Lois Lowry wrote The Giver over twenty years ago and it has remained a powerful and important read over the past two decades. Yet despite the book’s fame, it wasn’t until recently that it became a movie for the big screen. In a new introduction for the book, Lowry comments on this wait for the movie stemming from the quiet, introspective, and short-on-action nature of The Giver. She remarked that the rights were snatched up early on, but the story was tough to film -- screenplay after screenplay over the years had been scrapped (pp. ix-x in the 2014 printing of the book). So what is it about the story that has been so hard to capture, the essence of its introspective nature?

At the core of the storyline is the idea that good and evil is essential to truly live. This rings true to us as believers of the restored Gospel, but it’s not a popular truth in the world. We live in a time when good is often called evil, and evil good (Isaiah 5:20), not to mention the generally accepted notion that there is no good and evil at all, simply “value judgments.” [1]

But what would life be like without good and evil’s role in our lives? The Giver serves as a case study to this question.

In Lois Lowry’s post-apocalyptic society found in The Giver, the community is based on “true equality.” This equality is achieved by strict rules, as well as the elimination of all differences, emotion, and substantive individual choice. Name, family, spouse, job, and time of death are all selected by someone else in the community. ‘Sameness’ was created so there would no longer be hate, anger, sickness and confusion. Memories of good and evil were erased to achieve a society of order, control, and safety.

It is through the lens of trying to fit into this society that we come to know Jonas, the main character. With his job placement ceremony approaching, he has great anxiety because he doesn’t know what job could be a good fit. We come to know he is different than his peers because of his light colored eyes and ability to see changes in certain objects even though he doesn’t know why.

Then, at the job placement ceremony, Jonas is chosen to become the new Receiver of Memory. This is a mysterious, yet revered position in the community. He is told he was selected because he has the qualities of a Receiver, which are intelligence, integrity, courage, and wisdom. (Giver, 78-79)

Interestingly, the Chief Elder remarks that wisdom is something Jonas has “not yet acquired…the acquisition of wisdom will come through his training.” (79)

As the story unfolds, we learn his training consists of the former Receiver --now referred to as the Giver-- transferring all the memories of the world to Jonas from before Sameness. Jonas experiences snow, hills, sunsets, color, music, dancing, and extended family for the first time as he receives the memories.

But the pleasant memories are only half of Jonas’ training. The other half is the painful memories, physical and emotional pain experienced through injury, loss, grief, rage, and cruelty. As Jonas begins to really experience pain, he asks the Giver why they must hold these torturous memories. The Giver responds, “It gives us wisdom.” (139-140)

In essence, Jonas’ training is to experience good and evil. It is the only way to gain wisdom. He longs to keep the colors he sees for the first time in the memories, to feel the warmth and love that accompany true family. At the same time, he cringes from the agony found in war, broken bones, starvation, and abandonment. Sometimes the pain seems to overwhelm the beauty found in the good and Jonas is tempted to give up all the wisdom if it means he can give up the pain. Yet by seeing the good and the evil, he comes to understand and feel like he never has before.

Wisdom is thus gained from experience. It is a by-product of feeling the good and the bad. This depth of understanding is compared to the knowledge held by others in the community. When Jonas speaks of all the facts his instructors have taught him, the Giver bitterly responds that they know nothing. This shocks Jonas. The Giver explains that everyone is well trained for his or her job, but “without the memories it’s all meaningless.” (133)

This concept is driven home in the movie during a scene where the Giver explains to Jonas that it doesn’t matter if the Chief Elder claims to know everything. He fervently tells Jonas that knowing what something is, is different than knowing how something feels.

If we step back and consider this in light of the Gospel, it makes wonderful sense. It is the plan we signed up for, to come to Earth to gain wisdom – through mortal experience – in a way that knowledge alone could not teach us. Like the memories give Jonas wisdom and a new depth of feeling he hadn’t previously felt (165), coming to Earth and gaining a body allows each of us to feel in depths we previously couldn’t.

