Before Katniss Everdeen ever volunteered for the Hunger Games or Beatrice Prior was ever labeled "divergent," there was Jonas.
As the 11-year-old hero of Lois Lowry's epic young adult dystopian novel "The Giver," Jonas set on a path to become his society's next Receiver: The person designated to carry on memories of the way his community once was before the government enacted "Sameness," taking everything from color to emotion out of the equation for the population. There's just one problem: Receiving the memories makes Jonas question "Sameness" and escape the only life he's known.
Since its release in 1993, "The Giver" has sold more than 10 million copies and has become a standby in many American classrooms. Yet the film, which opened nationwide Aug. 15, didn't enjoy monumental success its first weekend — netting an estimated $12 million and $15 million worldwide.
Slate's L.V. Anderson theorized that the film so far hasn't been as successful as hoped because filmmakers changed too much in the adaptation, which "warp(ed) its source material to resemble every other teen-marketed dystopia."
That's a shame, said Louisiana State University professor Steven Bickmore, since "The Giver" is a definite precursor to the current crop of apocalyptic heroes found in books like "The Hunger Games." But the book version of "The Giver," Bickmore said, will likely continue to be relevant in ways newer dystopian fables won't.
"'The Giver' is a seed text in terms of dystopian young adult literature. I think it's a better novel than both ('The Hunger Games' and 'Divergent')," Bickmore said. "Both ('Hunger Games' and 'Divergent') depend only on plot and a strong main character. I'd hate to say 'The Giver' is fabulous because it's character-drawn; I just think that character is expertly drawn. Jonas is subtle. He doesn't rally people to battle to make a point."
Parable for faith
Aside from the subtlety Bickmore cites, Jonas is also set apart as a major young adult hero because of the religious aspects of "The Giver" that are arguably absent from newer books.
As Slate's Eliza Berman pointed out when she reread the book, Jonas was in many ways a recasting of Jesus.
"I spotted the biblical names — there’s a Gabriel as well as a Jonas — and also the strong resemblance between Jesus and Jonas, who also takes on the pain of the world so that the rest of the community won’t have to," Berman wrote.
Katniss may have sparked a freedom fight in "The Hunger Games," but few parallels are drawn between her and any iconic biblical figures. So why don't more young adult fiction books tackle faith themes?
David Mahan, a professor of religion in literature at Yale University, said that in some ways it could be chalked up to the business of selling books and the prejudice some writers bring to their stories.
"'The Giver' is dealing with questions that get to the heart of the things we most deeply want to know," Mahan said. "In a market-driven (novel), the meaning of life isn’t going to be addressed. I think it's because the notion of virtue is largely unexplored."
Think about Aragorn in "The Lord of the Rings" books vs. the movies, Mahan argued.
"In the books, Aragorn's virtue lay in the fact not that he was uncertain (about his path), but in his patience. In the movie, he was resistant and unsure. It isn’t as dramatically interesting," Mahan said. "If (a storyteller's) religious convictions tend to limit their ability to wrestle with the big questions, they must depart from the certainty of those convictions. What we should be asking ourselves is, 'Why is virtue not dramatic?'"
Twenty-one years after its first publication, "The Giver" is still finding relevance today, Mahan said, in a world kids might find is out of control, be it from terrorism or a slow economy affecting their families.
"The rise of dystopian fiction and film is a projection of our genuine anxieties and a craving to bring order to a world that seems to just be happening to us," Mahan said. "Kids find such a great instability in the world and a lack of ability to control their destinies."
Bickmore says the reason the book continues to speak to new generations of readers is not just that it was the first dystopian novel written for youth, but because its themes are universal.
"It connects with some inner, moral compass," Bickmore said. "It gives kids a sense of power and makes them feel they can make a difference. It talks about social issues and change in a way that doesn't talk down to them."
That's something, Bickmore said, that opens the readership up to a wide age range. A young child might identify with the helplessness of being dependent on adults, while a teen might find more meaning in Jonas' struggle to realize his own identity when the world doesn't want him to. Those values also change with generations, Bickmore said, adding that today's teens may have a stronger sense of contributing to causes than previous generations.
"Teens resonate with the idea of the common good rather than any one political ideology," Bickmore said. "'The Giver' definitely speaks to that."
Whatever messages kids draw from "The Giver," Mahan said, one thing laid a blueprint for the contemporary books that have followed: a sense of identity.
"The idea of a protagonist of one’s own age who faces a similar existence is enormously appealing," Mahan said. "We all have a visceral need to have those fears exposed and, in some fashion, purged."