Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Genre, "The Giver", and Ne'er The Twain Shall Meet

It doesn't take a genius to work out the genre is as slippery as a barrel of bamboozled spaghetti (and not half so pleasant to stick your hand into). I reckon more than a few of us gathered here have looked down at our new novel and thought, like a confused midwife in the world of Dr Seuss, "It's lovely ... but how on earth am I going to explain this to the family?"

As the world's paperback population steadily increases, a book's genre becomes more and more important. With a genre in mind, the author knows in what sort of world their nacent plot will take place, know what other great books of its sort it will be up against in the world, know which agents will take it, which publishers will sell it, and - most importantly of all - which readers will carry it home with them from the bookshop at the end of the day.

However, genre is not simply there to fill the needs of a bracketer - it's perfectly capable of being quite revolutionary, too.

Lois Lowry did something incredible with a combination of science fiction, allegory, political novel and children's fiction when she produced The Giver. A short story, simply written, but with a depth and vision to it unlike anything fifteen-year-old Charley had ever seen when she purloined the meagre boarding house library on a long, wet weekend.

Evidently the rest of the world agreed with me. Since its publication in 1993, The Giver has gone on to win prizes in the USA - the Newbery Medal, and a Boston Globe-Horn Book Honour among them - and abroad. It's the most common read-aloud book to year six children in a large constituency of California, and has been placed in the Top lists for both 100 Chapter Books and 100 Books for Children since 2004.

It even managed to work its way over the channel and permeate the shelves of a library that stocked few things younger than The Famous Five.

And then, with a great rattle, bang, clash, and massive abuse of lens flare ... Hollywood appeared.

Readers ... I am not an angry person. I may appear it, at times, when elbow-deep in the sadly metaphorical shredded insides of a poorly-presented literary theory or glaring down the massively inflated price label on the only sandwich left to sate my 4-in-the-afternoon-munchies, but I am not.

I have no problem with the release of a new and exciting dystopia movie. I love dystopias. I love fancy effects and clever direction. I even love Jeff Bridges, in spite of Tron: Legacy.

What I do not love is the re-appropriation of a book to suit a passing craze.

I could spend hours pounding this trailer over the head with a metaphorical mallet the size of Massachussetts for all the things it got wrong. But if I did that, I'd be here forever, and I'd leave a thousand and one spoilers splattered all over the place, and I don't want to do that. Lord knows this trailer can hardly spoil anything for anyone given that it's about as closely based on its source material as Harry Potter is based on The Odyssey (as in both feature a guy who does some stuff and there's a monster with multiple heads in it).

To be honest, this isn't even, entirely, about The Giver. The Giver, sadly, is just another in the long line of great books, TV shows, plays, scripts and even people, whose material has been re-appropriated and parcelled up in a shiny celluloid wrapper and redistributed with complete ignorance not only to its specifics, but also to its genre.

Genre is wide, and that's part of the reason why so many things can end up in the same bracket. Technically, Divergent and The Giver come from the same basket - but you'll never see two more different yolks in all your life. And neither would make a very good omelette.

This is why genre is important. Yes, it can be a little bit of a butt when you're trying to work out which label will fit onto your strangely-proportioned novel - it looks just a little bit too sci-fi to be fantasy, but since when did goblins belong anywhere else? - but it will also give it definition. And it will give you themes to bend, and challenge, and roads down which to innovate.

It will also tell your readers what you are getting. When you pick up The Giver, you will know you are getting The Giver. And not ... whatever that is.

The Giver is an even-handed, complex, philosophical science fiction fable for adults and children, with an ending left open so that, in the words of Lowry herself, "people bring to it their own complicated sense of beliefs and hopes and dreams and fears and all of that. So I don't want to put my own feelings into it, my own beliefs, and ruin that for people who create their own endings in their minds."

This movie, by the all-too-prevalent tone of this trailer is the latest product of a dystopian craze who took success as an indicator of consent, and applied a formula that could not hope to remain remotely true to the spirit of the original.

Perhaps I shall write a more detailled post on this matter when the film in question comes out (and I can muster up the self-will to acknowledge its existence).

Until then, I shall leave you with a question. One can bear in mind the needs and successes of a genre in its time, but what do you make of adaptations like this one? And what about other films that have been given similar treatment? What do you make of this conversion? Leave a comment, and let me know!

~ Charley R


  1. Heh. You know my feelings on this movie already. I think they're just using the big name to suit their purposes without stopping to consider why the book is well-loved. (Hint: not because it's just like Divergent)

    1. I have to admit, I've not read "Divergent", but from what I know of it, the comparison's a bit like apples to Plutonian space pineapples. Blah. We shall see.

  2. Excellent post, Charley, and Lydia makes a good point in her comment as well. I LOVE dystopias and I HATE what they're turning into - the next big thing. A craze. Because some are outstanding, some are good, and some are... produced quickly (and therefore usually shoddily) to give the fangirling masses something else to read/see.

    I want something GOOD. THG may be written simply, but it made me think like you wouldn't believe. Same with The Giver. And it's being turned into this shallow... thing... because everyone knows YA audiences can't handle anything complicated, right?

    1. That's the nub of the problem, I'd say - people are writing dystopias for the craze, now, not because the story needs to be a dystopia. They're not exploiting the joys of that environment, they're just putting it in there and re-using other pre-packaged populist characters and story points to make a quick buck. Tragic lack of originality going on in this joint, I say.