For 14 years, film producer Micheal Flaherty made it his mission to bring “The Giver,” Lois Lowry’s award-winning 1994 novel, to the big screen.
Flaherty, president and co-founder of Walden Media, today can call “The Giver” the “crown jewel” of his production company, which specializes in family entertainment such as the “Chronicles of Narnia” movies, “The Bridge to Terabithia,” and “Charlotte’s Web.”
The story of “The Giver” has the power to get kids “not only interested in reading, but excited about big ideas,” Flaherty says in an interview with The Daily Signal.
But don’t think it was easy convincing Hollywood elites of that.
Flaherty, an educator, evangelical Christian, and father of three, says “The Giver” was brushed aside for two decades because it defied easy categorization. The Massachusetts resident credits the blockbuster films based on “The Hunger Games” trilogy of novels for opening the floodgates and showing that family-friendly movies don’t have to be so “Pollyanna.”
Now playing in theaters nationwide, “The Giver” is about a seemingly perfect Community where the elders have eradicated pain and suffering from daily life. Community roles such as “nurtures” and “pilots” are assigned, family units are limited to two children, and imperfect babies are discarded.
Also missing are memories, music, and love.
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Jonas, a youth played by Brenton Thwaites, is chosen to be the Community’s next Receiver of Memory, burdening him with the responsibility of learning harsher realities. Jeff Bridges is cast as the current holder of that title, who then becomes the Giver in transferring memories to Jonas.
Fellow Oscar winner Meryl Streep plays the Chief Elder and country-pop star Taylor Swift appears as Rosemary, who receives a special honor.
With flashbacks to such poignant real-world images as “the Tank Man” from China’s Tiananmen Square, director Phillip Noyce signals to his audience that this dystopia isn’t so far away.
Flaherty, who has produced more than 30 films, argues that “The Giver” transcends politics, although he readily admits it has a clear message: Individual freedom beats safety and security.
In this Q&A with The Daily Signal, he talks about what it took to turn “The Giver” into a box office contender.
The Daily Signal: How did Lois Lowry think up such a fascinating concept for the original novel?
Flaherty: The backstory is amazing. Her father had Alzheimer’s, and she realized that a lot of the painful memories from his past were gone. It made her think: What would a world look like where people didn’t have painful memories – would that be good, would that be bad? She just took it from there.
Q: “The Giver” is cherished as a classic novel for young adults. Why did it take almost 20 years to be made into a movie?
A: Nobody could figure it out – it wasn’t a candy, it wasn’t a mint … it defied easy categorization. There are plenty of bean counters in Hollywood and they just look at all the different columns, and they didn’t know what column to fit this into, so they just all went running.
Q: What turned the tide?
A: Harvey Weinstein [the movie producer and studio executive] stepped up; it was his daughter’s favorite book. And once we had “The Hunger Games” numbers to point to, Hollywood is such a follow-the-leader business, so it became a little bit easier. But luckily, since the Weinstein Company is its own distributor, we could control our own destiny.
Q: What exactly did “The Hunger Games” do to help?
A: It showed people that you could have a family-friendly movie that wasn’t so “Pollyanna” — that you could have a movie with a lot of intensity, a lot of action, a lot of life-or-death stakes, and still have the family enjoy it.
Q: Why do you consider “The Giver” the “crown jewel” of Walden Media?
A: What I love is just that whole idea that all it takes is one person armed with courage and faith, and they can change the world. You see that in this film with the [images of] Tank Man from Tiananmen, Nelson Mandela – it shows a lot of other people who peacefully took on some of the greatest military powers in the world.
Q: What made you decide to include historical figures?
A: My best friend was the supreme commander at Tiananmen Square. I’m on her board to try to abolish the one-child policy in China, which in some instances now is the two-child policy – which is what we have in “The Giver.”
In China, they’ve completely eliminated any reference to Tiananmen in their history books. So I thought it was fitting that in this totalitarian regime, any memory of Tiananmen was gone for all but one person, just as it is in China now. Except it’s happening with much faster speed in China, in terms of the erasing of history.
Q: Does “The Giver” have political messages?
A: I don’t see a political side to any of the virtues, but all of the great cardinal virtues are on display. C.S. Lewis talks about the road to hell being paved with good intentions. And what’s amazing about this Community is it’s clear that they didn’t wake up one morning and have everything [depicted] here. People surrendered their liberty inch by inch by inch, until they woke up and realized that they had surrendered everything.
Q: Bill and Hillary Clinton were among those at Harvey Weinstein’s exclusive screening of “The Giver.” Do you think they appreciated the themes?
A: It transcends politics because it gets people away from ideology to just ask the basic questions of the trade-off between security and liberty. And also the thing I think that the left and the right are starting to unite on is … people telling us what size soda we can drink, what type of flour and sugar can be in our cookies, and that kind of government overreach. I think folks on the left and the right can agree that it’s gone too far.
Q: Why did Taylor Swift get involved?
A: She loved the book, and there’s a beautiful section about the first time Jonas hears music. She’s a very thoughtful, intellectual person, and I think she loved the idea of people coming into contact with all these different firsts – their first time falling in love, first time experiencing music, first time experiencing color.
Also the role was perfect for her – we didn’t have to “Taylor” it. There was a role for a brilliant, thoughtful piano player, so the first person who pops into mind is Taylor.