The Girl With All The Gifts
About ten years ago the story of a fungal virus ravaging the world, the end of civilisation, and a girl who may be our last chance for survival became a global success. But if you think I’m talking about Playstation game The Last Of Us, you’d be wrong. It’s a Halloween Book Versus Film again, and this time we’re hanging out with The Girl With All The Gifts.
It is twenty years since the Breakdown, when an outbreak decimated the world. In Bedfordshire, England, a former air-force base has been turned into a research outpost called Hotel Echo base, where they search for a cure whilst keeping out the hordes of zombified ‘hungries’ surrounding their perimeter.
Within the underground bunker, children are wheeled from cells into classrooms. They too are infected, but unlike the surface hungries they are capable of thought, speech, learning. And possibly their star pupil may hold the key to saving humanity. Or ending it.
Melanie is a ten-year-old girl who loves Greek mythology, adores her teacher, hates the weekly shower because the decontamination stings her eyes, and survives on one bowl of live grubs a week. She is the brightest kid at the base, but has never been above ground. Melanie’s favourite story is the one about Pandora – whose name means ‘the girl with all the gifts’ – and like her, she is curious about everything. Such as why the adults are so scared of her…
Dr Caroline Caldwell is the base’s chief scientist. She has dissected many of the child hungries, but has not yet cracked the virus’s code. Caldwell not only wants to save humanity, but also assuage her own vanity. Years ago, she was rejected for a scientific project, and that still stings. But whilst Caldwell believes that in Melanie she will find the answers, there is one problem: the base’s most popular teacher…
Helen Justineau was sent to the base to carry out psychological research on the children. Unfortunately, she became too close to the kids she was teaching, and no longer sees them as dangerous. Helen is protective of her charges, especially Melanie, partly because a tragic secret from her past means she would rather die than let the girl be killed. She distrusts Caldwell, and has little time for the military personnel, especially their commanding officer…
Sergeant Eddie Parks detests the child hungries, whom he calls “frigging abortions”, and sneers at Helen’s touchy-feely ways with them. His 18-month stint at the base has now lasted four years, but though he is cynical and abrupt, he takes his responsibility for base security seriously. Parks is pragmatic (such as getting the group moving when their transport breaks down), doesn’t give in to despair, and knows how to look after his soldiers. Even those struggling to keep it together…
Private Keiran Gallagher was born after the Breakdown, so doesn’t know what life was like before. He idolises Parks and has a crush on Helen, but of all the adults it is he who perhaps understands Melanie best. They are both filled with fear and awe when being thrown into the outside world. But Gallagher joined the military to escape his bullying father, so returning to Beacon (the new capital) is not something he wants.
Opening The Box
The story began when M. R. (Mike) Carey was invited to contribute to an anthology called An Apple For The Creature, being published in 2012. The collection’s USP was education, but with a horror twist. Carey had always wanted to write a zombie story so populated his class with the undead, remnants of a zombie pandemic. Called Iphigenia In Aulis (relating to a sacrifice at the battle of Troy), it was nominated for an Edgar Award in 2013. Carey knew the story had more potential, but should he write a full novel, or a screenplay? He chose both.
Aside from relocating the US-set story to England, the biggest change came via an unexpected source: David Attenborough. One of his documentaries featured Ophiocordyceps Unilateralis, a fungus that attaches itself to its prey (in this case ants), attacks their central nervous system and takes control. Carey was so fascinated by this he redesigned his outbreak around it – but now the ‘zombie-ant fungus’ (as it’s sometimes called) has jumped species. To us.
After getting the nod from his publisher, Carey knew he was taking on a punishing workload by writing both it and the screenplay in tandem, but a successful career in the comics industry (including writing the entire 75-issue series of Lucifer) set him in good stead.
Greek mythology features throughout. Melanie’s miniscule worldview is shaped by those stories, and she uses them to rationalise the world into which she finds herself. It’s a novel idea, allowing for a unique viewpoint (early on, Melanie compares her urge to bite with Pandora’s desire to open the box). Although the book is split between the five main characters, Melanie is the clear protagonist.
