Twenty years after The Giver was first optioned for film—and 21 years after the book was first published—Jonas and the world of “Sameness” in which he lives is finally coming to the big screen. Aug. 15 in the U.S., to be exact.
Earlier this week, I had the amazing opportunity to take part in a blogger phone interview with Lois Lowry, who we have to thank for putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) and introducing us to a dystopian world before dystopias were cool. Lowry didn’t just talk about the movie, however; she also spoke about her writing process, the novel and the other adaptations that been quicker to happen than the film.
The Giver was a really influential book. For you as an author, what books or authors have inspired you?
I read absolutely everything. I read bad to good. I tend not to read young adult books even though I write them. People are be surprised by that.
The authors that have most influenced me have been adult authors during my adult life. One that comes to my mind is Margaret Atwood, particularly her book The Handmaid’s Tale, which is a dystopian novel that was written when I was a young housewife tending to small children. That was a book that affected me a great deal.
There are so many new YA books and authors out there right now. Are there any new authors you’ve come across that have grasped your interest?
I wouldn’t pick any specific ones out because I don’t know enough. I haven’t read them all, and I don’t want to exclude anybody. There are certainly a lot of fine authors out there now, particularly writing for young people, which was less true when I began 30, 40 years ago. It has become such a popular genre, with so many young readers, which is really wonderful, but I’m not going to name any names. I’m sure there are a lot of very, very fine ones.
What part of the film are you most excited for long-time fans of the novel to see?
I haven’t seen the completed film; I’ve seen it in progress. I have to stop and think. Oddly enough, the character member that stands out the most in my mind is—amazingly—the baby. There are moments when the baby, Gabriel, steals the show. He was played by baby twins, so I don’t know which twin I was looking at when I caught my breath and said, “Wow.” But there’s a moment in the movie when that baby, who is crying, stops crying and looks up and listens, and it’s just a wonderful moment.
The movie is filled with wonderful moments and wonderful performances by every single one of the actors in it. One thing that isn’t in the book that is very touching in the movie is the relationship between Jonas and his friend Fiona. It is in the book, but in the book they’re younger (12), and in the movie they’re teenagers. So even though it’s not a big smushy romance, it’s a very touching portrait of what could have been, even though it has to end when Jonas goes away.
They’ve aged the main characters. Before the studio made alterations like that, did they come to you for feedback or your thoughts?
In many cases, they came to me to ask my opinion and advice about things, and they didn’t have to do that so I was very grateful and gratified that they did. The age was decided without my input, and I’m not sure why they decided to do that, but it seems to have worked well. I think people who enter the movie thinking “Oh darn, they ought to be twelve,” are going to forget that thought very quickly, because the performers—Jonas and Fiona and Jonas’s friend Asher—are so good and so good together. I think, aside from the little hint of romance, some of the things they do are things that twelve year olds wouldn’t be able to do, so probably it was appropriate to make them a little older. And it works just fine.
And of course Brenton, who plays Jonas, is going to be a real heartthrob for teenage girls.
What was the hardest part of The Giver for you to write?
Well, I probably dodged the hardest part, because very often I’m asked questions by young readers; it’s often boys that ask this question. They want to know exactly what technology was involved in allowing this community to control things that they control, like the weather and the loss of color. And I’m not into technology, so when I reply to letters asking those questions, I tell them I don’t have a clue. You just have to suspend belief and suspend disbelief, and pretend that they were able to do that. If I had tried to get into the science of it, I would’ve failed miserably. So that would’ve been hard but I made it easy by not doing it.
The rest—moving the plot along and the characters—those things are pretty easy for me. I guess the ending was a little difficult, because I decided to leave it ambiguous. It wasn’t because I didn’t know how it ended, but because I wanted to leave the reader with questions and a certain amount of wonder. But of course that got me into some trouble because a lot of readers didn’t like that.
Speaking of the ending, do you have an ending that would have happened had you kept writing?
Yes. I’m not sure I knew this at the time, but because I went on to write three more books that followed The Giver, by the last book you know exactly where Jonas is as an adult because the last book ends 14 years later. So they are not dead. They are alive and well and living a happy life.
How did you feel when The Giver was turned into an opera? How did it compare to when you found out The Giver was being turned into a movie?
The Giver is also a stage play, and has been for many years. I’ve seen it many, many times in various cities. I happen to like opera. I think kids have a hard time coming to an opera for the first time. They’re maybe more used to movie musicals, and an opera is not that. You don’t come away humming that cheerful tune, so it’s an undertaking to go and listen to an opera. But it’s very beautifully done. I’ve seen it performed in two different cities, but it’s complicated.
A play, also, is very different from a book. The play, unlike the movie, adheres very, very closely to the book. Because the movie needs action, they had to add things that are not in the book. They did it well by adding things that the characters would have done if I had chosen to write that action into the book; it’s appropriate.
Each one is a different thing, but they all work in different ways. The various audiences I’ve been sitting with, they have all loved seeing the play. Most of them have loved seeing the opera. I’ve heard some 7th grade boys mutter that “This is so boring,” but that’s just because they’re not accustomed to opera. It’s just a different experience each time. And for the author, it’s exciting to see how that happens and how it changes and grows.
We’ve heard about The Giver becoming a movie for a while now. Jeff Bridges was very adamant that he wanted to get the movie made. How were you feeling along the way? Were you ever hesitant about something so personal as a book being turned into a movie?
