When I first heard about The Girl With All The Gifts, I was intrigued. It was getting rave reviews as a clever and thought-provoking take on the zombie apocalypse genre; once I saw it was heading to the big screen, I figured I would see if it deserved the hype.
It does. I say that with a lot of qualifications, however. It is both clever and thought-provoking, a story that stands out in a genre that can quickly devolve into mere gore. As far as a story that uses zombies as a means to explore humanity in all its vagaries, it makes my list alongside Jonathan Maberry’s Rot and Ruin series, Isaac Marion’s Warm Bodies, World War Z, and the better seasons of The Walking Dead.
This will be two reviews in one, because the movie's altered presentation of the story changes it quite a bit, at least as I see it.
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I don't usually post full plot overviews, but it’s necessary to really understand what’s going on in this case. Here’s Wikipedia’s overview of the book (with a few modifications):
Twenty years ago humanity was infected by a variant of the fungus Ophiocordyceps unilateralis. The infected, referred to as "Hungries," quickly lose their mental powers and feed on the flesh of healthy humans. The disease spreads through blood and saliva... In England, the few surviving uninfected humans either live in heavily-guarded areas such as Beacon, or roam in packs of hostile, scavenging "Junkers."
The authorities in Beacon set up a remote military base for the study of a specific group of child Hungries. They, unlike others, are able to retain their mental powers and only lose control when they get too close to human scent. Soldiers, led by Sergeant Eddie Parks, find such child Hungries and bring them to the base, where they are educated by teachers and tested by the head scientist, Dr. Caroline Caldwell. This often means she vivisects the children, which Helen Justineau, a behavioural psychologist and teacher at the base, dislikes. Justineau sees the child Hungries as people, and is especially fond of Melanie, a 10-year-old with a genius-level IQ. Melanie loves Justineau as a surrogate mother. Like the other children, Melanie does not understand that she is different from the adults.
Dr. Caldwell, who believes that she is close to a cure for the fungus, chooses to dissect Melanie. As Justineau interrupts and tries to save her the base is attacked by a group of Junkers and Hungries; Caldwell is badly wounded, and in saving Justineau, Melanie eats flesh for the first time, awakening the "hunger" of the fungus. The three find Parks and Private Kieran Gallagher and flee the base together. The group decides to travel to Beacon, 74 miles away, but the adults argue over whether to bring Melanie. Parks only agrees after placing a muzzle and handcuffs on the child; Melanie cooperates, now aware of the danger she poses to the others…
While Caldwell still sees Melanie as a specimen, the others begin to trust the child. After several encounters with Hungries… the group finds the mobile laboratory Rosalind Franklin… Caldwell, who is dying from sepsis, uses its equipment to urgently continue her research.
While Melanie sates her hunger away from the others by eating wild animals, she finds a group of child Hungries. Melanie sees that they, too, retain their mental functions, although they have no language of their own, being uneducated. Afraid that they will be experimented on, Melanie instead tells the adults she saw a large group of Junkers, but reveals the truth to Justineau. Gallagher, scared of Junkers, flees the lab. He is found by the intelligent Hungries, killed, and eaten.
While Parks and Justineau search for Gallagher, Caldwell—obsessed with finishing her research before dying—captures one of the intelligent Hungries and experiments on him. She makes remarkable findings but does not let the others inside, fearing that they will interfere. Melanie finds a giant mass of fungal fruiting bodies that have grown in the years since the infection began; while there are enough spores to infect the entire world by air currents, the pods that contain the spores (sporangia) do not open on their own.
Melanie tricks Caldwell into letting her inside. Before dying, Caldwell shares her findings with Melanie: There is no cure or vaccine for the fungus. Intelligent Hungries are second-generation ones, conceived by Hungries who retained some human behavior. Those born in this way retain their mental abilities.
