Intentionally moving away from many of the familiar tropes of the modern zombie movie, The Girl With All the Gifts makes its own statement as a horror picture all about children, nature and the dehumanisation of humanity.
Unusually for the production of a film based on source material, the book director Colm McCarthy adapts his movie from was written in tandem by novelist M.R. Carey, who also penned the screenplay to his adaptation. These circumstances allow for the picture to not only remain very faithful to the source material but have the fresh confidence to adapt and chart its own course, with the full involvement of the creative mind behind the project. How often do adaptations fall short because they miss the point or stray too far from the book? The Girl With All the Gifts is quite the opposite, and hits as a result.
What strikes you immediately about McCarthy’s film is how it treats the wider situation the world finds itself in. If you know the basic elements of the story going in, you know Britain at least has been overcome by a fungus strain of virus, which can infect humans via blood or fluid transmission, and turns them instantaneously into ‘hungries’; zombies, effectively, monstrous creatures who devour anything in their path and can move at speed. Only pockets of humans appear to be left, including the military officers inside the countryside British base where Carey’s story begins.
The script and direction remains focused, unlike the book by Carey’s own admission, on the eponymous gifted girl, Melanie (played with impressive dedication by newcomer Sennia Nanua). She is one of many children inside this base who are in restraints, treated like maximum security prisoners, regularly being schooled by Helen Justineau (Gemma Arterton in full cockney accent mode). We see and understand the world alongside Melanie, information and detail creeped out by McCarthy’s direction as she, Helen and several other base workers are embroiled in a scenario overcome by hungries, where they must flee for their lives in the best tradition of the zombie movie, all the way back to Night of the Living Dead.
Immediately Carey & McCarthy present a world full of moral ambiguities. There is a dehumanisation about the treatment of these children we don’t fully understand until the older, pragmatic Dr. Caldwell (played with calculated detachment by Glenn Close, who doesn’t do movies like this enough anymore) explains to us and Melanie they are ‘neo-natals’, children born of infected women who literally ate their way out of the womb and unlike other hungries have a level of control and sentence. With Melanie, it’s even more pronounced and much of the picture plays with the ambiguity of what she is capable of.
Whether or not these children are infected, or a risk, or indeed some kind of new species of human born out of the plague ravaging the planet, this dehumanisation is chilling to watch. One is left to wonder if the people locking them down are even military at all; there’s a sense beyond Paddy Considine’s driven Sergeant Parks that some of the other soldiers may even be drafted recruits, civilians who had no other choice but to fight the hungry hordes. That’s left ambiguous too but the morality of how these children are treated is mainly played out through Helen’s character and her burgeoning relationship with Melanie.
What’s interesting is how Carey plays with Greek myth through the film too, with Melanie championing the children—who are referred to as ‘abortions’ disparagingly by the soldiers—being allowed to have stories read to them instead of being tested for what appears to be heightened intelligence and knowledge, as the other scientists do. Helen becomes the surrogate mother figure giving these children succour, engaging them in the kind of pastoral treatment they have never had in their strange, terrifying lives as a product of the fungus. In telling them of Greek myths such as Pandora, the woman who opened the box and released evil into the world, Helen provides that humanity while conveying Carey’s key metaphor.
The children are in many senses what lies inside the box, and Melanie very much by the end becomes Pandora. She spends much of the film uncertain herself as to who or what she is, discovering that truth through the reactions of those around her when the base is invaded and they all head for the nearest city on the run; be it Parks’ fear of what he doesn’t understand and has been trained to survive against, be it Caldwell’s dispassion considering the children a scientific means to an end in order to find a vaccine to beat back the fungus; and crucially Helen’s compassion, which Melanie responds to even in the face of Helen’s peers vilifying her for considering these children to *be* children.
What the humans consistently refuse to understand across the story of The Girl With All the Gifts is the message of nature reclaiming her territory. It’s discovered as the story progresses that the fungus evolves beyond infecting and transforming the human body into an organic machine producing hard spores, which contain more seeds of the fungus. Caldwell makes the point that should such spores explode, either thanks to heat or another natural happenstance, it could mean the virus becomes airborne and no human would ever survive. Melanie seems to understand increasingly that the fungus represents an evolution of the human race beyond what the survivors can understand.
Melanie becomes Pandora when she becomes the trigger of that evolution. She let’s out the figurative evils by ensuring the spores are released and says to a despondent Parks that “this new world isn’t meant for you” and earlier considers the hungries, all dormant inside the main city they find shelter in, “must be lonely”. Melanie finds humanity and hope where the human survivors find only death and releasing the spores to her is not an evil act. She doesn’t do it to kill the rest of the humans, in-fact she works to try and save Parks and Helen; rather she knows this is natural selection at work, and the entitlement of humanity over nature and her natural resources is at an end.
Carey also taps a certain Lord of the Flies element in how he presents children in the script toward the end of the story. Once in the city, the groups biggest threat doesn’t come from feral infected adults but rather a cluster of children, undoubtedly neo-natals who weren’t raised in captivity by human wards, who at one point savage one of the soldiers and can only be controlled by Melanie. It’s a fascinating moment when she protects Parks & Helen by tapping into her internal savagery and asserting herself as a ‘leader’ among the pack. She does so with consciousness and protective forethought and the film does a good job of contrasting the dehumanisation of children at the beginning with the honest freedom of the savage, feral children at the end.
The Girl With All the Gifts has an ending which represents the hope inside Pandora’s metaphorical box while also being more than a little chilling. The ‘second-generation’ of infected human children look set to inherit the earth, reclaiming it alongside nature, while Helen must live her life encased inside a hermetically sealed chamber. The hope comes in her resuming what will now be her life’s work in teaching these children about the world, about humanity, with Melanie acting almost as her teaching assistant, yet being fully in command. It’s unnerving yet bittersweet, and not a little subversive.
As a first major cinematic feature for Colm McCarthy, The Girl With All the Gifts is an impressive debut, wrestling good performances out of an eclectic supporting cast of British and American talent, while presenting a stark and dark representation of a post-apocalyptic future, shot through with some kinetic and bloody action sequences. It feels in the best tradition of the zombie movie while telling a very human and mythological story at heart, riven with metaphor and subtext. On a personal note, it was also shot in the West Midlands, the place I live and was born, and McCarthy did a superb job in transforming the area into a wasteland.
Though admittedly, if you’ve been there, you probably know that’s not too great a challenge!