How The Giver Gets It Wrong

BEVERLY HILLS, CA - FEBRUARY 10:  Actress Meryl Streep attends the 86th Academy Awards nominee luncheon at The Beverly Hilton
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - FEBRUARY 10: Actress Meryl Streep attends the 86th Academy Awards nominee luncheon at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on February 10, 2014 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

Since I'm always intrigued by cinematic visions of the future, I checked out The Giver, the new movie based on the 1993 children's/young-adult novel by Lois Lowry. I can't say whether the movie does justice to the book, which I haven't read, but taken by itself, the screen version, directed by Philip Noyce (Rabbit-Proof Fence, Salt), is one of the most simple-minded and irrelevant works of fiction I've ever seen. I'm surprised that Meryl Streep (one of the stars) and the Weinstein Company (producer and distributor) got involved in this dunderheaded project that Jeff Bridges (the other major star) has been trying to get done for almost 20 years.

The movie depicts a futuristic society intended to be utopian in which everyone is economically equal and competition has been eliminated. We are led to believe that such a world would be horrible. That may be true, but what relevance does this idea have to today's America, where the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting relatively poorer? Let's get a little closer to a just, equal-opportunity society before we start fantasizing about the dangers of perfect equality.

In the totally unbelievable world of The Giver, order and serenity are maintained by removing all sources of jealousy, conflict and pain and by erasing (for most citizens) all memories of past generations. There's no love, no art, almost nothing that makes life worth living. Everything is governed by rules, and everyone obeys the rules. Of course this looks like a nightmare. I won't go into the plot, but it centers on a young man who defies and hopes to overturn the system. He's a hero because he breaks the rules. You can read what you want into a fantasy like this, but the message that is most obvious can be summed up in four words: rules bad, freedom good.

What a load of libertarian, Ayn Randian nonsense. Freedom is great, but it needs to stop at the point where your neighbor's freedom begins. Rules can be excessive, but without any rules, we have chaos. The challenge of human life, which no society has ever quite mastered, is to find the right balance between rules and freedom. Attempts to keep order in society don't have to lead to the mental slavery shown in The Giver, and we are not headed in that direction. Classic nightmare-future, pro-freedom literature such as 1984 and Fahrenheit 451 made sense when we were worried about Communist world domination, but that threat crumbled along with the Berlin Wall, and the peril of totalitarianism is not what haunts America today.

The Giver is by far the worst of the recent spate of movies envisioning dystopian futures, which also include The Hunger Games series and Divergent. The first Hunger Games movie clicked with me because it depicted an elite, sybaritic ruling class oppressing a vast underclass. The Games themselves were a futuristic reality TV show in which some of the peasants were forced to fight to the death like Roman gladiators. I thought the movie was an apt, if exaggerated, commentary on trends we see in America today. It certainly seemed more recognizable and plausible than the world of The Giver. I was less comfortable with the second Hunger Games episode, in which the rulers sent out storm troopers to slaughter some unruly peasants. That might unfortunately resonate with the paranoid among us who worry that the U.S. government's black helicopters are coming to get them. I fear that all these dystopian movies are feeding the frenzy of anti-government feeling that is sweeping our country and giving young people some warped ideas.

The problem is not that we have government. It's how government is used and who uses government for their own purposes. I'll admit that seeing police armed like soldiers in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, is pretty scary, and that, at the local level, government is often used by white Americans to control and imprison black Americans (as in the overly aggressive drug war). But that's not what bothers typical conservatives who rant against government. What they gripe about are taxes and the many regulations that impinge upon freedom.

Are well-to-do white Americans suffering from oppressive government? No, quite the opposite. Because of our corrupt campaign finance system, government at every level has been captured by the business class and used as a tool to serve business interests. Sure, there are unnecessary regulations that could be fine-tuned or eliminated, but the rules are written in close consultation with industry lobbyists and are generally quite lenient. And because corporations and the rich evade taxes and push compliant lawmakers to enact tax cuts, governments are starved for resources to enforce what rules we have. As a result, corporations have almost free rein to wreck our climate, sell bad food, distribute lethal weapons, expose our children to violent and sexual images, drive students deep into debt and cheat us out of our savings with lousy financial products. They don't have too little freedom. They have too much freedom.

So, The Giver is off the point in 2014. Yes, our current governments aren't good for us. But the answer is not less government and fewer rules. We need strong, independent governments that can be an effective counterweight to the increasing power of corporations. We have to reform our political finance system and recapture our governments so that they work for all of us -- corporations and consumers, white and black, rich and poor. And, Hollywood, please focus more on another one of your traditional staples: movies like Michael Clayton in which big corporations are the bad guys being pursued by fearless, incorruptible law-enforcement officials. Those are the stories that seem most relevant to the current fix we're in.