As a huge fan of post-apocalyptic narratives, this book had been on my radar for quite a while. However, for some reason, I was slow to pick it up…I guess in a way I was getting a bit jaded with the whole genre and wasn’t in the mood to start into something that I assumed was going to be filled with tired clichés and overused tropes. When I did finally start into it, I was more than pleasantly surprised. Yes, some of the tropes are there but the story, and the style in which it is written, was way beyond anything I had expected. To sum up: I loved it. It blew me away. And I would highly recommend it to anyone with an interest (even a passing one) in these types of dystopian tales.
The movie on the other hand….er, well that’s another story (literally).
But before we start comparing the book to the movie, let’s dive a bit more into why I think the book shines…
Be warned, from here on in are spoilers. If you haven’t read the book yet, then go ahead and read it now…you won’t regret it!
The main protagonist of the story is a young girl called Melanie. As you might have guessed from the title, Melanie is different from your average ten year old, in that she is a type of advanced zombie called a ‘hungry’. In this world, a strange fungal infection has (almost) wiped out humanity. Those who are not dead, live either as a hungry (although the term living is a loose one!), or a survivor. Life is tough for the uninfected as they have to remain continuously alert – not just against the hordes of hungries – but also against their fellowmen. A cure has yet to be found but it is thought that the answer may lie within Melanie. However, before this option can be explored, the camp where Melanie is being held is overrun and she escapes with a band of unlikely companions: a teacher with a conscience, a mad scientist hell bent on finding the cure no matter what, a tough-as-nails army sergeant, and a young greenhorn soldier (who you just know from the get-go will become hungry fodder at some stage!).
So far, so good. Fans of this genre will easily recognise some of the classic tropes straightaway. BUT…and it is a big but…it doesn’t really matter. The writing is so good that it succeeds in elevating each character beyond the classic stereotype to such an extent that you find yourself becoming invested in each one, whether you want to or not. Each character comes equipped with a backstory or an arc that is slowly unfolded over the course of the adventure. The goody-two-shoes teacher? Well, she is struggling with guilt from having accidentally killed a child when the world was normal. The evil scientist? Her reasons for finding a cure are far from altruistic; fame and peer-recognition are her only real motivation. The hardcore Sergeant? His veneer breaks down over the course of the story to reveal a decent man that is struggling with feelings of loneliness. And lastly, the greenhorn soldier? Well, he has one of the most interesting backstories of them all. Coming from an abusive family, he struggles with fulfilling his duty while trying to suppress an ever growing sense of panic about returning home. All of this accumulates in a story that is absolutely engaging, gripping, and honestly, a thrill to read.
Note, I said ‘to read’…now it’s time to look at the movie.
The film adaptation of The Girl with all the Gifts is not very good. Actually, it’s terrible. I think if I had seen the film first, I would not have been bothered to invest time in the book and I can’t help but wonder how many others have lost out too because of this. The worst thing is that I really wanted to like the movie. And yes, I know full well that the two are very different mediums and that one will always tend to pale in comparison. But did it have to be this bad? I don’t think so. Let’s explore.
The film opens up in much the same way as the book and for a (short) while at least, it actually seems to work. All the main characters are introduced – there’s even an additional soldier thrown into mix but like all good red shirts, he gets bumped off pretty quickly. Then its off on the grand adventure to…er, where are they going again? Maybe I missed it but I don’t think they talk that much about where they are escaping to. In the book, ‘Beacon’ is the last refuge of humanity in the UK (possibly the world). This is drilled into us from an early stage in the book and forms the hopes and fears of the group, i.e. Dr. Caldwell (scientist) needs to get there to continue her research and find the cure, Private Gallagher (greenhorn) fears returning due to the abuse he suffered there his entire life. This is a big deal in the book but, whatever, off they go anyway.
Am I being too picky? Probably. After all, it is a film adaptation so some things do have to be left out or sped up. I get that. I really do. BUT (yes, there is always a but) there are ways to wind in emotional resonance within a short space of time. If I hadn’t read the book beforehand I honestly don’t think I would have really cared about any of them. Would I have guessed for instance that Miss Justineau (teacher) had struggled intensely with her conscience before rescuing Melanie? Maybe…but then I probably would have wondered as to why she hadn’t bothered rescuing the other kids that were taken.
Ok, skipping ahead. The scene at Stevenage where the group run into a mob of hungries. In the book, this chapter is nail biting, fast paced, deadly, and claustrophobic. The writing is so good that you almost feel you are there with the characters. The atmosphere is tense throughout and the payoff at the end is good.
But the film version… Well, first of all, the hungries are terrible looking. They look like actors in cheap makeup. So, from the start I was pulled out of the story. And, while they do get into trouble, it never really seems that tense or urgent. In the above scene, for instance, they easily escape by running through the infected shooting random hungries as the go. According to the book, any significant noise and movement would have set them all off. So, yeah, not great at all.
I also had a problem connecting with the characters on screen. I felt Glenn Close as the scientist was quite good but the rest were hit and miss. They all did a fine job but I never became invested in any of them. Pity really, but I guess this is more down to me than to them. After all, I’d already built these characters up in my mind well before watching the movie.
There is a lot more I could say but I will wrap it up with a last observation. The one big difference, the key one that I cannot forgive the director for, is the depiction of the hungry kids. When we first meet the kids in the book, it has a powerful effect on Melanie and the other characters. They are vicious, nasty, savage – everything that she is not. Again, this is built up beautifully in the book and is matched with some incredible tension. When the final showdown does occur, it is emotional as it is brutal…in the film, however, I found it laughable. It looked quite comical, kinda like as if the kids from a local community group got together to take their stage play outdoors. Again, I was pulled out of the fantasy and pretty much gave up at that point.
All in all, if you like zombie-type dystopian narratives, I would highly recommend reading this book. I thoroughly enjoyed every page. But I think you know what I am going to say about the movie, right? Yes, you are right – just skip it. Or at least if you do intend to watch it, make sure to have read the book first.
This isn’t the first time that a movie adaptation of a popular book hasn’t worked out, and I am sure it won’t be the last. At the very least, it has inspired me to look into the source material for other films that I thought were just so-so… Alan Moore’s book “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” has been silently collecting dust on my book rack. Considering the disaster that movie was, I think it’s high time I took look at that!
I might write more on this in future…let’s see. Watch this space!
Article written by Shane O’Halloran. Have something to say? Leave a comment below or contact Shane directly via Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or email. Or, you could just buy him a coffee if you like? (AKA a pint)