“The Girl With All the Gifts” had a strange and slightly convoluted origin, which in turn led to a strange, maybe unique creative process for both the novel and the movie. Short version: The movie isn’t really an adaptation of the novel because the novel was being written at the same time.
The first pebble in this very personal avalanche came when I was been invited by Charlaine Harris and Toni Kelner to contribute a short story for an anthology of dark fantasy and horror. It was the latest incarnation of an annual collection they edited together. Every year they would come up with a deceptively innocent, everyday theme and ask authors to produce a dark riff on it. In this instance the theme was school days.
But having said I’d contribute I couldn’t come up with any workable ideas. The deadline was getting closer, and everything that came into my head was sort of a grimdark “Harry Potter” pastiche.
Then I woke up one morning with the idea of Melanie in my mind. There was no story, to start with — there was just her. This little girl sitting in a classroom, writing an essay about what she was going to do when she grew up. Only the girl is already one of the undead and doesn’t know it.
Everything flowed from that first image, and it flowed really quickly. I wrote the short story, “Iphigenia in Aulis,” in four days, and for two of those I was in Norway for a comic book convention. It was one of those rare situations where the story obsesses you so much that you use every spare moment to write some more of it down. I was sneaking away to the hotel room in between panels to add a few more paragraphs, and writing in bed before I got up to shower.
Then when it was done I kept going back to it in my mind. I knew there was more to Melanie than that, and more to her world than that. So I pitched a novel-length version to my UK publishers, Little Brown, and they went away to have a think about it.
Meanwhile I met and started a conversation with a movie producer, Camille Gatin. We worked briefly on an adaptation of a novel by another British writer, and Colm McCarthy came onboard as the director for that project. But then we lost the rights to another production company. We were suddenly all dressed up with nowhere to go. We had really been enjoying working together, but we didn’t have a project.
“So what else can we do?” Camille asked.
I had already had a long, exciting talk with Colm about “ruin porn,” the photos of derelict urban sites that seemed to be everywhere back in those years immediately after the 2008-2009 financial meltdown. He thought it would be really exciting to use some of those sites as settings in a movie.
“So,” I said tentatively, “we could do this.” I showed them the short, and a back-of-an envelope plan for what it might become in the novel if I ever got the green light for the novel. Colm and Cami were intrigued, and asked me to expand the plan.
And then, proving that proverb about raining and pouring, or maybe feasts and famines, my editor at Little Brown called me to say I should go ahead and write the book!
I had never been in this position before. I suspect it doesn’t happen all that often, for a writer to have — in effect — a movie option on a book that only exists in his head and to be attached as writer to the movie too. It felt a little bit like I was diving over a waterfall with some planks and a hammer, trusting that I’d be able to manufacture a workable raft on the way down.
Which was sort of what I did. This was late in 2012, as far as I can remember. 2013 was the year of Melanie. When I wasn’t writing chapter breakdowns for the novel I was doing step outlines for the movie. And then I was doing drafts of the screenplay in between writing chapters of the novel. And it was, without a doubt, the biggest and craziest creative rush I’ve ever experienced.
I was living in this story, in the world of “The Girl With All the Gifts,” pretty much the whole time. But I was navigating the world very differently than I would have done if I’d been writing it in a single format. It felt as though I was plotting a route through a three-dimensional space, with obstacles coming up at different points for the screenplay and the novel. And in unexpected ways the roadblocks in one process would often help me forward with the other.
The most obvious example of that is point of view. The novel has five core characters, and at different times we get to view events through the eyes of each one of the five. Melanie remains our most important point of attachment, but once she’s established we shift to Justineau’s perspective, Caldwell’s, and so on.
The early outlines for the screenplay assumed that we’d have that same drifting point of view in the movie. But as I pushed on with the novel — and also as I discussed the story with Colm and Camille — I realized that a lot of what I was doing or trying to do simply wouldn’t carry across. We weren’t going to be using voiceovers, so the interior lives of the different characters could only be conveyed through dialogue and action. Constantly shifting point of view would have been possible, but at the cost of narrative momentum and — worse — emotional coherence. We wanted viewers to identify with Melanie as a child before they discovered her other aspect. Parallax was the last thing we needed.
So the movie stays resolutely with Melanie’s point of view, and we only ever see what she sees. That had huge knock-on effects for exposition, and led directly to one of my favorite scenes in the movie — the one that starts when Melanie, chained to a radiator in an abandoned hospital, asks Dr Caldwell what she is. The hungry plague, explained by an adult talking down to a child who is a great deal smarter than the adult suspects. The twin payoffs from this scene are Melanie’s torching of the BT tower and her final line to Caldwell: “Why should it be us who die for you?”
Another place where the two stories diverged was at the fall of Base Hotel Echo, the triggering event that throws Melanie and her companions out into the world. In the novel I had a group called the Junkers — human survivalists who live by looting and scavenging — bring this about. When we started to plan out the corresponding scenes in the movie, Colm said, “You know we’ve seen these buys before, in ‘Mad Max.'” It was a devastating point, and it wasn’t just about not wanting to look derivative. It was about not creating associations that our story wouldn’t deliver on because it was going in a different direction. The Junkers would have felt like a false prospectus.
There were lots of other places, other instances both big and small, where this kept happening. Where the shape of one version clarified a decision for the other, or led to fruitful work-arounds that brought us out in better places. It helped, of course, that in the case of the movie I was working with brilliant, visionary people whose knowledge of genre and of film, and whose passion for both, made me want to raise my own game to a point where I wasn’t ashamed of being in their company.
I doubt that I’ll ever again approach the adaptation process from such an odd and elliptical angle. But just doing it once felt like an extraordinary adventure and a turning point for me in terms of learning my craft.