The Noble Lie
The new film adaptation of Lois Lowry’s Newbery award-winning 1993 young adult novel, The Giver, directed by Phillip Noyce, follows the book in making use of the conceit of the “noble lie” first formulated by Plato in the Republic. A noble lie is a false story that leaders of a community tell the general populace “for their own good.” A noble lie obscures the truth, but eliminates potential conflict and secures harmonious political life. In the Republic Plato has the chief characters of his dialogue, Socrates, Glaucon and Adeimantus, construct an imaginary city, a “city in speech,” that is perfectly just. But the city is founded upon a lie about the natural origin of the peoples that helps maintain the three strictly-defined social classes upon which the justice of the city is based.
The elders of the apparently utopian “Community” at the center of The Giver tell a lie about the world that existed before an undescribed global disaster. They say nothing to the general populace about war, poverty, disease, starvation, or other evils, which do not exist in the Community. But they also do not permit love, strong emotion, sex, religion, even music and color–because they see these things as the sources of diversity and thus of conflict and thus of the evils they have eliminated. Within the Community, Sameness is the driving political principle. Only one elderly man, the Receiver of Memories, knows in full what the world was like before the Community came into existence. In his mind he stores all the memories from that older world, both good and the bad, so as to be a source of wisdom for the Community elders. The Giver is the story of a boy, Jonas (played by Brenton Thwaites), twelve in the book but more like sixteen in the movie, who is chosen to be the next Receiver of Memories, and so becomes apprentice to the elderly “Giver.” But when Jonas discovers from the Giver that the Community has been founded upon a noble lie, he takes it upon itself to risk everything in order to unveil the truth.
As a film, The Giver has a good premise but is rather lackluster in the execution. A big part of the problem is that the central conflict–lying baddie elders vs. innocent Jonas and his friends–is inherently two-dimensional. The best sci-fi narratives play with the questions of what is essential to human being and to political life, and The Giver plays with both questions and at times in interesting ways. The Community, for example, like the ideal city in Plato’s Republic, eliminates the natural family, which serves as the cause of some interesting conflict. But somehow the absence of the natural family from the Community, and even of love, color, and a sense of the horror of death, fails to generate the kind of interest that we experience when we think about the essential place of emotions in human life through the Star Trek characters of Spock and Data. The Giver tries to make the devil’s advocate argument that choice and diversity and beauty only lead to conflict and suffering, but it’s a tough argument to make and it’s never done convincingly. A big part of the problem is that Meryl Streep’s icy Chief Elder is predictable, boring, and in need of a better hairdresser, and Jeff Bridges’ Giver, even in the scene with Taylor Swift’s Rosemary, never gives us a really compelling point of emotional connection (it doesn’t help that the voice Bridges gives to the Giver is unnatural and distracting). In the end, it’s the lack of rounded characters, combined with a two-dimensional central conflict the resolution of which is never really in doubt, that causes The Giver to come off flat and disappointing, inflicted with the same malaise of Sameness which governs the Community it depicts.
Beyond the Coast of Dystopia
In the Republic, Plato engages in an exercise somewhat like the sci-fi writer–indeed, the noble lie imagined by Socrates and his friends has a certain fantasy element to it. In thinking about the question of justice, Plato plays with the questions of what is necessary to human nature and political life. The Giver does the same, but the answers the film comes up with are ones far different than the ones Plato’s characters find. What truth does Jonas discover beyond the coast of the dystopian Community? He discovers that human happiness depends upon the very things the elders of the Community have kept secret. Love can lead to war, yes, but a truly fulfilling human life without love is impossible.
But perhaps even more fundamental to love is choice. In the final confrontation between the Chief Elder and the Giver, the Chief Elder declares that the power of choice had to be taken away from the members of the Community because “when human beings are given the power to choose they always choose badly.” In vanquishing the world of Sameness The Giver upholds choice and diversity as the defining features of human nature. This is the truth Jonas struggles to make known. The good memories Jonas receives from the Giver show that religion, for example, is part of the truth of what makes us human, but it’s religion enfolded within choice that is celebrated, religion as an expression of human diversity, not religion as worship of the one true God. Jonas also receives memories that celebrate the value of traditional marriage and the family, but again, what is being valued is one among the many varied and beautiful ways in which human beings live out their loves, not the special value of this particular institution. The Giver also pays a certain homage to Christian virtue–in the Giver’s exhortation to the elders on “love, hope and faith” and in the Christmas carol in the film’s closing shot–but it is not full-blooded Christian virtue that is being honored but rather Christianity as a symbol of a richer form of human existence. What Jonas finds beyond the coast of dystopia, in short, are the liberal virtues (understanding “liberal” in the broadly philosophical sense) of which choice, not charity, is the greatest.
And Yet Nature Abides
It was the first-century B.C. Roman poet Horace who in one of his epistles wrote, “You can drive nature out with a pitchfork, but she will always come running back.” In upholding the liberal virtues The Giver drives out those certain aspects of human nature which exist prior to our choices. For Plato, and for the Christian tradition up until the late middle ages, what is most important is the direction that nature gives to our choices, not the power of choice all by itself. It is nature that directs us to the traditional understanding of the family, to love (understood in a definite ways), to the intrinsic value of all human life, to music, and to color. It is nature which celebrates (within limits) diversity. Nature directs us to our fulfillment, which makes it very difficult entirely to do away with nature even when we do our best to drive it out.
And so we see in the argument of The Giver, in its condemnation of the values of the Community, a clear affirmation of nature’s ways: biological reproduction, the natural family, the value of color and the fine arts, the horror of euthanasia and of death generally. Though the movie itself is ambiguous on the point, the finest truth we can receive from The Giver is that the grandeur of human choice is only realized when we choose according to the direction given by our shared human nature.
What did you think of The Giver (film or book)? Share your thoughts in the comments.
Looking for more dystopian sci-fi? Take a look at my short story, “The Bureau of Myths,” available at Amazon for just 99 cents.
The stills from The Giver above are reproduced courtesy of Walden Media and The Weinstein Company.