Why The Giver Isn't Pleasantville: a Catholic Movie Review

John Johnson's picture

In what might be the most Catholic movie to hit theaters since The Dark Knight Rises, The Giver is a movie worth seeing. If you can get past some mediocre acting (Bridges exempt) and a few campy flashback scenes, including one misplaced homage to Nelson Mandela, there is a good amount of Christian meditation to be had through this film. Taking place in an all-too-believable dystopian future, The Giver is a cautionary tale against humanist liberals who kill love for the sake of community. The references to contemporary anti-culture abound including some very direct treatment of abortion and euthanasia. There are also a few good theological allusions - a tree, an apple, etc.

Many viewers might think this movie has been done before: the tale of a boy who dares to break the rules and awaken a rigid, safe, and soulless people to the exciting and 'colorful' life of rebellion against the man and his constructs, viz., Pleasantville (1998). But look again. The Giver isn't Pleasantville. In fact, it's the opposite. Here are two reasons why:

1) In The Giver, the city is liberated not through an unleashing of carnal passions but through the spark of wisdom and beauty. Jeff Bridges' character is the philosopher king - a Platonic figure best suited to rule the city because of his wisdom. He knows beyond the shadows; he knows the source of the city. Of course, his knowledge of reality is a cross for him; and when push comes to shove, the guardians of the city will kill him rather than live according to the truth he offers them. Unlike Pleasantville, what the giver is entrusted to convey is not some well-kept Kensian secret of repressed bestial urge, but the infinite and transcendent principle of affectivity inherent in reality itself - in a word - love. Love's not what happened in Joan Allen's bathtub.

2) Patriarchy (hold on - I know they taught you this was a bad word in college - hear me out). As humans, one of our most natural impulses is to desire the accepting embrace of a father. Salvation history is the story of a Father seeking after his prodigal son. We need a father, and that's good. It's good and it's natural. The Giver features a rebellion against a city ruled by women including Meryl Streep's character, "the chief elder" and Katie Holmes', the chief officer of justice. What is significant about The Giver (as opposed to Pleasantville - which should have offered Gloria Steinem a writing credit) is that its protagonist, Jonas (Brenton Thwaites), overthrows one femin-archal order, acting not as a tyrannical chauvinist, but acting precisely for the sake of the woman - Fiona (Odeya Rush). Ultimately the woman in The Giver, is glorified not as a civil leader or object of sensual pleasure, but as a mother and Beloved of the savior. 

In a media culture that is hesitant if not opposed to portraying a wise, loving, father as "the chief elder," there was something very refreshing about Jeff Bridges' salty character telling his prodigy "I love you," imparting upon him all of his knowledge, and sending him to save the world. William H. Macy's "father" character in Pleasantville, to the contrary, was little but a complacent weenie - who just needed to listen to his wife and kids to come around (i.e., Homer Simpson, Tim Taylor, Ray Barone, etc. etc. etc.). The 'salvation' at work in Pleasantville is bottom up - a reconciliation to the flesh, which is ultimately a confirmation of the will toward the dust of mother earth. Something else is going on in The Giver that points the audience upward, and the key is love - "where there's love, there's hope and faith."

The Giver ends by reminding us of something that is better than pleasant. Miraculous is better than pleasant. Love, though full of pain, is better than pleasant. The bitterness of the snowy cold is when we might just stumble upon Christmas. We would all do well in these days to find sanctuary from the world in the house of The Giver and receive the truth for the sake of our friends - not for the sake of our community - for the sake of our friends. 

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