While we’ve only known for about a year or so that M.R. Carey’s The Girl With All the Gifts was coming to the big screen, it turns out that Carey was writing the screenplay while plotting out the novel years ago! Which means that the movie—set to be released later this year in the UK, and hopefully soon in the U.S.—plays with perspective in a way that the novel didn’t, making for a different telling of a celebrated addition to the zombie genre. This is just one tidbit from Carey’s recent AMA (Ask Me Anything) thread in Reddit’s r/books subreddit, which covered plenty about the movie (including diverse casting choices) and the next form the book should take (Carey is all for a graphic novel version).
Carey also discussed his new novel Fellside: how he came up with this ghostly prison story, and what similarities its protagonist Jess shares with young Melanie. Not to mention some nostalgic musings on his work on Lucifer and The Unwritten… Read on for the highlights! (Beware, there are some spoilers for The Girl With All the Gifts in the questions and answers.)
The Girl With All the POVs
Who knew that writing a novel and a screenplay at the same time would be so fulfilling creatively?
redhelldiver: What was it like adapting your own work into a screenplay?
MRC: Writing the screenplay for GIRL, and then seeing it become an actual film, was one of the most amazing experiences in my whole life. I was actually writing the novel and the screenplay at the same time, working the story into two different forms for the two different media. It meant I was living and breathing that world, every waking hour. It also meant that I got to try out different approaches and effects. For example the novel jumps around between different points of view, the movie is Melanie’s POV throughout. And the final conversation between Melanie and Caldwell is different in the two versions, as is Caldwell’s death. I had a blast, and I also learned a lot from that process of translation and re-invention—even though I’d already adapted other people’s novels both into screenplays and into comics.
One Redditor brought up the book’s handling of a particular trope, which was revealed nicely on the page but doesn’t always translate to the screen—however, it sounds as if Carey and co. have done right by it:
FatherPhil: You wrote so well from each character’s POV. Each voice was different and authentically so, if that makes sense. I am not sure how to explain what I mean, but I’ll just say sometimes stylistic things like that can feel pretentious and forced, but your writing seemed true to real people. It was really well done. A very satisfying ending, too. Thanks for publishing it!
[-spoilers below for those who haven’t read it-]
The book opens with Melanie, who assumes she is normal. As we learn more about her environment and daily life, we think maybe the kids are being protected, albeit a bit roughly, from a terrible outside world gone wrong. Then the reveal.
Does this work in the movie? I can’t imagine how you would do that visually but I hope you figured out a way to do it.
I’m psyched to hear there is a movie. When is it coming out? Here’s hoping you got an excellent child actress to play Melanie.
MRC: Yes, it works brilliantly in the movie (IMO). We see the kids going through their ordinary daily routine, all from Melanie’s point of view, and then we layer in the reveals gradually over the first ten minutes or so. It’s a steady, inexorable build to the lab scene, with one very nice twist that isn’t in the book. It’s a visual, wordless reveal that we added quite late on in the process, relating to the numbers on the kids’ cell doors.
Movie is out on 9th September in the UK, TBA in the US but very close to that date.
And Melanie is awesome. She’s Sennia Nanua, and this is her feature debut. Everybody who’s seen the film so far has been completely gobsmacked at how good she is.
You have to imagine that adjusting the characters’ perspectives will lend itself to scenes like the one this reader describes:
oppositeofawake: I think the scene between Justineau and Melanie, when Justineau touches her on the head for the first time, make TGWATG worth it, even if one doesn’t like zombie stories.
MRC: That scene lands so well in the movie. It’s one of several moments that affects me strongly every time I see it.
On Casting a Diverse Zombie Movie
ahr19: What was your thought process to having such racially diverse characters in GIRL? I thought that added more realism to the story and the relationship with Melanie and Justineau really touched me.
