even greater than the power of film.


  1. "The Giver is potent proof that the power of a reader's imagination is even greater than the power of film."
    As a screenwriter I entirely agree. Sometimes it is more important to let the reader have the last word.
    Great entry, looking forward to more!

  2. Wow! Well said! I've heard a lot about THE GIVER being made into film, but I haven't had any desire to see it because I loved the original book so much. Now I know why. :-D

    1. Thanks so much! As you can see, I have some rather strong feelings about these books. :)