Of course, with the acquisition of a body, we are subject to good and bad experiences, the joy of love and the sorrow of pain. And experiencing the good and the bad aren’t only important for us to grow; they are necessary for life to hold any meaning. The scriptures teach us there must be opposition in all things for happiness and misery and sense and insensibility to exist (2 Nephi 2:11). In fact, without good and evil here on Earth, “there would have been no purpose” (2 Nephi 2:12).

The beauty of gaining wisdom, then, is that it can impact our choices and shape the future. The Giver explains to Jonas that the community selects and then honors a Receiver of Memory because the Receiver alone holds the wisdom to advise the Committee of Elders, if the need ever arises. (140) The Elders realize they need wisdom to make the best decisions, but they don’t want themselves (and the rest of the community) to be “burdened and pained” (142) with the memories that provide wisdom. Therefore, no matter how much they ‘know,’ they don’t really understand.

Jonas becomes angry the more he understands and feels, because he realizes how meaningless the lives of his friends and family are without the ability to feel. For example, a poignant scene of agony for Jonas is when he comes to know what “Release” really means and how that changes his perception of the people he had always thought of as family.

In the story, babies who fail to thrive, or the smaller one in a set of twins, or the elderly when they reach a certain age, are all said to be Released to Elsewhere. Jonas imagines Elsewhere as somewhere quiet and serene. (145)

One day during training, Jonas mentions to the Giver that his father, a worker at the Nurturing Center, will be performing a Release for a set of twins. Normally, the community is not allowed to attend Releases, but the Giver tells Jonas that as the Receiver, he can request to see anything he would like, including Releases that are kept in the filmed records. With an air of intensity, the Giver tells Jonas he thinks he should watch the Release.

As the recording begins, Jonas sees his father weighing the two twins, happily noting that one of the twins is an ounce or two smaller than the other so the decision on which will be Released is easy. Jonas smiles as he sees his father talking to the baby, and feels sorry for the little one as his father pulls out a large needle. Suddenly, Jonas tenses as he watches his father stick the needle in the baby’s head – Jonas doesn’t understand what is happening until he notices the familiar posture and expression of the limp baby – he has witnessed death many times in the memories. Horrified, he realizes his father has killed the newborn. (185-188) Release isn’t a journey to somewhere else, it is death.

Jonas falls apart at this realization; sickened and furious with the lies of the community and his family and ultimately with the life he has been thus far living. He lashes out in disgust at the Giver, whose words then strike at the true consequence of failing to gain wisdom of good and evil. He says, “They can’t help it. They know nothing…It’s the way they live. It’s the life that was created for them.” (191)

Jonas understands then, that it’s not that his community does not have good and evil – because as he just witnessed, murder is still present – but there is no comprehension of good and evil. There’s no understanding to give choices purpose. The structure is there for goodness, like the family units, but without the ability to love, none of it is real. The choice for Sameness, for safety and protection from wrong choices at all cost, has eliminated the people’s ability to live with any meaning.

A scene from the movie further emphasizes this final awakening for Jonas. At the beginning of the story, Jonas’ father brings home a new child named Gabriel from the Nurturing Center in hopes to help him thrive. If Gabriel fails to get better after a period of time, he will be Released. Throughout the story, Jonas gains a special bond with Gabriel, who also has light eyes. Jonas even discovers he can transfer memories to Gabriel, like the Giver does to him. Gabriel comes to represent what family really is to Jonas; Jonas loves him.

So in the movie, once Jonas knows what Release actually means, he knows he must act to save Gabriel from that fate. In a scene with Jonas whispering over Gabriel in his crib, Jonas says his father didn’t know better, but he does. And he can use that understanding to create change.

This scene suggests the accountability that comes with wisdom. There is a necessity to act on wisdom for good to prevail. Once Jonas experienced what love was, he knew it was something worth fighting for.

This chain of events fuels Jonas and the Giver to put a plan in motion to make the memories available to everyone once more. They decide memories are meant to be shared and that the people deserve to feel. (193) For Jonas and the Giver, two individuals who hold all the memories of the world, it is a clear choice that in the end, bearing the burden of sorrow is worth knowing the joy of family and love. They are willing to risk everything to help others feel too.

