Below are three levels of conversation around Girl With All the Gifts. The first layer is the one I usually interact with – the subject matter/details of the work itself. That’s not a bad thing, just something I’ve noticed about myself and my consumption of media.
I’ve loved Mike Carey since my brief satanic stint in college. Not to say I went on one, I just got really fascinated by the media that came out of the devil worshiping scare in the eighties. From John Constantine to the Felix Castor novels to Lucifer, I consumed whatever that guy put out. And then he sort of fell off the radar. Or maybe I did.
Girl With All the Gifts was completely different from that whole comic book and gore aesthetic and I nearly passed it right by. Then I looked at the author name and thought, oh, what if… So I gave it a shot. It was good. It was the kind of book you read and then you go on to the next book you’ll read. So a movie came out with the same name and like any good nerd, I reread the book and went to watch the film.
Sometimes we understand a work immediately. The high notes are easy to grasp. Here we have a special child with a special destiny but – oooh, twist! – her special destiny is not what you think. Seriously, go read it.
Most of the PR I can remember about the film talked about how they made the main protagonist black, which was a great example of when changing the race of the protagonist adds to a work and makes it richer. Go read this review on Black Girl Nerd for a nuanced look at how changing the race of the protagonist added depth and a discussion of agency as the work translated between book and film.
When the movie came out, I was doubly excited to see that pivotal end scene, the one that took me two readings to understand. The one that, on the second reading, changed the way I saw the world and the shape of it.
When I saw the movie, I saw they also changed the race of a side character.
But you already read the book, so you know what I’m going to say next. Right?
In the book, we have a special child with a special destiny and a special teacher who, from the child’s perspective, is the best teacher in the whole world. She’s the most amazing adult the child has ever met, which is a very understandable perspective given the cruelty the kid faces every day of her life from absolutely everybody else. She protects her favorite teacher above all else, so that when the whole world ends, her favorite teacher is still right by her side. Because you read the book, you know the students are all zombies, the special child finds a way to turn all the remaining human survivors into zombies, and now the special students will be the leaders of the new world. And the basis of their new world is what they are taught by the best teacher from the old world.
In the book, the most pivotal scene to me, was of the students sitting at the feet of a black woman, ready for their first lesson in the world from the their favorite teacher. Through the film she watches the last vestiges of the world she knows be destroyed by her beloved special student and finally she stands before the children, the only grown-up found worthy. The last of humanity in her known world – and while it is a delightful horror movie ending, there was another layer. She prepares to shape the new world from her perspective, breaking a long history of white perspective for the first time in English speaking countries at least. Remember, the author was British, this writer is American, and most of my formally taught history was written by, or at the very least, filtered through the white, male perspective. That was never more apparent than when Sonia Sotomayor was confirmed to the Supreme Court. The last scene of the book, the promise of reverberation, was the kind of scene that nestled down into my brain and crept over me weeks and months later, a quiet what if –
In the movie the teacher was a white woman.
That’s the first layer of the conversation.
Here’s another layer. There is only one black character with a major speaking role (or major narrative role) in either the movie or the book*. Why do we need to accept only one? Why couldn’t we have had both in the movie? Or the book? Why, when the “major POC character” role was filled, were we trapped in a world where we still have to count non-white ethnicities? Why are there so few I can count them?
And there is yet another layer. The book was authored by a white English man. In the chain of creation, there will also be his agent, editor, and publisher. The director of the movie was a white Scottish man. In the chain of creation, there will also be the casting team, producers, etc.
Representation matters, at all levels.
*There are a couple of minor roles played by black actors who exist to get eaten, basically. To be really fair, everyone who isn’t the special teacher or the students are there to die. It is a zombie flick after all.