Generally speaking, whenever someone says, “the book was better,” about a book-to-film adaptation, I feel the need to punch them in the throat. I could go on a long digression here about my feelings of film adaptations, the different camps of people wanting them to be faithful, and creative freedoms of artists as well as the nature of truth, but I’m not going to do that. Suffice to say, The Girl With All The Gifts film adaptation gets it both wrong and right in really fascinating ways.
The book, though, on its own merit, is a really solid story. Set sometime after a fungal infection has turned most of humanity into zombies, the British army is experimenting on infected children who, all things considered, seem normal in terms of their intellect and behavior, though they are still very dangerous. The base these children are in invariably falls to attack by “junkers,” humans who survive by scavenging, wielding a herd of hungries (the zombies) like some post-apocalyptic siege weapon.
Flame throwers are involved. It’s pretty freakin’ cool.
A small band of soldiers, scientists, and Melanie, the most special of the infected children escape the base and embark on a journey across Britain in an attempt to reach Beacon, where another military base awaits. On their heels, though, are the junkers. And between them and Beacon: London.
Good luck with that, right?
What I loved about the book was the incredibly human characters who all are well developed and utterly believable. While on the path toward safety, each character faces their fears and the reality of their situation and experiences meaningful change.
Then there’s the ending, which I hated because it is extraordinarily unsatisfying. Although, it is meaningful and logical, and since this is a horror story after all, The Girl With All The Gifts is under no obligation to satisfy. I mean, you know that comes with the price of admission, right?
On its own, the book is worth a read. But it also features a film adaptation, which I think deserves less of your attention.
The film does a great job of bringing the events of the book to the screen. It’s effectively the same story, but where it falters is in the important aspects of bringing the characters to life, which is a strong point of the book. It manages to do a great job with the core story between Melanie and Ms. Justineau, securing it expertly within the first ten minutes of the film, but beyond that, every other primary character is relegated to secondary status, which pulls from many of the story’s important developments.
Sergeant Parks’ journey from vindictive bastard to troubled leader, hero, and warm father figure is trivialized and reduced to a handful of words. Private Gallagher’s descent from cocky young buck into fear and hysteria isn’t captured at all, and his friendship with Melanie is so slight that I’m sure most viewers don’t get it.
And Dr. Caldwell is simply too well done. Played by the astonishing Glenn Close, she gets far more screen time than her character deserves, and in point of that, a large portion of that is spent on exposition through dialogue as she explains some of the finer points of this world’s history and the plagues science almost as if pulling up a chair and addressing the audience directly. Furthermore, because of the prominence of the actress and her skill, Caldwell’s character gets the understanding and humanizing treatment Sergeant Parks deserves.
I think it bears emphasizing that Close’s role as Dr. Caldwell should be a milestone in her career. She did what every great actor hopes to do: she brought a character to life in a way that improves it from the source material; however, she did it so well that it detracted from the film’s overall quality.
Simply, because Glenn Close steals the show here, she takes the story’s chief villain and humanizes her into a relatable person, which means the other characters that actually hold the story’s heart are backgrounded.
It’s also worth noting that the film completely leaves out the junkers, a decision that I liked initially, but because of their absence, the narrative loses its immediacy, and the entire third act falls apart.
None of this is to say The Girl With All The Gifts is a bad film. For sure, it’s one of the best modern zombie flicks. But whereas most adaptations lose credibility because they omitted plot elements or other details that don’t affect the core storyline or its power, this one doesn’t hold up to the book’s successes in the ways that really matter.
I recommend both, of course. In a landscape of failed adaptations, it’s still a good one, and the book stands out on its own in a well-trodden genre.