As well as mythology, there’s a lot of science too. The research feels very solid, but never baffles the reader. Understandably Caldwell is our gateway, explaining how Ophiocordyceps affects us, but she also poses the moral dilemma at the heart of the story: is one child worth the entire human race? It’s no surprise which side of the argument Caldwell falls on, but what is unexpected is how convincing she can be. No Hammer Horror unhinged scientist is she; even when she’s dying of sepsis she does not quit, and often it’s hard to disagree with her precision logic. There are no easy answers here.
The book cleverly drip-feeds information. Anyone coming to this fresh will wonder why a nice, polite girl requires more restraints than Hannibal Lecter on a day out. Also, what happened to Birmingham for their population of over one million to become zero? Those reveals are perfectly timed, as is the attack on Hotel Echo. Just as we’ve got used to the base, we’re forced to flee. And that’s how we learn it’s not just the hungries that are dangerous.
Out there in the wilds are nomadic human survivors called junkers. They have rejected Beacon’s fledgling society, scavenging whatever they need instead. As with the Walking Dead franchises, the zombies are never the most interesting threat, and the junkers literally ram the inciting incident into our story by herding an army of the undead against the base’s fence until it collapses. Our group barely escape, but even then they’re not safe, for the junkers are in pursuit.
What follows, where our five main characters traverse hostile territory on a 74-mile journey towards Beacon, is for me the best part of the book. There’s that enjoyable road trip aspect where each location brings something new, and we glimpse this uninhabited world, like an alien planet after two decades of abandonment. Most startlingly are the burn shadow zones near London. Evocative of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, these scorched-earth swathes of land, the result of chemical incendiaries being used to ‘cauterise’ vast areas, show far better than any flashback how panic-stricken the last government were to contain the outbreak. But within the horror are unexpected character moments. Melanie finds the heat shadow of an adult and child against a building, and realises this was part of a family: the one thing she can never have. If the book is about her self-discovery – that she too is a hungry and how it impacts her relationships with others – here is the sucker punch.
Scenes like this show how beautiful the writing is. Carey flits from heart-in-mouth action (a rooftop escape, where Helen and Parks are trapped in a house by hungries) to wonderful character moments (Melanie’s first time outdoors), whilst never forgetting the horror (the revelation that the child hungries file their teeth). You don’t want the book to end.
When it was published in January 2014, The Girl With All The Gifts became an instant success. Reviews praised its complex characterisations and fresh interpretation of the zombie genre. Inevitably, comparisons were made with The Last Of Us game, the first of which had been released seven months earlier, but if anything, that only helped sales cross the one-million marker. It would inspire a prequel, (The Boy On The Bridge, 2017) but what fans were asking for was a film adaptation. And of course, that was already being written …
Back to when Mike Carey was considering turning his short story into a book or screenplay. He’d already formed a good working relationship with producer Camille Gatin and shown her Iphigenia In Aulis. She passed it to a director, Colm McCarthy, and the three of them discussed how to expand it into a feature. Naturally, that’s when his publishers commissioned the book, so Carey went from zero projects to two.
To help condense the story into two hours, the viewpoint is now almost entirely restricted to Melanie (not to ruin anything, but if another character gets their own scene, it’s likely their last scene). The hungries are the film’s only external threat, with the junkers being junked. Much of the road trip is shortened, with overnight stays at an abandoned church and police station being excised. A new squaddie, Private Dillon, joins the group, but his life expectancy is so short he may as well wear Star Trek Red. And those burn shadow zones are also cut; a shame, but it probably halved the budget at a stroke.
Thankfully, the Greek myth angle is retained. Interestingly, the film was to have a different title: She Who Brings Gifts (another interpretation of Pandora’s name). At some point, possibly when the book became a huge bestseller, it reverted to the original title, but you can still hear the new one mentioned in the opening scene, when Helen reads Melanie’s favourite story.
