It took more than two decades. But Lois Lowry is now experiencing what it means to get the Hollywood treatment.
In 1993, Lowry, who splits her time between Cambridge and Maine, published what she describes as a "quiet little book." Called "The Giver," it tells the dystopian story of a 12-year-old boy named Jonas growing up in a place called a "community" where a group of elders makes strict rules for all citizens. Among them: Use precise language. Report your dreams and feelings. Do not brag.
Citizens of the community receive job assignments, and Jonas is selected to be the community's "receiver of memory," which means he must learn of everything the citizens are sheltered from — snow, animals, religion, race and love, as well as war, hatred, greed and betrayal.
The book has become something of a cultural phenomenon and is required reading in many schools. And now, 21 years after it was published and 18 years after its movie rights were optioned, "The Giver" has been made into a major movie with Hollywood stars including Jeff Bridges and Meryl Streep.
WBUR's Sacha Pfeiffer talks with Lowry about the trajectory of her "quiet little book."
On why "The Giver" was challenged and banned frequently:
Lois Lowry: "They picked things, I think, out of context. There were a couple of scenes that they held up — those who objected to the book — but I think the broader thing that they were objecting to was the fact that it was a fairly dark story and that it depicted a boy challenging the rules of his world and his parents' generation."
On the movie coming after other young adult dystopian film adaptations:
LL: "There was a large canon...of dystopian literature for adults. They say — and I don't know who 'they' is or if it's true — but 'they' say that 'The Giver' was the first dystopian novel for young adults. It's spawned a whole generation of many, many dystopian novels that are out there now and these two ['The Hunger Games' and 'Divergent'] very popular and very popular movies. It took my book longer to get made, so it comes along behind those. So it's kind of an ice pick to the heart to hear it described [as "late to the party"] but certainly it's true. These other ones came along in movie form first because 'The Giver' took so long...They're very different. The movie-going public may not realize that. They may say, 'Well, we'll go to this third one because we've seen the first two.' But they are very different. My book was a very quiet, introspective book. No violence, not a lot of action. Some action had to be added by the movie folk. The two that we've mentioned are very action-filled and also filled with violence, so I think they're very different."
On her involvement with the filmmaking process:
LL: "They were not obligated to involve me, but somewhat to my surprise from the beginning, even before they began filming, they started consulting me...They included me in decisions about the casting, about the set design, about the costumes...And then they took me over to South Africa when they filmed, and then after the filming into the editing studio in New York. So I was very involved, although in a recent interview where the director was sitting beside me...I was asked, 'How much control did you have?' I said, 'None at all.' And he interrupted me. He said, 'Actually, you had much more control than you realized.' He said, 'We were listening to everything you said.' I remember one instance in the editing room when the editor played me a scene that I had not seen filmed, and I listened to it and looked at it, and I murmured during it, 'I hate that one line of dialogue.' And next thing I knew it had been taken out. And that was because the editor had reported to the director that Lowry hates that one line — and it was a terrible line. Maybe they realized it then."
On the performances of Jeff Bridges and Meryl Streep:
LL: "Jeff Bridges is very close to what I envisioned and heard in my imagination. The Meryl Streep character was much less in the book. She was not developed at all by the author — again, me. But the screenwriter enhanced her character so she becomes much more complex, much more interesting and it allows for a great deal of conflict with the Bridges character. I loved that. I think it's terrific in the movie and I love the way she plays the role and I have said, on occasion, I wish I could go back and rewrite the book and beef up her character to introduce that element."
On going to "The Giver" premier:
LL: "The whole crowd and the red carpet and the paparazzi, the whole thing...I wore my slutty silver shoes."
On the final scene of the book and the film:
LL: "Now it can be told, since I heard Harvey Weinstein on The Today Show refer to be me as cantankerous, now it can be told that I argued with Harvey, something few people have the nerve to do, and it was primarily about the ending. He won, because he's Harvey Weinstein and I'm not, but I think it's OK. It doesn't have the ambiguity of the book. On the other hand, the book was followed by three others that answer the questions the ambiguity raised. So most people already know what happened to the boy and the baby."
On her blog:
LL: "I live alone with a dog and a cat, so I don't have anybody to talk to except a dog and a cat, so perhaps that's a way of just having a conversation with whatever is out there. I am not as diligent about keeping the blog as I should be. I used to be in the beginning. But I don't know — I sit there alone and I just talk to myself. And because I'm at a computer it goes out there into the atmosphere for people to know what I'm saying to myself."
On "The Giver" as required reading in many schools:
LL: "It's kind of an amazing feeling of responsibility toward those kids. I will say that I think every generation has their iconic anti-establishment book, and for me it was 'The Catcher in the Rye,' which was published when I was 14. For my kids, it was Vonnegut and perhaps Joseph Heller with 'Catch-22.' The book that lets kids know that the older generation didn't get it right. And I think 'The Giver' has been that for a lot of kids."
- "These kids are still becoming who they’re going to be. And they write and tell me that a book by me has affected whom they’re going to be — and I think that’s an important thing to do. It’s not a responsibility I take lightly...I’m going to hang in there and keep doing it."
- "I began to think about writing a book about people who had found a way to manipulate human memory, so they wouldn't have to remember anything bad."
This segment aired on November 27, 2014.