Faith, Media & Culture

Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.

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What will you take from The Giver? As I noted in my review, The Giver — which open in theaters tomorrow (8/15) — is quite simply a great film. Its thought-provoking themes involving privacy, security versus freedom, the manipulation of language for social ends and the value of all human life will speak to virtually everyone regardless of age, religion or politics.

In a nutshell, the film, which is based on the 1993 Newbery Medal-winning book by Lois Lowry, tells the story of The Giver (Jeff Bridges) who is designated by a future society that confuses conformity with peace to be sole bearer of the violent truth of human history, and his teen protégé Jonas (Brenton Thwaites). When Jonas begins to question the ultimate wisdom of the authoritarian government (as personified by Chief Elder chillingly played by Meryl Streep) he finds himself putting his own life in danger to save a physically-imperfect infant due to be “released” from the burden of existence. A captivating scene in which Bridges’ and Streep’s characters debate how far the government should go in providing stability and security for its people is alone worth the price of admission.

The film is co-produced by The Weinstein Company and Walden Media. I just spoke with Walden Executive V.P. Chip Flaherty who spoke with me about the box office outlook, how and the co-production deal with Weinstein came about what he personally hopes people take away from The Giver.

JWK: The Giver is getting a lot of good reviews.

CHIP FLAHERTY: We’re getting great reviews…We’ve made a lot of book adaptations over the years. We’ve been successful with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Holes, Bridge to Terabithia, Charlotte’s Web…In terms of its quality, in terms of its all-star cast, in terms of being faithful to the book, I would say this movie is one of the best, if not the best movie, that Walden has ever done. 

JWK: The Giver, of course, is based on a popular YA novel from the nineties. What attracted you — and Walden Media — to this particular story?

CF: It’s funny, John, because…when Walden started14 years ago, it was the first book property that we ever went after. We just loved it…Jeff Bridges had optioned the rights and we tried to do something with him but we couldn’t get the script that we thought did the book justice. And then it went away and eventually Nikki Silver, who is the producer and Jeff Bridges were able to get it landed at The Weinstein Company. The Weinstein Company, as all distributors do, they looked for a production partner and they came to us first because they knew we loved it. We jumped at the chance because we always felt like this was the one that got away.  It worked out great.   

JWK: The Weinstein Company and Walden Media is an interesting pairing. I wouldn’t necessarily think of you guys as being attracted to the same property.

CF: Harvey Weinstein had a great quote the other night at the premiere. He said this movie reminds us that there’s a lot of common ground in America. There’s more that we have in common, that unites us, than separates us. I think that’s why The Giver speaks to so many people…Even like the government surveillance thing.  One way in The Giver that the government is able to keep control is that they are able to keep surveillance on everything. I think all of us want to feel safe (but) we don’t want to trade away all of our freedom for safety. I think that’s just one of the points of common ground that the film brings out.

On its face, you might not think the two companies would hook up but look at the pedigree of stuff that The Weinstein Company has done over the years…the high quality that they do. This (The Giver) is a Newbery Award-winning book that sold 11 million copies.  Walden’s stock and trade for over a decade has been book adaptation. You start to dig down a little deeper and think about it, the more you’re like “Wow! This is a pairing that makes all the sense in the world!”

JWK: Besides the idea drones and government surveillance which, of course, is extremely timely, I like the way the story touches on issues of freedom of thought — the idea that for there to be peace everyone has to agree about everything.

CF: Exactly. You know, I think the great thing about The Weinstein Company and Harvey is that they practice classic liberalism. They ask the big questions and they produce movies that make the audience ask the big questions. What does it mean to be free? How much would you trade of your freedom in order to get a sense of security? What is the role of free will (with regard to) the individual and the government? All of these things that are big ideas.

(In your review) you nailed a lot of the key points. To be able to get profound, big questions like that — you know, asking what kind of communities we all want to live in and things like that — to ask those big questions through such an entertaining film with an all-star cast is a great thing.