MRC: It didn’t feel like something that needed to be thought about much, to be honest. The story is set in the UK, and even after a societal meltdown you’d expect to see the same racial diversity there is now. In the book there’s only one character whose ethnicity is specified, Miss Justineau, but names provide an index for several others. We can assume that Private Devani is Asian, for example.
With the movie we took a different approach. We were committed to having as diverse and inclusive a line-up as we could across the board, but we didn’t ring-fence any one role. The casting process, in other words, was as neutral as we could make it, but with the explicit aim of ending up with a racially diverse line-up. So Miss Justineau ended up being played by Gemma Arterton, who of course is white, but Melanie and Gallagher, who are white in the book, are played by Sennia Nanua and Fisayo Akinade. And Dillon, whose ethnicity is never given in the book, is played by Antony Welsh.
Identifying with Melanie
One Redditor shared a touching story about how she saw her “assorted weirdness” reflected back in Melanie, a girl who is feared by others and tries to understand her place in the world. Carey’s answer also included great advice about character building that includes Jess, Fellside‘s protagonist:
ambraz: made an account because you are my FAVORITE author of all time. As a teenage girl with tourette’s, sensory processing disorder, and other assorted weirdness TGWATG changed my life. Like, I feel like I can’t adequately express right here how grateful I am for it. I have “She endures, and collates, and begins to understand” written on the wall next to my bed, and plan on getting it tattooed someday. I’ve never connected with a character like that. I bought Fellside yesterday, after seeing it and screaming in the bookstore (oops). What advice do you have about character building? It’s something I struggle with. Melanie is maybe the most dynamic and wonderful character I’ve ever read.
MRC: I don’t know what to say, ambraz. I’m so happy that you found something in Melanie that reflected you and spoke to you. That’s what writers do it for, I think – the aspiration, the chance of making that connection. Believe me, you expressed yourself very adequately and eloquently. Thank you.
My way into character is through voice, which I suspect is true of a lot of writers, and through that catechism process I mentioned earlier. When I’m working up a story I do word sketches of the characters, and I ask myself a lot of questions about them that are thrown up by the sketch. Their childhood, their tastes and passions, their relationships.
That’s still pretty external, though. Even if you’re describing things that go on inside their head you’re describing them from the POV of an observer. What gets you inside is voice. At some point you’ve got to start exploring how they talk and how they think. The breakthrough with GIRL came when I decided to write in the present tense. All children experience the world with incredible vividness and intensity. Very small things can fill their attention from horizon to horizon. For Melanie that’s magnified by the fact that she has seen and known so very little when we first meet her. I wanted to try to get that across, and writing in the present seemed like a solid place to start. There is no past and future when your senses are so full of what you’re seeing, hearing, smelling, feeling right now.
With Jess in Fellside the salient thing to get across is that she effectively lives in two worlds, one of which is intangible and made out of memories and dream fragments. I decided to make her an exile from this Other Place when we first meet her, so she can rediscover it and remember it, taking us on the journey with her.
It’s horses for courses. You start from where you want to finish. What aspects of this character make them important and interesting and worth spending time with? And what’s the best way of making the reader feel those things?
The Requisite Zombie Question
But instead of just saying his favorites, Carey pulls out an element of each that spoke to him:
cognitivezombie: I enjoyed reading The Girl With All the Gifts and I am excited for the movie. What are your favorite zombie or dystopian movies?
MRC: I loved 28 Days Later, but not the sequel. I know some people say those aren’t real zombies, but they were real enough for me. Land Of the Dead is awesome. So, in a very different way, is Warm Bodies. And Shaun of the Dead. Zombie movies are actually really versatile—you can do almost anything with them.
My favourite dystopian novel is Jasper Fforde’s Shades Of Grey (although I wish he’d thought of a different title). And my favourite dystopian movie is Children Of Men.
That discussion continues with mentions of other interpretations of zombies in pop culture, some that don’t even have zombies in them!
happyjoim: The Girl With All The Gifts and The Coldest Girl in Coldtown changed my view on zombies and vampires. Do you know of any more genre breaking horror/monster titles.
