Ghouls are talking about an unexpected favorite film about a young girl coming of age during the zombie apocalypse. Oh, and she's also a zombie herself. The Girl with All the Gifts is a phenomenal film that'll make you care for the protagonist, question if humanity has used up its time here on Earth, and root for the next generation of life to fight on. This film is made even more impactful by their decision to race swap two very important characters.
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The Girl With all the Gifts (2016)
A scientist and a teacher living in a dystopian future embark on a journey of survival with a special young girl named Melanie.
Director: Colm McCarthy
Adapted from the book of the same name by Mike Carey
The Girl with All the Gifts: Youth-Led Apocalypse & Black Liberation
by Gabe Castro
RED: Quotes, someone else's words.
Based on the book of the same name, The Girl With all the Gifts follows a young girl Melanie and her harrowing journey with her teacher, Miss Justineau, and others. Melanie and the other children like her are something…different. We are introduced to them strapped to wheelchairs and being verbally accosted by military-like guardians. Immediately, you feel connected to and affectionate for Melanie. She’s smart, charming, and perplexing. Why are these grown adults so afraid of these young children? Enough to dehumanize them and contain them in such a cold manner. Melanie is incredibly intelligent. You learn this by her rapid-fire recitation of the periodic table of elements or her answers to perplexing brain-twisters posed by the base’s doctor. But she’s also keenly aware that something is amiss. She has only ever been treated this way, but she knows it’s not right. She works to emotionally disarm any character that interacts with her. Whether this is to convince them she’s harmless or to manipulate them into a false sense of security so she can attack them later is the question.
Melanie and the other children aren’t human, not entirely anyway. They’re half human, half-hungries. Hungries being this film’s fun word for zombies. A cordyceps fungus, like the one that infected folx in The Last of Us, has taken hold of most of society. We get a glimpse into what’s left. A military base in England where they have farmed and study these children with the hopes of finding a cure. However, something terrible and predictable happens in this zombie film, the hungries get in and wreak havoc forcing Miss Justineau, Melanie, the doctor that was going to kill her for the cure, and others to flee their makeshift home.
During this journey on the outside, the human characters are forced to reconcile Melanie with being a child. Through her charm and innocence, they learn to trust and care for her – seeing her as more human than hungry. But she is no less hungry than before. Because she’s half-hungry, Melanie has a superpower. She can move among the hungries without being harmed. “Hungries don’t eat their own kind.” one soldier explains. She becomes this troupes one tool for survival. Finding them safe routes along the way to help and provide insight in the nature of the hungries. This allowance to be true to herself ignites a flame in Melanie. In her moments alone, searching for food or safe routes, she has the opportunity to take in the world around her and understand her place in it. She sees the fear the hungries invokes in the humans. It’s similar to the fear they have about her.
On the surface, this is a story about a girl coming of age and finding her power. It is about the next generation of life persevering, evolving, and prospering in the world despite the condition they’ve inherited it in. It’s about the Earth leaving us behind. And it’s about Black liberation.
I’m going to get into Spoiler Central here to dive into some really important themes in this film. In the book, Melanie is a white girl. In fact, she is the quintessential white girl with skin as white as snow, blue eyes, and blonde hair. Ms. Justineau however, is a Black woman with skin “so dark she was like her own shadow.” (I won’t dive into this descriptor but one day I’ll talk about how Black people and POC are described in books. One day!). In this film, they decided to cast the phenomenal young actress, Sennia Nanua, a black girl. Like Night of the Living Dead and She Never Died, by casting a Black person lead in their film, the directors and creators have greatly changed the narrative. Whether intentional or not (Romero didn’t intend to have his film be as racially impactful and perhaps wouldn’t have been as such had it not been released at the same time Dr. King was assassinated,) the film has evolved into some interesting discussions.
Melanie, on her journey with the humans, encounters a tower of spores. These spores could “end the world” she is told because they house the parasite that has changed humanity into the hungries. This same parasite lives with Melanie and the other children born from infected mothers. But the parasite has learned to live with the host, evolved to a happy medium where the host isn’t a mindless drone but instead has control of its body and mind unless introduced to human flesh – then nature kicks in. Melanie finds a new group of children who intend to eat her human captors friends. She immediately tries to help, proving her “humanity” and compassion. But she also discovers power at this moment. She interacts with the children and because she is this hybrid who is both a “monster” and an intelligent human, she can lead them. She shows them through force and wit, that she is the alpha. After this encounter, Melanie and her friends are attacked by the doctor. The doctor is dying and needs to fulfill their life's goal of finding a cure and saving humanity. It’s at this time, before allowing the doctor to murder her to save the humans that Melanie asks her if the children and she are alive. To which the doctor admits, they are. Melanie then gives one of the most amazing responses in horror and other films I’ve ever seen. “Then why should it be us who die for you?”
