The Girl with Some of the Gifts

I’ve just finished reading The Girl with All the Gifts by MR Carey and I can 100% recommend it if chilling-yet-also-strangely-heartwarming post-apocalyptic horror sounds like your bag. It’s an interesting take on the zombocalypse concept, in which the zombifying plague is caused by a fungus instead of the usual virus. The story follows an, um, special little girl called Melanie, her teacher Miss Justineau, a crazy scientist, and a couple of soldiers, all on the run together in a zombie-overrun Britain.

There’s a movie adaptation coming out this week, which has had good reviews, but I’m so disappointed in the casting that I’m planning to avoid it. Why?

In the book, the character Miss Justineau is both brainy and beautiful – Melanie has a massive schoolgirl crush on her, and both the soldiers find her attractive too. She’s brave and resourceful too, but saved from Mary Sue-dom by her occasionally reckless behaviour and blind spot towards Melanie. She’s also a 40+ dark-skinned black woman. Now, awesome-but-fully-rounded female characters are sadly rare in films (and not frequent enough in books either for my liking). Awesome-but-fully-rounded older female characters are even rarer, and as for awesome-but-fully-rounded older black female characters… Name one. Go on. Who isn’t Annalise Keating.

This could have been an amazing part for someone. Maybe Marianne Jean-Baptiste. Or Viola Davis, if you don’t mind an American playing a British role.

girl-with-gifts

But who did they cast as Miss Justineau for the film? Not either of those ladies. Not even Gina Torres or Sophie Okonedo or Zoe Saldana or Naomie Harris. Nope, they cast Gemma Arterton.

Huh? Yeah, that’s right, Gemma Arterton. Who is a) only 30 years old; b) white. The character has been totally white-washed, and de-aged to boot, to fit a Hollywood idea of what a leading lady should look like. Not cool, film-makers, not cool.

But, some people are saying, it’s all right, it’s not whitewashing, they’ve just race-swapped the cast! Melanie, who was white in the book, is now black! And so is one of the soldiers, Pte Gallagher, who was also originally white! So that’s two for the price of one! Why are you complaining? Mike Carey himself has said that he was happy with ‘colour-blind’ casting, so long as the overall diversity of the characters was preserved.

[spoilers in this paragraph] The thing is, I don’t think diversity is just a numbers game. It’s also about the kind of characters you have, their role in the story, and how those things interact with pre-existing ideas and media portrayals. No story exists in a vacuum. Melanie being made black instead of Miss Justineau makes me uncomfortable because Melanie is a zombie (or ‘hungry’ in the book’s nomenclature). Sure, she’s a higher functioning zombie, but she does kick into animalistic flesh-eating mode a few times, usually to protect Miss Justineau. And a monster black girl going feral and ripping people’s throats out to protect her pretty white teacher has some unfortunate implications, which the book’s version doesn’t. Oh, and did I mention Melanie spends a lot of the story tied up and muzzled like an animal? Like it or not, a white woman keeping a black girl on a leash has different – and deeply icky – cultural resonances from a black woman keeping a white girl on a leash. And as for Pte Gallagher – he’s the first of the group to be eaten by zombies, so by making him black all you’ve done is given TV Tropes another example for the ‘Black Dude Dies First’ page. So while ‘colour-blind’ casting might be the ideal, I can’t see it really working here.

[no more spoilers] Now I’m just a sheltered white girl who can bleat about racism online but doesn’t have to live it every day, and whether or not I go to see this film isn’t going to make much difference to their box office numbers. At least I can use the questions it raises to inform my own writing, and try and make sure I’m helping, not hindering. And hope that, if one of my books ever gets adapted for the screen, the casting is more sensitive.

Edit 14th Oct: I have now seen the film version of The Girl with All the Gifts and I actually enjoyed it very much – it’s an excellent zombie thriller/post-apocalyptic drama. The cast all acted very well, and it was good to see a woman kicking ass while wearing baggy clothes. The cultural resonances of the race-bent casting weren’t as bad as I feared, but they were still present, so while I would recommend the film, I still stand by my comments above.

 

Apocalypse Please

I’ve just finished reading The Silence by Tim Lebbon, a book I thoroughly recommend if you’re a horror fan. It’s set in a near-future (very near future – November 2016) Britain, which has been invaded by hordes of voracious flesh-eating bats. The title comes from the fact that the bats evolved in an isolated cave system to be pale and eyeless (having played far too much Pokémon Go over the last couple of weeks, I couldn’t help but visualise them as albino Zubats) and find food by sound. The only way to escape them is to be silent.

