Despite its relatively negative reviews from film critics, The Giver (2014), a movie based on the well-acclaimed children's novel of the same name by Lois Lowry, has potential to generate productive discussions when explored through a disability studies lens, particularly the subjects of eugenics and the place of disabilities in utopias. Even though the film departs from the novel in certain ways, most noticeably, by making the story less ambiguous and placing more emphasis on questions about bioethics and utopias-gone-wrong, the story will still sound familiar to those who have read Lowry's novel at some point in their schooling years. It is worth noting that the novel has been banned in some schools in the United States due to its thought-provoking approach to various ethical questions (American Library Association, 2014). The Giver tells the story of a society that embraces radical rules and practices in order to abolish any forms of difference. The people living in The Community share the same social status and seem to enjoy the benefits of a community where all their needs are met and everything seems to run smoothly. The film follows Jonas, a young man living in a world that lacks colour and any recollection of past events. We are given the opportunity to witness the extreme consequences of striving for perfection by controlling every aspect of human life. The Giver raises questions about some of the losses that come when eliminating everything that is considered to be different or undesirable — whether it is about unpleasant experiences, or the lives of humans who are not perceived to be as fit and strong — as well as the arbitrariness of the criteria used to decide who belongs in The Community. The bodies of the community members are rigorously monitored through various practices in order to erase differences, from the genetic engineering of the new generation of community members, to the actual removal of those members who are considered to be weak or inadequate. This brings to mind the historical legacy of eugenics, and other regulations and practices around the world that have attempted to erase disabilities, and have denied disabled individuals the right to sexual expression and parenting. Moreover, the members of the community do not have language that would help them understand the long-lost concepts of diversity, pains, violence, and joys. Jonas is assigned to be the role of the "Receiver of Memory" and under the guidance of The Giver, receives memories of a past marked by envy, anger, and wars, but also more memories like color, art, climate and long-extinct animals.
To begin, it is evident that everyone in The Community is able-bodied as a consequence of genetic engineers working together in the production of sameness. By engaging in the discussion about perfect societies and a world free of pain, The Giver shares various features with other works in its genre, such as the movie Pleasantville (1998). However, while most other cinematic utopias do not show how sameness comes to be—that is, we do not see what needs to be done in order to produce such a world where everyone is perfect, equal, and free of pain—The Giver clearly illustrates the process and practices involved in creating sameness. Thus, this movie engages in discussions about disability, even if not explicitly; it brings it into focus. Engaging with this film through a disability studies perspective allows us to question whether disabilities and disabled bodies have a place in such dystopias, and opens up possibilities for further discussions about eugenics practices, and silences that follow it.
Throughout the entire film there is a categorization of groups of people, the decisions about who belongs to the community, and who is seen as a productive and relevant social actor in the community. This demonstrates the idea of "release," a euphemism for subjecting individuals to a lethal injection to end their lives. Like the novel, the film makes particular reference to four groups of people who are being "released" — the elderly when they reach a certain age, newborns that are deemed unfit, and those have been punished, and/or have been deemed to be incorrigible. In the case of the elderly, at a certain age, individuals are moved into The House of the Old, a kind of retirement home, where they are visited and cared for by young volunteers and those assigned the role of caretakers. These individuals are segregated in this way until their time of "release." In contrast with the novel, the film paid little attention to the issue of "releasing" the elderly and those being punished. Instead, one of the film's most infamous scenes involves The Receiver being confronted with images of his father, a nurturer at the Nurturing Center, "releasing," or euthanizing, a newborn. We see the needle penetrating the newborn's head; there is a very strong focus on the action, as we see the father interacting with the newborn, preparing the needle, and applying the substance into the newborn's head. As the scene is meant to disturb or cause commotion among the audience, it is crucial for the broader argument that the movie seems to be making about a desensitized world where even the word "love" has been deemed to be "so antiquated it no longer makes sense," and consequently, people can no longer understand the meaning and implications of their actions.
The movie centers on the Nurturing Centre, the place where newborns live until they are assigned to different heterosexual couples. In the very first minutes of the film, we are immediately taken to the Center. We see the center repeatedly through the film, and towards the end of the movie we are taken there again in one of the movie's most dramatic moments. As an ongoing parallel narrative to the main story, we are introduced to the stories of a newborn child who is currently under evaluation to see whether it should be "released," and a pair of twins from which only one must live, considering that twins represent a potential cause of conflict in The Community (ironically, even those embodying apparent sameness, as in the case of twins, are seen as dangerous). As in the case of the twins, The Receiver's father notes that "it's usually not hard [to decide which one continues to live], though. Usually it's just a matter of birth weight. We release the smaller of the two"(p.114). There is something intriguing about the criterion chosen to decide which newborn gets to live. It is surprising to see the use of such an unsophisticated criterion, such as birth weight, especially when it comes from the community that engages in advanced scientific projects such as controlling climate. By showing the arbitrariness of their methods for deciding who gets to live, we reflect on our own practices and beliefs around difference and exclusion, as the works that include utopias are undoubtedly reflections of our times.
It is also worth noting that the control of language used within the community, based on word-choice precision and lack of terms that can cause conflict, sets the limits of concepts that can be expressed by the members of this community and who can say it. For example, in the scene where the father explains that a newborn "failed his test of maturity again" and, consequently, will be released to the Elsewhere, the father says, without any hesitation, that "we certainly gave it our best try" (p.165). Notably, that "test of maturity," as explained briefly in the novel, draws on certain ableist normative notions that suggest that "mature" infants should be able to "sit alone" and "reach for and grasp small play objects" (p.113). Nonetheless, more emphatically in the film, The Receiver, who now has access to certain memories, makes a strong statement: "they haven't eliminated murder, they brought it home, they just call it by a different name." Nonetheless, the film also makes the point to suggest that a desensitized society where people can no longer experience pain or love for one another, can easily normalize otherwise cruel practices.
Given these points, The Giver provides various entry points into discussions about disabilities. Even though the movie tried to romanticize the characters and the plot introduced in the novel, it does not depart from what we see as the key points that have to do with who gets to be born, and how sameness is being produced. Disability Studies scholars might find Lowry's subsequent works relevant to discussions about disability, especially her novel Gathering Blue (1994). Unlike the critics, the film seems to have been more positively received by the general audience, and thus, we can expect other novels in Lowry's Giver quartet to also be translated into movies to bring into the spotlight questions around disabilities and bioethics. These films could be seen as productive grounds for future discussions about newgenic practices that share the rationale of eugenics, notions of what 'good societies' might look like, and the presence of disabilities and disabled bodies in such societies. We could say that The Giver should be taken into account precisely because it does bring the question of eugenics into popular culture and perhaps has potential to generate discussions about this contentious issue.
- American Library Association. (2014). 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books: 2000-2009. Retrieved from: http://www.ala.org/bbooks/top-100-bannedchallenged-books-2000-2009
- Lowry, L. (2000). Gathering Blue. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
- "Pleasantville," 1998. New Line Cinema, and Larger Than Life Productions. Directed by Gary Ross. Written by Gary Ross.