In one of the final scenes of the movie, the Giver exclaims to the Chief Elder that people should have a choice and they can choose better. Love is worth it all. We know it is the wisdom we gain from experiencing good and evil that enables us to choose better.

As we reflect on the lessons found in The Giver, we would do well to remember the costs of striving for a smooth and easy life. Perhaps the depth of feeling required to build character is something we are quick to pass on. We don’t have the injections and memory wipes of Jonas’ community, but our society has found other means to avoid feeling. Consider the ever-growing issues of alcoholism and substance abuse. There’s also the world of virtual reality, binge television watching, and pornography. There are millions of ways to avoid facing our emotions, feelings, and stresses. Like Jonas, perhaps we want to say, “I don’t want the wisdom, I don’t want the pain,” when difficulties come along. Yet, as seen in Jonas’ community – and in our own lives when we choose this route – avoiding feeling simply brings about a greater loss.

Additionally, as a faith based community, there is another layer to consider from The Giver. Where is the line between protecting and cultivating the good and eliminating choice and experience? All faith communities must grapple with this question. Perhaps there are some in our LDS community who try to recreate Jonas’ community by not letting their children play with non-LDS children. Other blurry lines hovers around decisions to no let children attend public school, or use the Internet, or go on a date with a nonmember. [2]

Of course the desire to shield loved ones from ‘the bad’ is a worthy pursuit, and we have been counseled to protect our children and raise them in righteousness. [3] At the same time, we see in The Giver how we are unable to learn to choose better without experiencing life with all its ups and downs. What is the key to this balance?

I feel that The Giver offers a suggestion for this as well. As the Giver and Jonas create a plan to release the memories to the community, the Giver is adamant that he must stay behind to help the community learn how to cope and process the feelings found in the memories. Jonas pleads with the Giver to come with him, to forget about everyone else, but the Giver reminds him that without helping the others, none of it would matter anyway. (196)

If we shut ourselves off from the larger world, doesn’t both sides suffer? Instead we must be taught and learn to live correct principles so we can choose the good all on our own. Then we go on to teach and guide others. It is okay to face good and evil when there is someone we can trust to help us through it. We also know it is okay to make mistakes and weigh each decision case by case because of the atonement.  Like the Giver was ready to help his community, faith communities such as ours must similarly turn to the Savior for assistance.

Especially when it comes to our own children, it is so tempting to try and create a bubble that will keep out anything that could possibly bring them pain or anguish of body and soul. It is heartbreaking to realize this is not a possibility without destroying their agency or eliminating their opportunities to experience mortality.

Yet, what joy and hope there is in knowing that Jesus Christ strengthens and enables the broken heart. It is enlightening (and sobering) to contemplate the Savior’s own mortal journey. We know His Heavenly Parents and His earthly parents loved Him fiercely, and surely wanted to protect Him from all the bad the world had to offer, yet He wasn’t spared any measure it. He descended “below all things” and thus was able to “comprehend all things”—His wisdom is endless (D&C 88:6).  He knows how to choose perfectly because He has experienced it all. 

Jonas and the Giver knew wisdom comes at a high price. In the heavens long ago, we understood that same principle and voted for the opportunity to come experience life. So here we are, able to learn from societies like Jonas’. We can love, we can hurt, we can overcome – and we can choose better.


[1] D. Todd Christofferson, Moral Discipline, October 2009 General Conference Address, https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2009/10/moral-discipline?lang=eng . [Back to manuscript]

[2] Note: Of course motives and circumstances vary and the author by no means is trying to say what is right and wrong – simply raising the question as something to ponder. [Back to manuscript]

[3] Dallin H. Oaks, Protect the Children, October 2012 General Conference Address https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2012/10/protect-the-children?lang=eng; The Family: A Proclamation to the World, https://www.lds.org/topics/family-proclamation . [Back to manuscript]


Full Citation for this Article: Zirkle, Rachel Fairclough (2014) "Book/Film Review: We Are All Receivers: Lessons from Lois Lowry's The Giver," SquareTwo, Vol. 7 No. 1 (Fall 2014), http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleZirkleGiver.html, accessed <give access date>.

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