JWK: With the success of the Hunger Games films and Divergent, The Giver seems to be poised to hit with the same young adult audience that made those movies hits.

CF: Great point! You know, the ironic thing is Lois Lowry’s book The Giver came out in 1993. So, it’s really the first of these dystopian books…Others have beaten it to the screen which reminds us a lot of the (situation) we had with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe…A lot of these kind of fantasy type movies — like Harry Potter — had done so well on film — and then The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe came out and everyone was like “Oh, it’s a lot like Harry Potter.” We’d remind people “Well, actually, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe came out four decades before Harry Potter came out.

JWK: I think one of the most controversial aspects of the movie may be its subtle — but there — pro-life theme. On the other hand, from what I hear about polling of younger people, they are trending pro-life.

CF: At its heart, the film is a celebration of free will in life (and) love. There is no poverty and there’s 100 percent employment. One way that the government is able to do that is that the sick and the old are “released.”  You’ve seen the film, so you know that term “released” means killed. So, it really raises those questions of when things get difficult. When (person is old) or a person who is sick, what responsibilities do families and even the government have to watch out (for them) and take care of them rather than to do what, on the surface, seems the easier thing…I really think in that way it’s a celebration of life. As individuals, it really asks us (as) family people and (as participants in) the government, (what) role we have in protecting the most vulnerable — the old, the sick in our society.

JWK: That terms “released” is sort of Orwellian.

CF: I think if you look at Animal Farm — if you look at a lot of great, great books — and if you look at a lot of totalitarian regimes it is very reminiscent of the fact that a culture or those in power can use the language and use words to control messaging and control the people. This thing is just a treasure trove of big questions and big concepts (including) the way that language can kind of control the way people think about a given thing. I think when you look at those little girls at the beginning of the movie it’s so interesting because they talk about who was caught and “released” to Elsewhere and the little girl goes “I want to be released and go to Elsewhere” and they’re like “Oh, no, honey, you’re too young.” But it goes to show that she was already embracing the concept. Because of the language, she didn’t understand what it meant.

JWK: How is the film tracking?

CF: The tracking is as strong as it’s been for any Walden film. The other thing too that’s interesting is that tracking usually measures typical moviegoers who go a number of times in a year. I think with this movie — and the kind of publicity and press we’ve gotten when you see Cal Thomas and Michael Gerson and a number of people — there was a great article in The Wall Street Journal — when you look at all of the favorable press that we’ve gotten from non-traditional movie outlets, we really think we have a chance to have something special here this weekend. Even the non-typical moviegoer — lovers of the book and lovers of these huge themes — I think will show up as well.

JWK: I know Laura Ingraham is among those supporting the film.

CF: Yeah, she saw it just like you did…She was blown away. Again, the nice thing is people are blown away by the star-studded cast and the fact that it’s based on a book that sold 11 million copies. It’s still read in schools and is on basically every state’s summer reading list for kids to read over the summer or to read during the school year. To get all those (big questions) into a so-called typical Hollywood movie is (amazing). It reminds me of a Transformers meets The Twilight Zone.  It’s a huge summer movie with a great cast but, just like The Twilight Zone used to do, it really tells a great story (that) really makes us reflect upon the much bigger issues and questions of the day.

JWK:  If even said that in my review — that it reminds me of the classic Rod Serling/Twilight Zone style of storytelling which, of course, is a compliment.

CF: Exactly! You’re dead-on on that. That’s one of the things I think Lois’ book did so well that is one of the things we really tried to hold onto. I thank the Lord the film accomplishes that.

JWK:  Any possible sequels?

CF: Lois did sequels. There is book source material to do so…You know, it’s an interesting dystopia because it really starts with the best of intentions. You have people in authority trying to end pain, trying to prevent poverty, trying to prevent starvation. So, it really starts for all of the best reasons and then, like anything, when you try to control the individual that much it leads to bad things. I always thought a great movie would be like a prequel where see how they got to this point.

But, yeah, if this does well, the concepts are so big and the characters are so interesting, (we would) certainly look and see if we could do another.

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

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