I know that the current pop culture obsession with young adult fiction can seem exhausting, sometimes. Paulie and other folks have tweaked me occasionally in comments, suggesting that something’s wrong when adults are spending as much time and energy as we are on fiction written for people with more limited reading comprehension and life experience. But I think Lois Lowry’s seminal and disturbing dystopian YA classic, The Giver, which Jeff Bridges just bought the movie rights to, with plans to play the adult lead, is a great example of why the genre has fans outside of its target age group.
The Giver is ostensibly similar to a bunch of the other YA adaptations either wrapping up or under way: it features a young protagonist in a science fictional society who awakens to the realities of the structures that prop up that society and the choices and compromises that shape it. But unlike Katniss Everdeen, who becomes the figurehead of a rebellion in The Hunger Games books, or Harry Potter, who is the hope of an entire society in J.K. Rowling’s series coming to a close this summer, The Giver is a much more inward-looking book. It’s based in a society that isn’t outwardly noxious, just tamped down: its residents have traded away emotions and sexual attraction for security. The main character, Jonas, becomes an unusual figure in his community when he’s assigned to succeed the Giver, a figure in his community who is a repository of memories of things other people have left behind, ranging from the ability to see color to sexual desire. In other words, it’s a story about what it’s like to develop a moral imagination.
But it’s also, necessarily, an interior story. Because Jonas and the Giver are the only two people who can see their world for what it is, there’s no real hope that they’ll be able to spark any sort of rebellion. In fact, the very position and experience that gives them power also marginalizes them from the rest of their community — they may be the most alive people in it, but they’re cut off from the world in which they live. As a result, it’s a quieter and less dramatic story, but it’s also more analogous to the actual experience of the target readers, who are old enough to start seeing and understanding the systems and structures that govern their lives, and to be feeling the sting of social isolation. I think the fact that the book’s about a world where an absurdly optimistic victory is impossible is one of the reasons it’s endured so well for almost 20 years: Lowry understands what teenagers are going through, but doesn’t offer the childlike comfort of a happy ending. It’s a book built to help readers look, clear-eyed, forward into adulthood, rather than readers of all ages to peer wistfully back into the past.