As author Lois Lowry sat down in Hall H at Comic-Con International in San Diego, she noted the convention’s 6,500-seat room would have “presentations with more bombast, but not with more heart” than her special preview of The Giver.
The writer, along with stars Jeff Bridges, Brenton Thwaites and Odeya Rush and producer Nikki Silver, previewed the adaptation of her novel to appreciative fans and discussed the 21-year journey she and Bridges took to get the film made.
“I wanted to direct my father Lloyd [as the Giver] in the film,” Bridges revealed. “And I wanted to make a film that my kids could see. They were little back then.” The actor recalled getting a catalog of children’s books in 1993 and finding a “great cover of a grizzled old guy” and the Newberry Award logo stamped on it. “I found out later that Lois took that photograph,” he said of the book’s initial cover. “I read it and I enjoyed it so much, the themes were so important and [I loved] the poetry of it.”
He thought it would be easy to get the film made, but acquiring financing proved to be difficult because the novel was considered controversial in some places. It was often banned, but just as often embraced by teachers, who added it to their reading lists. “That controversy scared a lot of financiers away,” Bridges said. “I’m so glad the Weinstein Company and Walden helped us get the movie made.”
Moderator Anthony Breznican asked Lowry why the novel inspired controversy. “There are two scenes that are held up,” she replied. “One is where the father kills the infant. It’s a difficult scene, and you can see why people are disturbed by it. The other scene is when the boy — 12 in the book — bathes an old woman.”
Although The Giver remains controversial in some circles, it was an early example of the dystopian young adult novel that later exploded into popularity with series like The Hunger Games and Divergent. As Silver explained, the time was finally right for a film. “In everything there’s always luck and timing,” she said. “All of sudden, there came an appetite for dystopian fiction.”
Sadly, while Bridges waited for that right time, his father passed away. The lag also meant the actor aged into the role, and he agreed to take it on. In the film, he instructs Thwaites’ character Jonas on the forgotten memories of a future society that forswore emotions for the sake of tranquility and survival. Jonas’ newfound memories and feelings threaten the community, represented by the Chief Elder played by Meryl Streep.
Having seen parts of the finished film, Lowry said she would like to go back and expand the character’s role, based in part on the life Streep breathed into it. In the film, she and the Giver clash directly, but Streep makes the Elder a dynamic character with concerns just as valid as the Giver’s. “It’s the same thing that happens when they ban the book,” the author explained. “[She’s] trying to protect the children.”
Representing the Giver’s view, Bridges said, “The price of comfort can often backfire. The richness in life can often come out of the struggle.”
“But I doubt there’s a person in this room who hasn’t thought, ‘I’d give [emotions] all up if life would be easy,'” Silver added.
Another departure from the novel is the ages of Jonas, and Rush’s character Fiona. The actress thought the change made Jonas’ struggle more acute. “In the book, when Jonas starts to develop feelings for Fiona, it’s a crush as a 12-year-old,” she said. “When you’re 16 or 17, it’s a much more severe [feeling]. It makes the interjections of the community seem harsher.”
“It was a concern of mine,” the author admitted, but when she saw a scene of Thwaites and Rush riding bikes, she was able to see her characters through the age difference. “You see he is the same as the 12-year-old boy in that he’s curious and intelligent,” she added. “It works quite well.”
Thwaites said he connected to the deep emotions Jonas develops through his experiences with the Giver, adding, “It teaches him to follow his heart.”
During the Q&A, a fan asked Lowry whether she considered the novel part of the dystopian genre when she wrote it. The author replied that she tends not to think in those terms. “I began to create a story. A character appears to me and I move him through a journey that he has to make and it wasn’t until I got halfway through that [I realized] this had to be set in the future,” she explained. In the process, she discovered the community she designed as paradise was not so pleasant. “As it became more complicated, it became a dystopia,” she said. “But that wasn’t on my mind [as a] genre.”
She also told the next fan that the book was a fairly easy sell to her publisher, as she had a proven track record before submitting The Giver. “I handed that manuscript to my editor and he was surprised by it so he showed to the other editors and they made the choice to publish it,” she added.
Asked if he referenced the novel when preparing to play the Giver, Bridges answered, “I always went back to the book. Scripts are very condensed. With a book, you can get inside the character.” With the book in hand, he could read any scene’s equivalent in the novel to get a better feel for the Giver’s emotional state.
One fan wanted to know what input, if any, Lowry gave during filming. “I didn’t provide any guidance because they are professionals who are very good at what they do,” she said. “I did provide details.” Explaining that director Phillip Noyce “is an email addict and never seems to sleep,” she recalled receiving a 2AM email from him requesting a description of Jonas’ bedroom. She suggested “a functional room,” which Noyce incorporated into his plans.
“I heard you gave Meryl Streep some line readings,” Bridges interjected.
Lowry laughed, as giving line readings to actors is generally frowned upon, particularly when the actor in question has won as many awards as Streep. The author explained that she was visiting during an additional dialogue recording session during which Streep was adding a new line to punctuate a moment between the Elder and the Giver. She said the line: “If you don’t want to watch, close your eyes and watch with the other elders.” Noting the curious phrasing, Lowry told the actress, “He’s not Helen Keller; you should read it the other way around.”
Streep amended the line, saying instead, “Go watch with the other elders, if you don’t want to, close your eyes.” The author was pleased.
The Giver opens Aug. 15.