Outside the lab, Parks and Justineau are cornered by Hungries. Melanie frightens them away, but Justineau is knocked unconscious and Parks is bitten and infected. Parks asks Melanie to shoot him before the infection cycle finishes so he does not turn into a hungry; she agrees to do so. She asks him to shoot the mass of spores with a flamethrower, deducing correctly that the environmental trigger to open the spores is fire. Before Melanie complies with Parks' request to kill him, she explains that as long as there are healthy humans, the war between them and the Hungries will continue. For second-generation Hungries to be born and rebuild the world, every human must first be infected.
Justineau awakens in the Rosalind Franklin. Melanie leads her to a group of intelligent hungries, to whom Justineau, wearing an environmental protection suit, starts teaching the alphabet.
What this otherwise solid overview fails to show is the many incidental conversations in which Melanie and the adults unpack the ethical quandaries they face. Is she an animal – or even worse, a fungus – or is she human? What are the rights of someone whose humanity is uncertain? Is she truly rational and empathetic as she appears, or is it simply the fungus mimicking human behavior? Can she truly control her instincts, or is she at the mercy of her new nature? She knows that Miss Justine wants to save her - but, she wonders, "who who will save her from herself?" The things she wants to do, she doesn't; the things she doesn't want to do, she does. She is hardly alone in this dilemma.
She also knows that not all the evils that struck this land had the same cause and origin. The infection was bad. So were the things that the important-decision people did to control the infection. And so is catching little children and cutting them into pieces, even if you’re doing it to try to make medicine that stops people being hungries. It’s not just Pandora who had that inescapable flaw. It seems like everyone has been built in a way that sometimes makes them do wrong and stupid things.
The book creates a pretty sympathetic character: a girl far from innocent but not by her own choice, victim of both nature and nurture, one who longs to be fully human but cannot overcome who she is condemned to be. There is no hope for her to change, and there is no cure for those who are not infected. Evolution has done its dirty, relentless work. The fungus is the fittest. Her decision to end the rest of humanity is presented as an act of mercy, a quick, relatively painless end for those who would otherwise die an excruciating and hopeless death.
The children like her–the second generation. There’s no cure for the hungry plague, but in the end the plague becomes its own cure. It’s terribly, terribly sad for the people who get it first, but their children will be okay and they’ll be the ones who live and grow up and have children of their own and make a new world. “But only if you let them grow up,” she finishes. “If you keep shooting them and cutting them into pieces and throwing them into pits, nobody will be left to make a new world. Your people and the junker people will keep killing each other, and you’ll both kill the hungries wherever you find them, and in the end the world will be empty. This way is better. Everybody turns into a hungry all at once, and that means they’ll all die, which is really sad. But then the children will grow up, and they won’t be the old kind of people but they won’t be hungries either. They’ll be different. Like me, and the rest of the kids in the class. They’ll be the next people. The ones who make everything okay again."
She’s a violent angel of mercy, a utilitarian, xenocidal kid who is also the founder and savior of the new humanity. Sacrificing herself would gain nothing. The only way to save anyone is to pull the trigger on a gun that’s going to go off eventually. It's a dreadful dilemma for individuals, but a somewhat hopeful one for the race. Humanity will rise from the ashes, different but safe. She is the girl with all the gifts; it's just that the last one was for her.
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The movie begins with a classroom of children like Melanie. The teacher is reading a story about Prometheus and Epimetheus who are at war with the gods. Zeus wanted to punish Epimetheus, so he fashioned a woman of clay and named her Pandora – she who brings gifts. She opened a box of evil gifts, but in the end she also unleashed hope, “the good thing that makes you be able to stand all the bad things.”
Melanie is Pandora, the one whom the gods have fashioned to punish humanity. The doctor compares her to Schrodinger’s cat, both alive and dead at the same time. “That’s stupid,” says Melanie. “It’s you,” the doctor responds. Prometheus and Epimetheus – humanity – are enduring the horrors that have been unleashed on the world. The big question is if Pandora has also brought hope.
That hope, if it exists, will be found (ironically) in Melanie’s brain. The doctor has no qualms about cutting her up. “They present as children,” she tells the teacher, but they are not human. The fungus does their thinking for them. It’s a classic evolutionary trick. There is no Melanie inside. There is only “exquisite mimicry of observed behaviors.” Melanie is one of Daniel Dennett’sphilosophical zombies (P-Zombies), a human with no ghost of “I” lurking in her meat machine. The teacher disagrees, of course. If Melanie walks, talks, thinks, and acts like a person, she must be a person. To her, Melanie is “she.” To the rest, Melanie is “it.” And there is a world of difference in those two terms.
