It would be tempting to suggest I Kill Giants is a direct result of the critical and commercial success of Patrick Ness & JA Bayona’s A Monster Calls, but given this adaptation of the Joe Kelly & JM Kim Niimura’s indie-graphic novel from 2008 was filmed in September 2016, before A Monster Calls was released, this suggests the two are just a happy, coincidental accident.
I mention this because I Kill Giants owes a huge debt to Bayona’s film, both in terms of narrative structure and thematic sensibility. This is ironic because Kelly & Niimura’s source material was published a good three years before Ness published his novel, which Bayona subsequently made into a film, so in many respects perhaps the inspiration should be flipped on its head. Had I Kill Giants been filmed and released first, that may well have been the case, although somehow I doubt it. For the principal reason that Anders Walter doesn’t nearly manage to evoke the same level of heartfelt anguish, awe and pain from Kelly’s script adaptation of the graphic novel as Bayona managed from Ness’ screenplay adaptation of A Monster Calls. The two may have a great deal of DNA in common, but they are significantly apart in successful execution.
The main problem with I Kill Giants, which you didn’t have with the Connor O’Malley character in A Monster Calls, is that our central protagonist Barbara Thorson simply isn’t likeable. You felt for Connor across that picture, and Lewis MacDougall’s performance was engaging and quietly heartbreaking. Madison Wolfe, as Barbara, just can’t get there in terms of wrought teenage power.
Kelly’s script is too insular, particularly for the first act, and even when Barbara does get herself a friend in which to bounce off (lonely British girl Sophia, who claims to be from Leeds but sounds like she’s from Hampshire), she is too locked up and contained as a character for us to emotionally engage and connect with her as an audience. This likely worked much better on the page, inside artwork, but it’s a problem when adapted for the screen.
Admittedly, this is a central component to Barbara’s emotional journey across I Kill Giants. Much like the monster in A Monster Calls was a metaphor for Connor’s struggle to come to terms with the fact his mother is going to die, the giants in Barbara’s story operate in the same context, providing a focus for the child as she runs away from the broken family dynamic being held together by her stressed sister Imogen Poots.
Barbara isn’t supposed to be sharing her feelings; indeed that’s the entire function of the Zoe Saldana role of the school counsellor, who becomes determined to try and understand Barbara’s psychology as she lives in her own, strange world within the school environment, happily living inside her bubble as the outsider. Saldana knows Barbara is struggling in a manner her young peers cannot.
Walter struggles, however, to provide those same moments of wonder or crushing pain and sadness we saw in Bayona’s film (which I keep mentioning because the narrative similarities are really quite striking). People do a lot of *literal* running away from things in I Kill Giants to the point it becomes distracting – the Sophia character is played perhaps with too much naive earnestness by Sydney Wade to really help bring out Barbara’s internal struggle, while Saldana’s role is underwritten when there’s a genuinely interesting undercurrent; a woman who gave up managing a hedge fund, living inside a corporate financial world, to “make a difference” as she claims she wanted to do here. Saldana rarely has the material or the screen time to be that important influence on Barbara across the story.
The giants, too, lack the same sense of weight and potency as the monster in A Monster Calls did. That creature admittedly had the gravitas of Liam Neeson’s voice and the opportunity of characterisation, whereas the giants Barbara faces are simply old, lumbering creatures from various imaginations of legend, who never directly interact with her. Walter, to his credit, keeps them at a distance in order to display that aspect of Barbara which suggests she is somewhat divorced from reality, but at the same time you don’t feel the magic of them as a metaphorical concept. A Monster Calls genuinely kept you guessing as to whether the monster may have some actual basis in ‘magical’ reality, whereas the giants here don’t. You never feel they’re anything other than in Barbara’s mind.
There are some nice subversions. The stock role of the school bully, a cliche often played out in high school dramas such as this, ends up being merely a narrative function to push Barbara deeper away from her peers, as opposed to being someone Barbara has to face up to; one of the best aspects of her otherwise distancing character is that she’s *not* afraid of bullies in the sense Sophia or the other children are. She has detached herself enough from the traditional, high school childhood experience—to the point she describes the other kids being only interested in their trainers as essentially vacuous—that she doesn’t care everyone thinks she’s weird or different. It’s not the point of the story and it’s one of the more likeable aspects of the character.
What you wish from I Kill Giants, however, was that it connected with you more than Kelly’s sparse script or Walter’s quite static, cold direction achieves. In their efforts perhaps to avoid sentimentality, and try to put ourselves in the distant, eccentric shoes of Barbara herself, you end up not connecting with anyone or anything in the movie in the way you should. When the final revelation does land about why Barbara has created this ‘giant’ to overcome, it doesn’t hit you. Compare it to the final moments of A Monster Calls for Connor in the sense of emotion and tragedy, I Kill Giants isn’t even in the same ballpark. It has alienated you too deeply to be emotionally invested.
That’s a shame as this sub-genre in certain recent Hollywood films of exploring young people’s mental health in the allegorical context of myth, monsters and legend, is really quite interesting. Mental health issues amongst young people in the Western world are rising rapidly, both for young teenagers like Barbara and those on the cusp of adulthood, so it is great to see pictures finding inventive, genre-based ways to dig into the psychology of a misunderstood generation.
There is, at times, a timelessness and indeed almost retro high school feel to I Kill Giants which renders it in the realm of interesting fantasy, but it never manages to land the emotional sucker-punch you feel the story deserves.