Meryl Streep and Jeff Bridges in ‘The Giver’/Photo © David Bloomer/The Weinstein Co.
"I don't know what verb to use," award-winning author Lois Lowry says, ensconced in a midtown Manhattan hotel overlooking Central Park. "Troubled is too strong a word, but I was sorry they relinquished that and I'm not sure of the reasons."
We're discussing the decision to take pale eyes, which denote psychically gifted members of the dystopia in her 1993 young adult novel The Giver, and color them swarthy in this summer's big-screen adaptation. But Lowry's having fun with the question. We arrived at it trying to figure out what the errant middle-school student, for whom her book is required reading, would most likely screw up if he skipped the novel and went straight to the movies.
"I was told that one reason was that it would be too difficult to put contact lenses in, for example, babies," she says, as if any Hollywood stage mother worth her salt wouldn't claw the very eyes out of her own newborn for some screen time in a summer blockbuster. "At any rate," Lowry continues, "they decided to do away with that and they decided to change the age of the main characters, which was another major change."
Indeed, brown-eyed Jonas is now mid-teens, but actually played by twenty-five-year-old Australian newcomer Brenton Thwaites. "At first I cringed at that," Lowry admits, "but when I saw the boy that was cast, I realized that he had the same air of youth and vulnerability that the boy in the book does, so I relaxed a bit about it." I tell her I realized Thwaites had an air of youth and vulnerability when I saw him in a television remake of "The Blue Lagoon" a couple years back and she chortles.
"I think it was a marketing decision frankly," she continues. "They realized from market research that teenagers won't go to a movie about twelve-years-olds, but they'll go to one about teenagers. They'll go to a movie with Taylor Swift in it!" Again, the chortle, as Taylor Swift is indeed in "The Giver," playing a character that not only doesn't appear in novel, but whose name is unutterable by the citizenry. "But to increase the audience," Lowry sighs, "that's a decision that they made."
Lowry, who splits her time between Cambridge, Massachusetts, and rural Maine, is an avid fan of movies. She tells me she's already had occasion to slip out and "see the last Philip Seymour Hoffman movie" and even takes a moment to encapsulate the adaptation of John le Carré's A Most Wanted Man as "very dark, but suspenseful. Yeah, it was fun."
But we're chatting the day before the big show, when the entire cast - Meryl Streep, Jeff Bridges, Katie Holmes and, yes, Taylor Swift - will be trotted out into a ballroom of that same Manhattan hotel for a press conference. And it's Lowry who kicks things off, a little more audibly hesitant than the day before, but just as precise in her language.
When she's explaining how her book was optioned two years after its publication by Bridges and producer Nikki Silver, Lowry says, "Nikki and Jeff came to me." Then she pauses. "That's a lie," she continues. "They didn't come to me personally; their people came to me to suggest that we turn it into a movie. It seemed as if it would be easy at the time. It wasn't, but maybe good things never come easy."
But it's that first bit, the tiny course correction in language, "troubled" versus "sorry" the day before and now "Nikki and Jeff" versus "their people" this morning. It's sticking, but I can't figure out why until it finally clicks into place.
It's the same device Lowry employs in chapter nine of The Giver when just before lunch Jonas announces he is "starving" and is quickly taken aside by his teacher "for a brief private lesson in language precision" wherein he's told he's merely "hungry."
In the book, Lowry continues: "He had been trained since earliest childhood, since his earliest learning of language never to lie. It was an integral part of the learning of precise speech," but it's both awesome and unnerving to watch Lowry play that precision out in real life.
But again, things don't remain this deep as Lowry uncharacteristically jumps ahead of Bridges' story of optioning the book as a vehicle for his father that he was to direct so he'd have a film he could watch with his kids. "I'm just glad it didn't take any longer," Lowry deadpans, "because I'm seventy-seven years old and I wanted to be around when it came out!"
And then Meryl Streep pipes up. Her way into the material was also through her children, who were required to read The Giver in school. "They had a list of required reading over the summer," Streep says, "and it's always a pain to get them to do it." She shrugs her shoulders. "These are my parenting methods," she laughs, "but that one was put in front of them and they devoured it, especially the two younger ones."
But Lowry's book is as apt to be banned as required, and that's something that caught Bridges' attention as a producer, though he admits he was first drawn to that shiny foil Newbery medal on the cover. "When I found out it was on the list of banned books," Bridges remembers, "I got more excited. A little danger."
"This is going to be a cinch to get made," Bridges recalls thinking. "Over ten million copies in twenty-one countries, the money guys are going to go crazy over this! That did not prove to be true. The controversy of it being one of the banned books, and selling so many copies and being popular in school, it freaked them out."
But either banning or requiring her book is not something that sits well with Lowry. "I can go back into my twelve-year-old self and hear the phrase 'required reading' and it sends a grimace to my face." But one would have to imagine the Streep brood, along with Bridges' children who were also assigned the book as curriculum, went to some of the top schools in the country. Still, the idea of assigning Lowry's book is predicated on the idea that kids today will simply not sit still for the classics.
We crunch the numbers together and figure out that under the same educational paradigm, Lowry might have been assigned Paul Bowles' The Sheltering Sky when she was in middle school, but little else from that year's best-seller list survives as anyone's idea of canonical work. She admits she wouldn't be the writer she is today had she only been assigned contemporary literature.
"I was an English major in college," Lowry says, "and I always recommend to kids who want to be writers that they study literature, which I think is much more helpful to a writer than studying the so-called craft of writing. I had a very good classical education, and that's invaluable, but it's not as common today as it once was."
We wrap things up by trying to figure out if she's the anti-J. K. Rowling as any control she seems to have over bringing The Giver to the big screen was an extension of courtesy rather than an iron-clad contract. And the whole cast isn't rushing headlong into a yearlong shoot of Gathering Blue and Messenger while the screenwriters figure out how to fracture the last book in the quartet into a two-parter.
"I never think about a movie when I'm writing a book," Lowry claims, "but these days people write a book that they're already saying is number one in a series. I don't know how you can do that and still put your energy into the piece you're working on. My advice would be to do the best work you can at the moment and forget about movies and tie-ins and whatever else."
I tell her this doesn't bode well for a motion-simulator sled attraction at our local theme park and she throws down her final chortle of the day. "What a horrible thought," she says, and then asks, "how about a board game?"