When I read M.R. Carey’s novel The Girl with All the Gifts I was aware that the movie rights for the book had been optioned, but since I heard nothing further about the project, I thought it had been abandoned as it’s bound to happen sometimes: imagine then my surprise when I discovered that a movie was indeed filmed in 2016. I have no way of knowing whether the movie was a direct-to-DVD production or more simply it skipped the theatre run in my part of the world: what matters is that I was recently able to see and appreciate the filmed version of this amazing story.
The premise might seem taken out of a classic horror scenario: a fungal infection taking possession of the victims’ cognitive faculties turns them into ravenous zombies, and the few survivors live in military enclaves surrounded by the hordes of the “hungries”. In one of such besieged areas, a group of children is used as test subjects to find a cure for the infection: they were all born after the spread of the disease and, while affected like the rest o humanity, they retain both intelligence and rationality. These children represent the next stage, or the new humans, but for Dr. Caldwell (a chillingly efficient Glen Close) they are nothing but specimens, to be used in the search for a cure, and likewise the military personnel treat them like unthinking animals, unmoved by some of the children’s continuing demonstrations of intellect and empathy. The only person on the base ready to see the humanity beyond the danger is the teacher Miss Justineau (Gemma Arterton), whose special pupil is Melanie (portrayed with amazing skill by emergent Sennia Nanua), narrating voice of the inspiring book.
Like the novel, the movie leaves little space to the zombie-like hordes roaming the Earth, and concentrates instead on the psychology of the characters, going beyond the somewhat limited focus of book-Melanie’s observations to delve deeper into the other characters: Sergeant Parks, the rough-mannered soldier trying to keep them all alive after the base has been overrun by hungries, the most vocal about the need to keep Melanie constrained like the dangerous animal he sees in her; Doctor Caldwell, whose “the end justifies the means” attitude allows her to conveniently forget that she’s killing children to save a doomed humanity, that they are alive and possess feelings – something she is unwilling to accept; and Miss Justineau, who enjoys teaching her young charges and is too happy to read them tales from the classical myths instead of instructing them in math or chemistry.
And a Greek myth is indeed at the core of this story, that of Pandora who set free all the afflictions contained in the proverbial box, but ended her act by also freeing hope as a parting gift: hope is indeed what remains for a beleaguered humanity in this post-apocalyptic world – not the hope of being saved by some miracle cure, but the hope represented by the next generation, the children who will inherit the changed Earth. It’s not exactly a comforting scenario but it’s definitely better than the usual total-annihilation solution that so many offerings of the genre portray.
What makes the movie – and the book – quite special is Melanie’s voice, given life on the screen by an emerging performer whose amazing talent gives the lie to her young age: Sennia Nanua shows Melanie’s transition from the initial secluded innocence to the awareness of who and what she is with remarkable skill, managing the coexistence of the helpful child – able to navigate unscathed the dangers of the changed world – with the feral creature who needs to feed on living flesh, or the merciless fighter battling against the wild children of the city to defend the adults who find themselves suddenly in need of her protection. The visuals are quite stunning as well, not so much because of any special effects (the movie does not possess the feel of the huge, money-heavy production) but because it’s able to create the right atmosphere with the abandoned buildings chocked by fungal growths and peopled by unmoving hungrier waiting for a sign of life to jump into murderous activity.
The soundtrack deserves a special mention as well, since it mostly consists of human voices raised in a wail-like song that seems like a lament for the end of the world: it’s eerie and terrifying and it complements to perfection the images rolling on the screen.
The Girl with All the Gifts is not exactly an uplifting movie, and neither was the book that inspired it, but if offers so much inspiration for thought, as a window on the human soul, that I can heartily recommend it.
I recently stumbled on this GoodReads group that proposes a weekly meme whose aim is to give a list of Top Five… anything, as long as they are book related. It sounds fun, and something I can manage even with my too-often-limited time.
This week’s subject is: Books with “hard” topics
When I discuss my reading preferences with people who don’t enjoy speculative fiction, they often complain that the genre does not deal with “real” issues and they could not be more wrong, as testified by these few examples:
In this dystopian future, society relegates unwanted citizens on an island that is also a huge garbage dump. Among these rejects the most unwanted of all are the old: left there to die of deprivation, of the pollutants brewing among the garbage piles, and of neglect. But what’s worse is that the youngsters who have been marooned to the island with them are taught that their plight is the old people’s fault, so bands of angry teenagers hunt the old and defenseless as a bloody sport. Science fiction? Not really: merely the extrapolation of the many small incidents we can observe in our everyday life…
In this novel, the author postulates that a vicious form of flu has left many of the victims prisoners of their own bodies: their minds are fully functional, but the bodies don’t respond to the brain impulses any more. After a while the affected people are able to interact with society once more by connecting to a sort of android bodies called “threeps” and have a semblance of normal life but after the initial wave of social awareness, the general public starts to turn against the threeps, the most vocal maintaining that too many resources are being employed for the locked in, resources that could be better spent elsewhere. It does sound frighteningly familiar, indeed.
When eight-year old Jos’ ship is attacked by pirates who kill the adults and take the children prisoners to turn them into slaves, the young protagonist starts a nightmarish descent into Hell, one made of fear, terror and abuse that will forever scar him, even when he will find the strength to escape from his tormentors. I usually avoid stories that contain this kind of theme because I believe that there is nothing more terrible than stealing a child’s innocence, robbing them of what should be the most carefree years in a person’s life, but in this case the author described young Jos’ journey with such a light hand, through suggestion more than outright detail, that I had to stay until the very end. This is a book that will leave its mark on you, but it will be worth the pain.