MRC: I think Warm Bodies is quite revolutionary in its way. In a very different way, so is Sarah Pinborough’s The Death House—a zombie novel with no actual zombies. Cronin’s The Passage re-invented vampires in a way I found quite interesting. And back in the day I loved John Gardner’s Grendel—Beowulf retold from the monster’s point of view.
“Stories Are Made Out of Other Stories”
UnDyrk: Hi Mike! Sorry late to the party. Looks like things are going swimmingly :)
1) As you (and I think everyone else at this point) know, I’m a huge fan of The Girl With all the Gifts—now Fellside as well. One thing I love about Girl is the voice, tone and POV. Those are different in Fellside, but just as intriguing. The introduction and development of the characters is also quite different. Can you address your thoughts and decisions on that, as well as maybe your choices of types of characters to flesh out the story? I’m fascinated by your process…
2) What was the bare seed of an idea that first got you interested in writing Fellside? Once you decide on the next book you want to write from an idea like this, what are your very next steps?
3) I can’t quite put my finger on it, especially since I must admit these are the only two books of yours I’ve read (I’m working on rectifying that, btw), but there feels like an underlying mythos, fairytale-like theme, subtle underlying psychology, maybe even world-view, that Girl and Fellside share. Am I way off mark? Do you dare discuss that?
Thank you for being here, it’s always a real treat.
MRC: Hey, Dyrk. Good to see you, man.
1) You know that joke about how to turn a block of marble into Michaelangelo’s David? You just take a chisel and chip away every bit that DOESN’T look like David. When you’re feeling your way into a story it’s like there’s this block in front of you, this volume—only you’re not cutting it into shape, you’re burrowing through it. Illuminating parts of it. You try to go in on the right vector, and all the decisions you make up front are about that.
Did you ever have the experience of starting to write and having to scrap it and start again because it’s just not working. You’ve chosen a way in that’s not taking you where you need to be. I did that with Fellside. The first draft had Sylvie Stock as omniscient narrator, and there was a very late reveal about how she could possibly know some of the things she tells us. I thought it was pretty neat when I started out, but actually it was disastrous. It kept the reader on the back foot all the way through, waiting for an explanation that came too late to feel like a proper pay-off. So I tossed it and started again.
That’s my process, in a nutshell. Try it out, and if it doesn’t work, cry about it, feel really sorry for myself, do it over. I forget who said that thing about how solving the problem of this book won’t help you with the next one, but it seems to be true. :)
2) It started with me wanting to tell a story about addiction and what it can do to you. Almost immediately that became “a story about the relationship between an addict and someone they accidentally killed”. And then the prison setting occurred to me as something that would probably work.
So then I did my catechism thing. I worked up a rough sense of a plot and I interrogated it. Who is this woman? What was she before she was an addict? Who is important in her life? And stuff like that. It’s a rough and ready way to get a sense of that volume, that story space. And eventually you get a sense of the angle you have to come in from.
3) I don’t have a whole lot of time for Harold Bloom, and I think The Anxiety of Influence is a lot of unreconstructed Freudian BS, but I do think he’s right that all texts are haunted by other texts. Stories are made out of other stories—all the stories you read or heard when you were growing up, that sink into your brain and become a substrate there. They’re made of other things too, but intertextuality really is a thing. I mean, it’s everywhere.
So yeah, very definitely. Again and again I find myself writing stories about stories. It’s most explicit in The Unwritten, but it’s always there. I write about how real lives and fictions interact, or about the ways in which real events sublime into myths, or about how we construct our own lives as stories. I’m usually writing about something else on the surface—zombies, or prisons—but it’s there underneath.
It’s very visible in TGWATG. Melanie has no experience of the world outside the base, so she puts the stories Miss Justineau tells her in place of that experience. She builds her own little thought experiment world, out of Greek myths. And that in turn influences the decision she makes at the end of the book. Which means that myth kind of becomes reality.
Sometimes stories use us to make themselves real.