There are a lot of layers here so I’ll try to be as concise as possible. There’s the eco-horror element to this story that plays well into the monstrous femme/coming of age tale Melanie is going through. She is the next evolutionary step of humanity, not the undoing of it completely. The world has changed enough that humans cannot stay as they are and live. Later, after setting the spores on fire and in doing so, “dooming the world” to be hungries, Melanie interacts with a soldier. He cries out that it’s “all over.” now. To which Melanie says the second best thing in horror and other films, “I’m sorry, sergeant. I’m so sorry,” she says. “It’s going to be alright. It’s not over, it’s just not yours anymore.” And she is sorry. Just not so sorry that she would sacrifice herself and her people for a race of people that would never show her the same mercy.
However, by casting this young black woman the narrative has become deeper than just that of the evolutionary next step generation leaving us behind. It becomes a conversation about Black liberation. In a phenomenal article Kat found on Afropunk titled, 'The Girl with all the Gifts' and Black Girls Destroying the World to Save Themselves, by Hari Ziyad they explain this impactful shift of narrative and the impact it has on the ultimate goal of the story. Considering how often the Ghouls are disappointed by films that pull punches or don’t commit to revolution, it’s safe to say the Ghouls love this film.
Ziyad says, I am not sure the filmmakers made this switch to purposefully reinforce ideas of Black revolution. Indeed, the close-up of Miss Justinaeu, crying as she is trapped in a tiny room as the last human being Melanie keeps alive at the end (for the purpose of continuing to teach the other zombie children), seems to be included to invoke a feeling of sympathy. White women are always the most ideal victims. If one sympathizes with Justinaeu, as a white audience might, and as I believe was intended, the film becomes less a triumph and more a tragedy.
This is the tragedy we are told would happen if Black folks really were to destroy the world and humanity for our own sakes. We don’t have the tools to police ourselves, or we are “too good” to be so “heartless”, or we don’t need saving in the first place because eventually, things will naturally work out if we only are a bit more patient or respectable. Interpreting this as a tragedy tells us that Melanie should have waited for a way to save herself and the humans, even if there was no promise of that way ever existing. Even if waiting meant passing up just saving herself. Even if the humans had no interest in compromising in return.
We are not white audiences. It is time we stop pretending as if we need them. It is time a Black girl destroyed the world, destroyed humanity, destroyed society to save herself. And it is time we cheered them on when they try and succeed.
It’s a powerful message for sure. “Then why should it be us who die for you?” hits differently when uttered by a young black girl to an older white woman. The result isn’t all positive though. This race swapping of the primary characters of Melanie and Justineau could have a different interpretation that's also harmful. If you interpret Melanie as not the hero but instead the villain as Ziyad explains felt like the intent, then instead of a young Black girl taking the power back from the oppressors, she’s a monster. In the book, having Ms. Justineau be, not only the most caring, compassionate, and human - human in the story but also having her be a dark-skinned Black woman, is powerful too. Having Melanie be this idyllic little white girl who ultimately brings down all of humanity can be interpreted as European Colonialism. Instead of fighting against oppression, it becomes a desire to recreate the world in her image, a very Aryan image, mind you.
So in the end, I wonder how you interpret it. I wonder how it affects you. Do you see Melanie as the monstrous femme? Perhaps you see her as a representation of white fear of Black people finally fighting back against oppression in a way of equal, violent force under which they’ve been oppressed? If we choose to see Melanie as a hero, an evolutionary next step, even simply a child inheriting the Earth, can we then root for her in the end? Can we celebrate with her as she teaches and molds the next generation into superhumans?
The Girl with All the Gifts: Humanities Squandered Gifts & Monstrous Autonomy
by Kat Kushin
RED: Quotes, someone else's words.
Today’s facts section is way more Kat’s opinions. I didn’t realize I had so many thoughts about this film until I started writing them out. To be transparent, I’ve never read the book for this film, and my interpretation is entirely based on the film and not the book. Also, I was raised in America so my interpretation of this British story is from my personal perspective, and it’s very possible other people had an entirely different experience with this film, as well as the book. I loved the film, and now I wanna read the book just to get more information about both stories and their very different impacts and messages. But I wanted to give some context to why it impacted me how it did.
I absolutely loved this film. It did a fantastic job using the zombie apocalypse as a staging ground for complex storytelling. There is so much that was done with this film that could have easily followed more tired plotlines and instead did such unique things that I hoped for but honestly didn’t expect. Character development was delivered through simple scripting lines, instead of drawn-out action sequences. It managed to be subtle and direct at the same time all the way through. The ending is my favorite part because the message honestly resonated with what we say a lot at the ghouls. That humanity has been here, destroying each other and the planet for centuries, wanting chance after chance to keep going…when maybe our chances are exhausted. Maybe the planet is done dealing with our bulls***. Maybe we’ve squandered the gifts we were given and should stop expecting more.
