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Gerson: The dystopia next door

Published: July 20, 2014

WASHINGTON — In 1993, Lois Lowry wrote a slim book for youths about totalitarianism, euthanasia, suicide, sexual awakening and infanticide. “The Giver” created a blooming genre — the dystopian youth novel — and considerable controversy. Some parents wanted the book banned from schools, thus unintentionally re-asking the book’s central question: How comprehensively should children (and other humans) be protected from risk and pain?

Now “The Giver” has been given the full Hollywood treatment: the biggest stars (Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep), winsome young actors and a small but important role for singer Taylor Swift. The early cut I saw (the film premieres in August) is an updated but respectful telling of the story — clearly the labor of someone’s love.

“The Giver” remains, however, an odd candidate for a blockbuster. “Not much happens,” Lowry observed to me in a phone interview. Or, more precisely, much of what happens is an interior moral struggle. The protagonist, Jonas, inhabits an orderly, polite, egalitarian world of enforced “sameness.” Even the ability to see color has been eliminated. Family units are assigned. Teen sexual urges — “the stirrings” — are dulled with daily pills. There is no more war, hunger or avoidable pain, and their memory has been erased.

But in order to make wise communal decisions, someone must be the lonely bearer of all the memories. Jonas is chosen, and discovers that the banishment of pain and difference has also involved the banishment of beauty, art, music and love. He begins (with cinematic effect) to see colors — the red of an apple, the red of a girl’s hair. He stops taking his pills. And he discovers that the utilitarianism of his community involves the emotionless murder of the elderly and imperfect newborns by lethal injection. Without spoiling the plot, it is enough to say that Jonas defies the authority of the Elders. In the end, Jonas finds that his newly found freedom is fulfilled in a willing act of sacrifice.

Lowry’s theme is the problem of pain. The answer offered by the Elders is essentially technological — using science and social engineering to remove the sources of suffering. Take a pill to dull disruptive emotions. Minimize differences to avoid envy and conflict. This is not really so unfamiliar; it is the dystopia next door.

This is, of course, what all parents hope for their adolescents — that they will find, in their own hormonal dystopia, that there is something beyond the edge: A world of love, freedom and obligation, an unseen world more real than real. We want them to visit Harper Lee’s Maycomb County, C.S. Lewis’ Narnia and Lois Lowry’s civil, therapeutic tyranny and come away more human, and thus more impatient with the dystopias of our own making.

Michael Gerson’s email address is [email protected]