As the book progresses, the bats spread across the country, eating people as they go, and civilisation progressively crumbles. In some ways this is a familiar tale, not that dissimilar in structure to the many zombie apocalypse narratives out there, but Lebbon manages to find a fresh and disturbing take on it. His protagonist is a deaf girl whose ability to communicate silently with her family through sign language is at first an advantage – and then becomes dangerous when other survivors discover her and want to use her skills.

I found the book a gripping read. But, although I’m quite a fan of apocalyptic fiction, I find that recent events have made it seem less escapist than it once did. Perhaps, as real life becomes progressively more like a cross between Dr Strangelove and The Hunger Games, it will fall out of fashion.

Some people may wonder what the appeal of the apocalypse is anyway. If you’re going to read fantasy, wouldn’t you rather have something more pleasant? Well, here’s the thing. Modern life is very complex and can sometimes confusing, and most of us work in jobs where there’s little obvious impact to what we do. In the world of The Silence, however, life is simple, and the impact of your decisions is clear. If you make the wrong decision, you and your family get devoured by evil bats. If you make the right decision, you don’t. Wouldn’t it be nice to have that kind of clarity in your everyday life?

Conspiracy thrillers – and their real-life-to-a-certain-value-of-real counterpart, conspiracy theories – have a different, but broadly related appeal. While on the surface the idea that the world is being controlled from behind the scenes by a sinister cabal of lizard people might sound terrifying, it’s actually kind of comforting to imagine that somebody, somewhere, knows what they’re doing. That there actually is somebody in charge after all, guiding the horrifying, chaotic mess we call reality to their own ends, whatever those ends may be.

The purpose of fiction is, if nothing else, to help us escape from reality for a while. And I seem to have come to the conclusion that being eaten by Pokémon-gone-wrong or controlled by lizard people sounds more appealing than real life right now.

Have a great weekend everyone.

Book Club

I’ve realised lately that, for somebody who professes to love literature, I don’t read nearly enough books. Partly it’s the fault of the myriad other demands on my time, of course, but it’s also partly internet addiction, for which there’s really no excuse. I’m trying to tweet less and read more, both in and out of my chosen genre of fantasy. So here I am, on the, er, internet, to share with you a quick review of some of my recent reads.

1) Within a Budding Grove, by Marcel Proust (Vol. 2 of In Search of Lost Time)

My 2013 reading project is to work my way through this colossus of literature, one of the longest novels ever written. I got through volume 1, Swann’s Way, fairly quickly, but I have to admit to struggling with the second book (different translation, which may not have helped). It’s not a book which makes it easy for the reader. There are many passages of wonderfully evocative description waiting for you – if you can wade through the endless pages of repetition as the procrastinating protagonist agonises over afternoon tea. Meanwhile the plot progresses at a pace best described as geological. Think I may take a break before tackling volume 3.

2) One Day, by David Nicholls

I haven’t finished this one yet but I’m very much enjoying it so far – the first book in a long time I’ve felt compelled to continue reading whilst walking up the stairs. Not perhaps the most original tale, although the structure of showing a snapshot of the main characters’ lives on every 15th July over the course of twenty years is pretty neat. But originality doesn’t matter so much when you’ve got such a well-written and sharply observed story, and it’s one of those rare books that makes you feel you actually know the characters. It’s like I could invite Emma and Dexter out to the pub tomorrow night; I’d get annoyed at some of their foibles but I’d still be happy they were my friends.

Edit: I finished reading it. Devastated.

 

3) World War Z, by Max Brooks

So I could have illustrated World War Z with a picture of a rotting zombie. But, well, you know...

I could have used a picture of a rotting zombie. But, well, you know…

Second time of reading this one: the first time round I devoured it greedily, like the living dead on some glistening entrails. This time I’m reading it more slowly and savouring the saltiness of the satire. I love the way Brooks uses the device of the zombocalypse to poke fun at just about every nation on earth (the Israelis with their huge anti-zombie fence, the South Africans dusting off their dodgy apartheid-era emergency plans) and mercilessly lampoon modern life. There’s a sequence comparing the jobs people did before and after the titular war which is a bit too close to the bone: the man who previously did a meaningless corporate job now gets more satisfaction from sweeping chimneys. Not sure what I’m going to make of the movie but the original book comes highly recommended.