As their eventual escape from the base unfolds, the teacher and the soldier have an interesting conversation. “I’m not a good person,” she confides. “I’ve never met a good person or a bad one. You just do whatever is in you to do” he responds. “So no one is ever responsible for anything?” He shrugs. “Responsible to who?” This dialogue in the movie reminds me of this conversation in the book between the same two people:
"Anyway, you called me something...You said we were hard-wired soldier boys. What does hard-wired mean?”
Justineau is embarrassed. “It’s sort of an insult,” she says.
“Yeah, well I’d have been surprised if it was a kiss on the cheek. I was just curious. Does it mean like we’re really ruthless or something?”
“No. It’s a term from psychology. It describes a behaviour that you’re born with and can’t change. Or that’s programmed into you so you don’t even think about it. It’s just automatic.”
Parks laughs. “Like the hungries,” he suggests.
Justineau is a little abashed, but she takes it on the chin. “Yes,” she admits. “Like the hungries.”
I watched the movie twice; I am increasingly convinced this short conversation ties the story's philosophical strings together. If we are condemned to do whatever is inside us - if we are all programmed by something - then of course there is no good and bad, and there is no thing or person to whom we are responsible. It sounds great to sing, “I’m on the right track, baby, I was born this way” until that track takes a terrible turn. Then you’re stuck with that philosophy.
When one of the solders is eviscerated by the Hungry children, Melanie is quick to defend them: “They just want to live. We all do.” Oh. Okay. Carry on, then. They just did what was in them.
When Melanie unleashes the pods so that the rest of humanity is infected, the soldier asks her to kill him. When he hands her his gun, she chambers a round right away. He is puzzled. “Where did you learn that?” he asks. “I watched you,” she replies.
Right. “Exquisite mimicry of observed behaviors.” Even though the doctor decides she is more than that by the end of the movie, the movie itself gives us good reason to question this. She mimics the soldier’s action with a gun. She mimics the doctor’s desire to sacrifice Melanie for the sake of a cure for humanity (which in the movie is a very real possibility).
When the doctor tells Melanie she is alive, Melanie responds, “Then why should it be us who die for you?” She could have sacrificed herself for humanity, but where would she have observed that kind of self-sacrifice? Not from the good doctor. As the book notes:
If the road to knowledge was paved with dead children–which at some times and in some places it has been–she’d still walk it and absolve herself afterwards. What other choice would she have? Everything she values is at the end of that road.
As the soldier is dying, she offers what she apparently thinks are comforting words: “It’s not over. It’s just not yours anymore.” That’s a chilling line. She just torched the spores to kill the rest of humanity because, hey, it’s my turn. You used me; I will use you.
The teacher lives, much to Melanie’s delight. But she is confined to the mobile lab, destined to live our her life as the sole remaining human, kept in a cage so that the new humanity can learn. It’s the opening scene reversed. “Exquisite mimicry of observed behaviors.” The final smile that Melanie offers her newly captured pet is perhaps the most chilling moment of the movie.
At one point, Melanie tells the doctor, “I don’t want to be a Hungry.” The grim response? “But you are.” The evolutionary gods created Pandora, who opens the box and destroys humanity by mimicking them. There is no hope in any meaningful sense of the word for them or her. There is only survival.
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The book would be an interesting one for an ethics class to consider. It offers legitimately tough questions about what kind of hard decisions one should make for the sake of the human race. The book is violent and often crude, but it at least offers a unique and well-written tale that takes life and ethics seriously.
The movie felt much more nihilistic. It's evolutionary naturalism with the glamor peeled away. It's nature red in tooth and claw, a fungus-eat-human battle in a world that Richard Dawkins thinks is much like ours:
"The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference."
It might be worth watching the movie just to see what that looks like - and then thank God that it's just a story.