February 21, 2019


The Giver—Graphic Novel Adaptation. By Lois Lowry. Adapted and illustrated by P. Craig Russell. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $22.99.

     An unusually compelling dystopian tale aimed at a younger audience than those usually targeted for such stories, Lois Lowry’s 1993 Newbery Medal winner The Giver has, for a quarter of a century, transcended its awkwardnesses, unexplained elements, and somewhat flawed presentation through the sheer quality of Lowry’s storytelling and her adept posing – without ever saying it in so many words – of a basic question of freedom vs. security. That issue is ever-present in real life – it always seems to fit whatever sociopolitical situation is most parlous at any given time – so the novel retains contemporary relevance year after year. And given the increasingly visual orientation of society, certainly of American society, it makes perfect sense to bring visuals to the book; indeed, a movie of it was made in 2014. But it is something of a surprise that a graphic-novel adaptation has not been made until now, doubly so because one crucial element of The Giver seems perfectly suited to a presentation of this sort: the matter of color.

     Perhaps The Giver needed to find the right person to handle its adaptation and illustration, and that is what took a while. If so, the wait was very worthwhile indeed: P. Craig Russell, who has superbly handled adaptations of works by Neil Gaiman, is an ideal choice for this project. As in Russell’s other works, he has not tackled The Giver alone: there are additional illustrations by Galen Showman and Scott Hampton, coloring by Lovern Kindzierski, and lettering by Rick Parker. But Russell’s feel for the material shapes the whole book as surely as his own illustrations dominate it.

     Like a number of dystopian novels aimed at adults, The Giver starts by presenting a society that seems in many ways admirable, even utopian: there is an old-fashioned calmness about family life, a politeness that permeates relationships among members of each age group and between adults and children, and a neatly ordered and well-manicured community where noise, pollution, disharmony and troubles of all sorts are notable by their absence. Lowry slowly, slowly reveals, bit by bit, what is wrong with all this, although she never explores, in any detail, just how the situation came to be. Russell adapts Lowry’s approach very cleverly indeed, giving the world the look of an idealized suburban community of the 1950s and showing it not in black-and-white but in a kind of bluish silver tone that simultaneously washes color out and implies that it is there. Thus, when protagonist Jonas – the 12-year-old chosen by the community’s elders to be the next Receiver of Memories, who will obtain truth and history from the Giver – first notices color, the effect is nearly as startling for the reader as for Jonas himself. Unlike Jonas, the reader will know what color is – but, lured into the minimal palette of the art, the reader will be momentarily shocked when a colorless apple suddenly becomes a brilliant red. And as Jonas wonders what can possibly be going on, so will the reader – even a reader already familiar with The Giver in its original form.

     It is a strength of top-quality graphic novels that they can introduce people to the originals from which they are taken while also appealing to people who already know those originals, helping them revisit the books’ settings, events and ideas in a new way. Reading a novel requires visualizing it, after all: authors evoke scenes through description and flesh out characters both descriptively and through their actions and speech. The specific way Jonas and the other characters look in this adaptation may or may not be close to the way readers who know the original thought they would look, but this is a novel of ideas, not a character study, so the specific appearance of individuals matters little. And Russell is careful to establish people and let readers get to know them, to at least some extent, while staying focused throughout on the ideas that Lowry is setting forth. It is those ideas, after all, that compensate for some of the awkwardness of plot and missing fleshing-out of the world of The Giver. And it is those ideas that climax with extended scenes in which Jonas, fleeing the community with a baby that will otherwise be put to death in conformity with community notions of correctness, finds himself at last in a world that is all color – but is filled with difficulty, danger and potential destruction. Lowry ends The Giver ambiguously – a fact that has earned her and the novel both praise and condemnation – and Russell carries that ambiguity through exactly correctly, in a final scene that brings both hope for Jason and the baby, Gabriel, and uncertainty about their fate. The Giver is a standalone novel, even though Lowry later wrote three others to create a rather loosely related quartet: Gathering Blue, Messenger, and Son. None of the later books has the sheer power and propulsiveness of The Giver, though, and although any or all of them could be turned into graphic novels, their adaptations would not likely enhance and expand upon the words as effectively as Russell’s do for the original novel. This graphic novel does its source proud, and Russell’s handling of Lowry’s “thought piece” is as successful in the graphic-novel medium as the original book was as a print offering.

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