I have had—way, way back—a couple of mediocre experiences with my books being turned into movies. Both of them were TV movies, and neither of them were very good. This was going to be a different thing. This was going to be a big screen movie, and so I wasn’t as nervous about it as I might have been. Also, because I admire Jeff Bridges. When he started [on the project] something like 17 years ago, it was to make a movie starring his father. His father was a very distinguished actor, so I thought it was in good hands. Then time passed and time passed, and it just never got made for a number of reasons. And then Lloyd Bridges, Jeff’s father, died, and I was kind of afraid that the whole project would die with him.
But, like all of us, Jeff was getting older, and he hung in there and decided to play the role himself. He’s very good in the role. He doesn’t look exactly like the man on the original cover of the book, but [his portrayal] gives you the same feeling of great age and wisdom and sorrow. And he’s a wonderful actor. The way he moves on the screen, he takes on the posture and gait of an old man and his voice takes on an old man’s voice. It was very interesting to me to watch that process to see how that takes place.
So, in answer to your question, I never really worried about it. There were times though when I began to wonder whether it would actually ever get made. All of a sudden, about a year and a half ago, it became clear that they were actually going to do it. And then it became really exciting. Up to that time over 15 years or so, it had been interesting but not exciting. And then suddenly, it became exciting when they actually started casting and designing the sets and costumes. That they included me was quite wonderful because they certainly were not required to do that. It was a great courtesy on their part that they included me.
The Giver has been published for some time, but with the new film, a new generation of readers and fans will be discovering this novel for the first time. For new readers, what’s something that you hope they take away from it?
I have two grandsons (13 and 15) who were not born when The Giver was first published. Of course, they’ve encountered it along the way because they have a grandmother who’s thrust it at them. They’re part of today’s generation of young people who are living in a world that is very uncertain. My older grandchildren grew up in a less tumultuous time. My grandsons now are certainly aware, through the media, of warfare and terrible things happening around the world. They have a concern, as all young people do, about the future. That’s what the book presents to them. A feeling of how important they are and how important the decisions and choices they’ll make will be, because they’re the ones who are going to be the leaders of the world down the line. I’ll be gone by then, but they’re going to have to deal with it. I hope the book makes them think about the choices they’ll have to make in the future.
Did it feel surreal when the movie started being put together?
It doesn’t feel surreal. I’ve been involved for the past year watching this come together and turn into something. It’s been a very interesting, fascinating thing to watch, but surreal would not be the right word. It’s very real to me, and I love watching it happen. I just hope that when it’s out there, when the movie opens and the audiences see it, I hope they’re as thrilled as I am with it.
Is there a character that you feel you are most similar to or that you relate to the most?
Ordinarily, if I were asked that question about one of my other books, I would say a female character, because I’m female. I would most often choose the mother because I’m a mother, and Katie Holmes, who plays the mother, does a wonderful job. But she’s kind of a scary mother. She’s kind of chilling—you know that from having read the book. So I wouldn’t choose her. She’s not the one who I relate to the most, although I certainly am impressed by her performance. I think the one I relate to the most is the boy, Jonas. He’s the one who’s introspective, who’s uncertain.
How do you think technology has changed your writing?
I’ve been around for a long time, in the realm of writing. I always wanted to be a writer from a very young age; I taught myself to type on my father’s typewriter. And I didn’t teach myself correctly, so I still type with all the wrong fingers, but I do it very fast. That’s how I began writing professionally—on a typewriter with things that people don’t even remember anymore. Carbon paper. If you wanted a copy of what you were writing, you used carbon paper. There were no Xeroxes.
And then at some later point, computers entered my world. They made my writing life, I guess it would be fair to say, much easier. It was much easier to revise what I was writing because I no longer had to retype everything. It used to be, if I wanted to make a change in a manuscript, and I would make a change on page 32 and 34, it meant I had to retype the other pages as well. But now it’s so easy that something odd happens: It makes it very hard to know when you’re finished. Because you may retype the end and begin fooling around with it again. I’ve learned that at some point, I just have to say, “That’s it. Stop. Print this out and get rid of it.” That’s a great change over the years. The brain process has remained the same for all those years. The imagination never changes.
Did you ever visit the set? Did any of the actors come to you to get more insight on their character?
Yes, I did visit the set. They filmed it in Cape Town, South Africa. I went last fall and was on the set for a while. They filmed the last scene, for which they needed mountains and snow, in Utah. I wasn’t there for that. But I was in Cape Town, where I watched them film some pretty important scenes. One of the most important scenes in the book is where the father “releases” the newborn twin. I was there when they filmed that.
South Africa has beautiful landscapes, so when the boy leaves the community and makes the journey with the baby, he does it within this fabulous scenery that they found there, except for the scene in the snow which they filmed in Utah, but you don’t know that when you’re seeing the movie.
I only met the actors, the three young people, Katie Holmes was there, and Alexander Skarsgard, who plays Father. They were all lovely to be with, but I think at that point, they were doing the scenes and had been thinking about them. When I arrived and was first introduced to Brenton Thwaites, who plays Jonas, he was sitting off in a room by himself reading a script and thinking. So they’d already done that, and they didn’t need or seek my advice about that. But Jeff I had known over the years, and so he and I had talked from time to time over a period of a very long time, about his character. Not that he needed my advice, but I think he was interested in hearing whatever I might have to say over those many, many years.
Lowry has written a new foreword to the movie-tie in edition of The Giver, which you can check out here.
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