Q&A: Lois Lowry Talks The Giver Movie

Lowry, a Newbury Award-winning author and Cambridge resident, discusses the controversy that once surrounded The Giver, her creative process, and the evolution of the young adult genre.

lois lowry

Photo by Olga Khvan

In the 1990s, Lois Lowry frequently had to make public statements as yet another school district banned her novel The Giver from its classrooms, and as year after year, the novel appeared on the American Library Association’s most challenged books in the U.S. But as the young adult genre has blossomed in literature within the past two decades, the controversy has quelled.

Next Friday, the movie version of The Giver will expose a new generation to the story of Jonas, a young boy who challenges a dystopian society in which his elders suppress emotions, memories, and even color.

Earlier this week, Boston caught up with the Newbury Medal-winning author and Cambridge resident to discuss her creative process, the evolution of the young adult genre, and the personal investment that producer and actor Jeff Bridges put into the film.

The Giver addresses heavy themes such as conformity and murder. Within your writing process, what comes first—these messages or the story?

I hate the idea as an author of putting messages or lessons into a book for kids. I don’t ever want to be didactic. I always set out to tell a good story, to create a character that young people can relate to, place them in a situation that will be interesting, intriguing, eventually suspenseful. But what I find is that after I do that, then there are themes that emerge, which teachers can then use to provoke discussion and debate. I can see looking back at it that those themes are there, but I never set out to superimpose them.

When you hear people discussing these themes, do you ever question whether you subconsciously inserted them into the story?

Oh, I don’t even have to question it. I’m sure it’s true—subconsciously. But I think if you start to try to put it in consciously, it becomes heavy-handed, and it’s always a failure. Certainly we all know of kids’ books that are trying to impart moral teachings, and they flop. Kids don’t want to hear that.

The Giver has often been called the first young adult novel. What kind of books did you read when you were growing up?

Readers like me—and I was an avid, voracious reader as kid—we moved from children’s books into adult literature. I tended to gravitate toward adult books that had young protagonists. I’m thinking of books like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I loved that book when I was 10, 11. Later as a teenager, I read Catcher in the Rye—published as an adult book. Nowadays all those books would be published as young adult books. It’s simply a genre that hadn’t yet emerged when I was young. When I began writing, it was kind of a murky subcategory of children’s books, and now it’s a very vibrant publishing phenomenon.

What do you think about all the controversy that your book sparked? How did you address it? Did it affect you?

It was not my first experience with censorship. I had written other books that had been challenged, but it was the first extensive experience. I think [people] were uncomfortable perhaps because it was about a young boy perceiving the hypocrisy of his parents’ generation and breaking the rules, fighting against the status quo, and that made some parents nervous. It made me sad, really—sad for the kids. I never have had an objection from a kid unless it’s one clearly with a parent looking over the shoulder saying, “Write to her and tell her this.”

Why do you think the controversy has subsided over the years?

I think what happened is that the young adult category became very popular. There are a lot of books in that category, and a lot of them are sexually explicit and some of them are very violent—like The Hunger Games, for example. I think there are a lot of things to object to now that weren’t around when The Giver came out. In comparison, The Giver seems very tame in that realm now.

You relinquished the rights for The Giver to be made into a film 18 years ago. Why has it been such a long process? Has the vision changed throughout the years?

Jeff Bridges and his production company were the ones who optioned the book 18 years ago. His kids were young—he has three daughters who are now in their 30s—and he wanted to direct a movie to star his father [Lloyd Bridges], who was a very fine actor, and one that his kids could see. He was attracted to the picture on the cover [of The Giver] because he could see his father—with makeup—playing that role, and so that’s why he optioned that book. He became very passionate about the book, but a number of things have to fall into place for a movie to be made. At that time, Bridges had never directed a movie, he was not the megastar he had since become, he’d never won an Oscar, and so he was not able to get the financing that he needed. But he kept at it, and then his father died after some years, but gradually he began to realize that he was getting old enough to play the role. At the same time, he’d suddenly become a hot commodity, which made it more attractive to financing people. Those things were falling into place, then Harvey Weinstein of The Weinstein Company announced that he would take it on.

What was it like waiting 18 years for this film to be made?

It’s ironic, but I think it’s a good thing they waited so long. Odeya [Rush, who plays Fiona], for example, wasn’t even born 18 years ago. Jeff wasn’t old enough to play the role. Meryl [Streep] wasn’t either. All of those things converged at the right time when Weinstein came up with the financing. In addition, I don’t think the technology was up to it 18 years ago. Although I was frustrated by the long wait, I’m actually now in retrospect glad it took so long.

In the novel, the protagonists are 12 years old, but in the movie they are 16—a change made partially because market research showed that the film would pull in a larger audience with teenage characters. How did you feel about it?

I was concerned about it. But then I met Brenton [Thwaites, who plays Jonas] and Odeya and saw them on the set and on the screen, and I realized that they still had that innocence and vulnerability, and that it was going to work OK, so I got over it.

In the movie, The Giver transmits memories of the past to Jonas, and those memories appear as flashes of scenes from modern history. Was that the way you envisioned it?

I thought what they did was remarkable. The memory of war, for example, in the book it’s not specific, but I sort of envisioned the Civil War. What they’ve used [in the movie] is Vietnam. I think it’s very effective. There’s also a scene where The Giver says he’ll give Jonas strength, and then there’s a selection of memories of people needing strength and having strength, and it concludes with the young man standing in front of the tank in Tiananmen Square. I found that very powerful.

How did it feel to see the final product—to watch your book come to life?

It was great watching it all come together. I have a house in the country where my grandchildren come and there’s always a jigsaw puzzle—or used to be until I got a puppy—and there were always these puzzle pieces around the table, and various people would come and put some together. Then all of a sudden it would all be done, and there would be the whole finished thing—that’s what it’s been like watching this.

The Giver, starring Brenton Thwaites, Odeya Rush, Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep, Alexander Skarsgard, and Katie Holmes opens in theaters Friday, August 15. For more information, visit thegiverfilm.com.

This interview has been edited and condensed.