Tristan Comella in OCT's The Giver
Image: Owen Carey
Tristan Comella in OCT's The Giver

Oregon Children's Theatre is restaging it's 2006 runaway hit, The Giver, which has now recieved more than 250 productions around the world, just in time to refresh our memory before the story comes out as a major movie adaptation starring Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep, and, of all people, Taylor Swift. How did the dystopian sci-fi tale go from a young adult book to Portland play to blockbuster movie? We chart it's journey:

1993: The Novel

Lois Lowry's The Giver was a lightning rod of acclaim and criticism upon its release. A 1984 for teens, the novel takes place in a dystopian future where society has eliminated pain and suffering by eradicating individuality and adopting “Sameness” in all things: emotions, sensations, even the perception of color. Those who can’t maintain the sameness are “Released.”

The society elects one person known as the “Receiver of Memory” to carry all human history and experience. The story follows Jonas, a twelve-year-old boy chosen to be the new receiver. But as Jonas learns the history of his people—war and famine, but also joy and happiness—he begins to question the cultural norms, until he eventually decides that he must change things.

The political and existential questions it raises made the book unique in the field of young adult fiction. It won the Newbury Medal and continues to be assigned reading in many middle school classrooms.  

Simultaneously, the bleak outlook on future societies (they kill babies) led many groups to deem it unfit for children, earning it a spot on the American Library Association’s list of most challenged books of the 1990’s.

2006: The Play

Oregon Children’s Theatre commissioned playwright Eric Coble to adapt the novel for the stage in 2006. “At the time we started working on the script, the Patriot Act was concerning to me—what liberties will we give up to be secure?” said OCT artistic director Stan Foote “At the same time, I had students telling me how much they loved, loved, loved this book.”

“I didn’t think of it as a children’s play—I never do; I don’t try to dumb it down,” said Coble. “It’s the moment of shift from being a child, with the world really being centered around you, to the realization of the larger world, with people living and breathing thousands of years before you. Realizing your place in the larger context of the world is not something you can go back from.”

Like the book, the play went on to enormous success, earning Coble the American Alliance for Theatre and Education Distinguished Play Award and being staged by theaters around the world in more than 250 productions, establishing OCT’s reputation as an incubator for new works.

Foote has since convinced Lowry and Coble both to write original plays for the theater: 2008’s Gossamer and 2012’s The Storm in the Barn (with original music by local band Black Prairie), respectively. “One of the nice thing about OCT: they are not afraid to take on challenging topics and find artistic ways of expressing them,” said Coble.

2014: Eight years and 250 productions later, a wonderful restaging

After commissioning Coble to adapt The Giver’s sequel, Gathering Blue, last year, OCT decided to bring The Giver back to round out its 2014 season.

The Giver
Oregon Children's Theatre
Winningstad Theatre
Thru May 18
Staying true to the world set up by the novel, the set is a bare, colorless grey flanked by two screens. Under director Matthew B. Zrebski, the acting begins as intentionally two-dimensional to remind us of the bleak uniformity of society. But as Jonas (Tristan Comella) receives society’s memories and starts to question his upbringing and social norms, he begins to show emotion, and then to see color for the first time, which is projected in wonderful multimedia visuals of the forgotten world by Jeff Kurihara.

The production stylistically maintains the imagination and diversity of the source material, while keeping within its theatrical means, to create an engrossing 75-minutes for children and adults alike. It’s easy to see why this has become such an award winner.

And then, there’s the film:

The back story behind OCT obtaining the rights to the stage adaptation was the fact that for many years the theatrical rights had been tied up by Hollywood. Jeff Bridge’s (the Dude) production company had obtained rights early as a vehicle for Jeff’s father, Lloyd Bridges, to play the Giver. But with Lloyd’s passing, the rights remained in limbo for many years. In 2006, the publishing company was tired of saying “no” all the time, putting OCT in the right place at the right time when.  

Bridges finally fast-tracked the film version into production in December of 2012, with some slight alterations to the story.

“I think that Lois [Lowry] has a good attitude towards the film,” said Coble. “She recognizes that it’s its own entity. The film is going to be different because it has to be faithful to itself as a film first.”

Jeff Bridges (now old enough to play the Giver) stars alongside Meryl Streep, Brenton Thwaites, Katie Holmes, and Alexander Skarsgard—even throwing in Taylor Swift for good measure—under the direction of Phillip Noyce (The Quiet American, Salt). The film will be released August 15.

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