No need to describe this story, the one that opened the road to so much YA dystopian narrative – both for the good and for the bad. What I found truly horrifying in the whole scenario was not only the cruelty of pitting young people against each other in a ruthless battle that would see only one survivor, but the fact that the whole scenario was used as both a bloody spectator sport and as admonition against rebellion. I remember thinking, as I read through the book, that we are not so far from the Capitol citizen watching teenagers die horribly: after all there seems to be a huge audience for those so-called reality shows where people face dangerous or harrowing situations. What it says about us, as human beings, is something I prefer not to dwell upon too much.
In a post-apocalyptic landscape a man and his son travel over a wasted land, where the few survivors are more beasts than men, toward the coast and the sea in the hope of finding something better – or maybe just to give themselves a reason to go on. It’s a hard, harsh story that at the same time lights the darkness with the love binding the two of them: it’s an understated kind of love, but it shines through and makes the nightmarish scenes almost bearable. Almost.
In my new-found interest for short stories’ collections I ran across this one that promised interesting female characters and sported several names of authors I either already appreciate or I’m curious about, so I thought it would be a good starting point for new discoveries. While the journey was a good one, in several cases I wondered where the danger represented by these ladies was: most of them are strong, capable women, but not exactly threatening, and in one particular instance there was no woman, dangerous or otherwise, carrying the tale – so that I suspected, at times that the anthology title was more of a sales pitch than anything else. I have no reason to complain, though, because the ones that were interesting, or downright intriguing, kept their own stories flowing smoothly.
Neighbors – By Megan Lindholm aka Robin Hobb
Sarah, an elderly widowed lady living by herself, shows the first symptoms of a failing mind, and therefore keeps to herself the amazing things she witnesses on foggy nights…
The main character in this story is indeed an unreliable narrator due to her problems, and yet there are extreme clarity and realism in the everyday occurrences she goes trough, both on her own and while dealing with concerned family members: what she sees through her windows has all the marks of reality, and yet we readers cannot avoid wondering if it’s all the product of her progressively deteriorating mind – probably picking that up from the echoes of Sarah’s own inner doubts. But after a while it all ceases to be important, since all that matters is the poignant story and the excellent way it’s told, clear-cut and with no need for excess sentimentalism. One of the best offerings in the whole anthology.
Shadows For Silence In The Forests Of Hell – By Brandon Sanderson
Silence Fontaine runs a inn at the edge of the dangerous Forest, where shadows hunt the living and prey on them. When her way of life and the safety of her family are threatened, she will do anything to protect them…
I have to confess I never read anything by Sanderson before, and this story showed me I’ve been missing out on a good author – a situation I must correct as soon as possible. Despite the shorter form, the world building is solid and convincing, and the characters stand out quite clearly, but what took hold of my imagination is the story itself: the creepy, not-fully-explained danger lurking in the forest is much more terrifying because of its indetermination, not in spite of it. The characters’ dangerous journey through that forest is one of the most adrenaline-laden stories I ever read, the fear of the unknown and the unseen becoming almost tangible. After this sample of Mr. Sanderson’s work, I’m certain I will enjoy his novels quite a bit.
Second Arabesque, Very Slowly – By Nancy Kress
In a post-apocalyptic future in which a plague has made most of humanity sterile, people run in packs for protection: an aging woman with nursing skills, attached to one of these packs, inadvertently shows to two members a glimpse of past beauty through old ballet videos.
Easily my favorite story in the whole book, and another discovery of an author I never read before.
There is a poignant dichotomy in the world as it is in Nurse’s times, long after the collapse, and her recollections of better times passed on in the words of her grandmother, so that Nurse sees both things as they are, but also imagines them as they were in happier times. Yet even more poignant is the discovery of beauty and grace by the two young pack members, who are so overtaken by what they see in the old video, that they are ready to flaunt the pack’s rules in pursuit of something they didn’t even suspect could exist, also convincing others of the rightness of their path. I’ve always been partial to ballet, so this story had one more reason to resonate with me, but the contrast between the world’s stark, brutal reality and the glimpses of a better past is more than enough to reach a reader’s soul. Very moving.
Pronouncing Doom – By S.M. Stirling
Another post-apocalyptic Earth, where what remains of humanity, gathered in clans, must re-learn the old ways of living to survive. Unfortunately, some people seem quite attached to the old world’s worst sins…
When the world as we know it collapses, what do we do to keep a semblance of civilization? And better yet, how far are we ready to go? This is the dilemma that Juniper McKenzie faces when she needs to mete out justice on the wolf hiding among her flock, and the interesting part of the story comes from the decision she takes and the way she arrives at that decision. Unfortunately, the “flavor” of the story was marred by the little voice whispering in my ear that such huge changes in social customs, complete with neologisms, were a little too fast for a world that’s only one year away from the big catastrophe. But it was not enough to prevent me from enjoying the tale.
The Princess and the Queen – By George R.R. Martin
A few centuries before the time in which ASOIAF takes place, a brutal war for power is waged between branches of the Targaryen family, and takes the name of “Dance of the Dragons” because the fiery creatures play a major role in it.
In truth, this story was disappointing: I expected more from GRR Martin, some story that would expand my knowledge and understanding of the rich tapestry of Westeros, and the same satisfying characterization I’ve come to enjoy in his ASOIAF saga. Sadly, I found none of this: this looks more like an outline for a story, with an almost endless list of characters and deeds (mostly bloody and ruthless, but that’s Martin for you) and no perception of depth. It’s entirely possible that the author’s choice of relaying the events from an historian’s point of view robbed the narrative of any human interest, preventing me from feeling any attachment for the various figures depicted there. If I had come across this before taking up the first ASOIAF book, I don’t believe I would have given the saga a second thought.