So, when the end of this movie came, I WAS THRILLED that they didn’t make Melanie their sacrifice, and instead gave her autonomy. She owed them NOTHING, and it was just so refreshing when Melanie delivered the line “why should we have to die for you to live?”. To which I say, HECK YES. The humans, the entire film did nothing but showcase their cruelty, their hatred, their capacity for viewing others as less…literally nothing to inspire any sense of compassion or admiration. Outside of occasionally treating Melanie with diet kindness, which is the BARE MINIMUM, there was no reason, in my opinion, for Melanie to even hesitate in making her choice. Just because her teacher was the one human who had the capacity to see her as a living being, that didn’t erase ALL the other humans being the literal worst. At the end of the day, the uninfected humans placed their value higher than that of Melanie and the other hungries, so they are asking something of her that is honestly absurd. There are instances where the humans mention this, that who they were before making it to that base, did horrible things. They recognize the wrongs they’ve committed, and are running from accountability just as much as they are running from the hungries. Their occasional kindness to Melanie is honestly kind of manipulative, just like all their other interactions with her. They treat her like a monster the entire film, with the goal of making Melanie view herself that way so that she’ll do what they want. Ultimately Melanie owed them nothing, so it was great that the film didn’t make her a sacrifice, cause if they did it honestly might have changed my entire perspective on the film. What I have heard about the book however is really interesting, because they had vastly different impacts as well as vastly different messages.
The film had some similarities for me to The Last of Us games, in that the themes being explored around the human experience were similar. Ellie, like Melanie, is expected to sacrifice herself for a vaccine. What I appreciated about this film though, is that it made Melanie zombie forward. Instead of harping on her humanity, or trying to make the viewer wrap their head around why Melanie deserved to live by removing her zombie traits, Melanie leaned into the power that came with her abilities. She didn’t have to change herself or sacrifice her identity for these uninfected humans. She remained Melanie, and a hungry simultaneously without compromising or giving in to the expected sacrifice. The sacrifice is something that is pushed a lot in zombie scenarios and is something that humanity as a whole has reckoned with for a long time. The idea of necessary sacrifice and forgiveness for said atrocities has been pushed as a narrative throughout history as well. There is this idea that the sacrifice of one should be made for the whole. “The greater good”. There is also a long history of attempting to validate atrocities with the view of “necessary evil”, when ultimately that is an attempt to excuse oneself from accountability by claiming it was necessary. The theme of the necessary sacrifice is explored in the story of Jesus Christ. That he sacrificed himself for humanity to be forgiven. That he loved people, despite their sins, flaws, and otherwise, and forgave them. That he loved and forgave them despite the fact that people literally murdered him, in cold blood, in an extremely brutal fashion. I think there is a lot to unpack there as well, that eurocentric audiences tend to expect forgiveness and sacrifice when approaching topics like this, and are often spoon-fed that narrative. They expect Melanie to sacrifice herself for Miss Justineau and humanity as a whole, and when that doesn’t happen, it’s surprising. All that to say is, I appreciated the change of pace, and think it added to the story.
When applying this to the monstrous femme it takes on a different meaning. What we see in a lot of monstrous femme narratives in creative and historical storytelling, is the idea that the monster doesn’t win. The monster either lives below the surface, outside humanity or loses entirely. That “good” prevails against the monster, or that the monster learns to live with humanity and that humanity as a whole comes out the other side mostly unchanged. The narratives can garner sympathy for the monster, but there is also a theme that the human matters more, and that the monster must just adjust to the human-centered planet. I appreciated that this film didn’t do that and that instead humanity just had its turn, and now the zombie-human hybrid had their turn to be authentically themselves now.
If we think of witches, succubi, kumihos, and werewolves; the humans usually have the numbers in these narratives. There are fewer monsters than humans. Zombies present the opposite, where they often end up outnumbering the humans. Where one exists in the peripheral, the zombie demands the limelight. The positioning of zombies as mindless is very different from the narrative in this story, there being a transitional group of zombies that set the stage for an emerging generation of intelligent, symbiotic zombie human hybrids. As we’ve talked about in many previous ghouls episodes there is so much that zombies can represent when taking an analytical look at society. Be it consumerism, cannibalism, or loss of autonomy, among other things. As we learned in the Last of Us episode, the fungal illness of cordyceps is a real fungal infection that impacts ants and spiders, so if you’re curious about the scientific accuracy of the fungal zombie experience definitely check that episode out.