With funding secured, including from the BFI and Creative England, an impressive cast was quickly assembled: the kind that makes you say, “How the hell are they in a zombie movie?” Gemma Arterton plays Helen, with Paddy Considine as Sergeant Parks, and Hollywood royalty Glenn Close as Dr Caldwell. Newcomer Sennia Nanua practically carries the film in a superb debut performance as Melanie. Filming began in 2015, mostly around the West Midlands, with haunting aerial shots of an overgrown London actually filmed via drone in the abandoned Ukrainian city of Pripyat, near Chernobyl.
The film’s budget was a modest £4 million, but it certainly doesn’t look so on screen. Director Colm McCarthy does a sublime job, with certain key scenes – the base attack features one brilliant, frenetic long shot – looking as good as anything Hollywood can do. He also makes excellent use of one aspect of the hungries that separates them from the usual brain-chomping zombie: when not on the hunt they freeze where they are, and unless they smell you (they’re drawn to our endocrine sweat, which we mask with e-blocker gel) it’s possible to sneak by them … Possible, but nerve-wracking. In one terrific scene, our heroes must sneak through a tightly packed horde of ‘resting’ hungries in a shopping centre. It’s moments like this where the film comes into its own.
Both book and film tell the same ending, but in different ways. Caldwell has discovered there is no cure; however, as Melanie’s generation shows, it won’t be mindless hungries that inherit the earth, but an intelligent race who assimilate the fungal virus rather than are consumed by it – though not if humans keep killing them. To stop that, the virus needs to go airborne and infect us all. In the book the group encounter a 40-foot wall of fibrous growth that has swallowed everything behind it, and within are thousands of spore-filled pods waiting to hatch, except they’re too tough to break open by themselves. In the film they find the BT Tower consumed by fungi, and again home to those unbreakable pods. In both cases, Melanie knows that an ‘environmental trigger’ will open them. Fire.
With only Helen alive – in the protective cocoon of a mobile laboratory found in London – and Melanie bringing more child hungries for her to teach, the story comes full circle. The ending is bleak, yet there remains a sense of hope – the one thing left in Pandora’s Box once all the evils escape – hope in the form of Melanie guiding the next generation. For leadership, it turns out, is just another one of her gifts.
After premiering at the Locarno film festival in August 2016, the film opened on 23rd September. It also enjoyed rave reviews, even managing a rare-for-horror five stars from Empire magazine. The cast are superb throughout, with Close excelling in a scene (not in the book) as Caldwell almost persuades Melanie to sacrifice herself. But the film belongs to Nanua, for a performance that brought several award nominations, and a win at the Sitges – Catalonian International Film Festival, for Best Actress.
Closing The Box
Previously, when I’ve compared a book and film written by the same person, the latter tends to win. You know it’ll be faithful to the story’s essence, and so it is here. The film looks terrific, brilliantly handling the book’s moral questions, and delivering what I feel is the (slightly) better of the two endings, with the BT Tower ablaze: a more visually arresting finale. But on the flipside, the book gives us much more of this infected world, including those junkers and the burn shadow zones (what an image they would have made on film), and the journey to Beacon feels like a genuine odyssey.
Criticisms? Well, the book largely forgets the junkers once we reach London, and Caldwell’s death happens ‘off-page’; conversely, the film shrinks the journey to a day and night, and the London segment feels hurried – but I’m having to dig deep to find these nits to pick. Choosing a winner, however, is easier.
Both have rich, complex characters and a well-realised post-apocalyptic world. The film is one of the finest zombie movies ever, but the book is one of the best reads in any genre, with a breadth of detail that no film could squeeze in. Therefore, I’m happy to say the girl with the most gifts is the book.
BIO: Nick Jackson lives in the north of England, so he’s used to post-apocalyptic worlds. He loves books and films, and enjoys comparing books with films. He hates mushrooms, though, so would make a crap fungal zombie.