'The Giver' is a work of fiction, but still rings true

Jeff Bridges as The Giver, left, and Brenton Jeff Bridges as The Giver, left, and Brenton Thwaites as Jonas in "The Giver." Photo Credit: The Weinstein Company / David Bloomer

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In a 2010 New Yorker cartoon by Paul Noth, two Godzillas are looming over Manhattan, gobbling up its citizens. "Of course you feel great," one monster says to the other. "These things are loaded with antidepressants."

The cartoon comes to mind while talking to fabled film director Phillip Noyce about his new film, "The Giver," opening Friday, which co-stars Meryl Streep, Jeff Bridges and Katie Holmes.

Based on Lois Lowry's celebrated children's novel (10 million sold, a 1994 Newbury Medal winner) it imagines a not-too-futuristic society based on "Sameness" -- a system whose founders "have eliminated everything that would create conflict," according to the movie's hero, Jonas (Brenton Thwaites). It's also a world in which emotions are suppressed via daily medication.

"The thought that you could erase all the pain and suffering, all the conflict, all the worst of human behavior is a little seductive," Noyce said, acknowledging that the "dysfunction" portrayed in "The Giver" is far from black and white (which is how the characters see the world, and how the movie was largely shot). "And what's really cogent about Lois' novel, and hopefully about the movie, is that we are, increasingly, a drugged world. In the story, medication is used to stifle emotion. But we also live in a society that's doing just that."

In the world of "The Giver," babies are deposited with a "family unit," which teaches them to reject differences, use "precise language" in expressing themselves and to embrace conformity. Each year, a crop of young adults attends a Ceremony of Release to Elsewhere, at which they are assigned their task for life. Jonas is the last man standing: He has been chosen to be the Receiver of Memories, the human storehouse of his community's past. Jonas will learn all the things he's been deprived of from The Giver (Bridges). Jonas will start to see colors. He also will see that the peace and contentment of "Sameness" also means a cheapening of life -- in more ways than one.

Noyce, who has made his share of thrillers ("Patriot Games," "Clear and Present Danger"), said minor liberties with the book were taken to hike the anxiety quotient -- the final act, for instance, is told through Jonas' point of view -- and he added that the music by Marco Beltrami ("The Hurt Locker," "The Wolverine") "really adds an invisible level of suspense." Thwaites, however, said they constantly referenced the book to "make sure we had the right feeling."

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"I had to work out with Phil how much I could really express," said Thwaites who, like Noyce, is an Australian, and who is probably best known for "Maleficent" and "SLiDE," the Aussie TV series. "I was trying to understand where this kid's coming from, not having freedom of thought, and learning about emotion and memories from the Giver. I was allowed to express a little bit at a time, like adding pieces to a puzzle." As an actor, he said, "you want to go big. But Phil would pull me back. It was like working backwards."

Both Thwaites and his co-star, Odeya Rush ("The Odd Life of Timothy Green"), said they were inspired by Noyce's exuberance. "He was running in the snow, running in the desert," Thwaites said. "He did everything I did, a 64-year-old dude." They also were moved by the story's resonance, and depth, despite its being 20-plus years old.

"I think her ideas are relevant for today," Rush said of Lowry. "They're really impactful and will continue to be. The story's not so much about passion and violence, but something deeper. A lot of young-adult movies are about action and violence; this is more psychological, more internal."

The ending of the new film, together with the fact that "The Giver" was the first in a loose quartet of Lowry novels ("Gathering Blue," 2000; "Messenger," 2004; "Son," 2012), suggests sequels.

"I think it's so debatable," Rush said. "It's such a good story as it is. But I would love to work with these people again. The fandom public hasn't responded yet, but if they do and it's good, I'd love to do another."

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Thwaites said the response so far has been . . . Sameness. "I've had a little feedback from journalists, and it's all been quite positive, and I don't like that," he said. "This world teaches us that criticism and pain is good. I want to hear some criticism. I want to hear what avid fans of the book think. But it's a little early for that."

If recent film history is any indication, everyone involved will be encountering a future of full employment.

"I don't know what the attraction is in general," Noyce said of the flowering dystopic-society-movie genre. "But the attraction of Lois' book, I think, is a deep fear that our technology is secretly robbing us of experience. Think about the way you would have communicated with your family and friends in the past, the encounters you would have personally. Has technology freed or imprisoned you? Has it changed the very nature of human interaction? You have to wonder."

This director is no stranger to blockbusters

Phillip Noyce may have been born in the Australian Outback, but he grew up to make the kind of movies Hollywood prides itself on -- crowd-pleasing, star- driven and action-packed. Yet he's never lost his connection to the land down under: His much-honored "Rabbit-Proof Fence" (2002), was about aboriginal girls abducted from their families as part of official government policy back in 1931; he's still quite pleased at having had the first Australian film ever shown at the New York Film Festival ("Newsfront," 1978) and he says having an Australian (Brenton Thwaites) in the lead of his new film had decided advantages. "You can work in shorthand with another Australian. One word really," Noyce said. "The word is 'mate': After a bad take, you say, 'Mate?' After a good take, you say 'Mate!' It's all about the emphasis." The following are the films for which Noyce is best known.

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DEAD CALM (1989). The Australian-made thriller that introduced Nicole Kidman to American audiences, gave Sam Neill a foothold in Hollywood and kick-started Noyce's studio career was a big movie for everyone involved.

PATRIOT GAMES (1992). Harrison Ford's first outing as Tom Clancy's resourceful CIA agent Jack Ryan (previously played by Alec Baldwin in "The Hunt for Red October") who finds himself interrupting an IRA kidnapping attempt on the royal family, and complicating his own life to no end.

CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER (1994). Ryan redux, with Clancy's CIA agent now involved in an illegal war against a Colombian drug cartel. As in "Patriot Games," Noyce neatly balances the pulse-quickening elements of pure thriller with the personal drama of his hero, again played by Ford.

THE QUIET AMERICAN (2002). Noyce's acclaimed adaptation of the Graham Greene novel starred Michael Caine as a jaded British reporter who finds himself competing for the affections of his much younger girlfriend (Do Thi Hai Yen) with a young American doctor (Brendan Fraser), who may be more than he seems.

SALT (2010). A super CIA operative (Angelina Jolie) goes rogue after she's accused of being a sleeper agent for the Russians in this rather fanciful but often captivating thriller.

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