M.R. Carey’s 2014 novel The Girl with All the Gifts, written concurrently with the screenplay for the 2016 film of the same name, easily draws comparisons to 2002’s breakout horror hit 28 Days Later. Both take place in an England overrun by zombie hordes—of the fast European variety—and center on a small but eclectic group of survivors. The Girl with All the Gifts, however, similarly draws from other iconic inspirations.
There are nods to the Alien franchise in its characterization of the military and, at the risk of being slightly spoiler-y, another particularly grisly allusion. There are shades of The Last of Us, specifically with regard to fungal zombification, and to the profane parody of daily life acted out by the at-rest undead in Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. In fact, if you look hard enough, you can find colors of everything from Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome to Peter Pan.
But despite all this, all these fingerprints of older and more recognized tales of the macabre and the utterly fantastic, The Girl with All the Gifts manages to be a uniquely engaging narrative. And, while the film certainly differs from the book in a number of ways, it too is a chilling yet thoughtful story that blurs genre lines and never seems to shy away from a shocking reveal.
The first of these revelations occurs early on as we discover that young Melanie (skillfully portrayed by Sennia Nanua) and her fellow captive students in an anonymous military installation are something less than human. These second-generation “hungries” talk and act like typical adolescents, at least until they encounter the sweet smell of human flesh.
A series of seemingly random events sees the base overrun just as Melanie finds herself in the direst of straits thanks to the sinister intentions of Glenn Close’s Dr. Caroline Caldwell. Thankfully, Helen Justineau (Gemma Arterton), a teacher with which Melanie shares a special bond, comes to her rescue… and the young girl returns to the favor.
In short order, this unlikely trio and a pair of the base’s surviving military defenders, Sergeant Parks and Private Gallagher, find themselves on a journey across the wasteland straight out of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. From there the story weaves and bobs, but amid all the chaos it’s hard not to notice an underlying theme that, believe it or not, should be especially relatable to parents.
While the human survivors are, almost at every turn, hemmed in by the hungries, Melanie, too, is trapped—first literally, bound to a wheelchair in a barren stockade, but, more generally, continually imprisoned by how she is treated and taught to see herself by the adults in her life.
Paddy Considine’s Parks, who’s painted far more sympathetically here than in the novel, and Dr. Caldwell both see Melanie primarily as a thing, then as a liability and an asset, respectively. It is only Justineau who, at great personal peril, gives the girl the opportunity to define herself by her heart, her creativity, and, ultimately, her actions.
Given the film’s stark, dramatic ending, it’s a little difficult to say who among them was most correct with regard to their understanding of Melanie’s underlying drives, but, as a fan of the unexpected and the ambivalent (at least with regard to my horror fiction), I was happy to see that sentiment survived the translation from page to screen.
At a brisk 111 minutes, The Girl with All the Gifts isn’t exactly breezy, but its masterful pacing always managed to keep me engaged. So did its wonderfully cohesive cinematography and its stellar cast, particularly the performances of Sennia Nanua and Gemma Arterton.
As a side note, fans of the book might notice that Melanie has been altered somewhat in this interpretation. Specifically, the girl, originally described as having fair skin and long hair, is played instead by a young woman of color. A behind-the-scenes featurette bundled with this home video release includes an anecdote about Sennia Nanua’s audition—seemingly the last appointment on the last day of that phase of casting—with the through-line being that there was no doubt that she was the perfect Melanie.
This adjustment, which places her alongside a largely white, largely male hodgepodge of other children, serves to highlight the “otherness” that is Melanie, just as the streamlining of the initial slow-burn introduction of the book and the subsequent humanization of the surviving military personal serves to capture the spirit of the novel in this visual medium. And, whether you’re an existing fan or a newcomer, you’ll likely find this tale terrifying, tender, and thought-provoking in equal measure.
The Girl with All the Gifts is available today from Lionsgate and is rated R for “disturbing violence/bloody images, and for language.” The MSRP for the combination Blu-ray, digital, and DVD edition is $17.99, but you can pick it up for $16.96 via Amazon.
Review materials provided by: Lionsgate