The adaptation of comics to film necessarily poses several challenges. Does one focus on the story, and translate the kernel of a good narrative into a film that doesn’t necessarily bear any resemblance to the comic beyond its basic premise? Does one focus on conveying the atmosphere of a comic — that all-pervading sense of quirky brightness, or looming darkness, or gritty resignation — at the expense of narrative and plot? Does one try to make the character true to its comic precursor, even if this requires sacrificing elements of plot, narrative or atmosphere?
I Kill Giants, based on the 2009 graphic novel by Joe Kelly and J.M. Ken Niimura about a young girl trying to save her town from giants that no one believes exist, impressively manages to translate most of the atmosphere, storyline and characterization intact from page to screen.
What’s important to remember from the outset is that I Kill Giants is fundamentally a psychological drama, not a Harry Potter-style wizardry-and-action fest. There are giants in this film, yes, but their reality, and even the question of whose side they are on, is fundamentally rooted in the psychological turmoil of a young girl who is dealing with profound traumas of her own. One ought not to approach this film looking for action but looking for connection, empathy, emotion.
Which again is not to discount the giant-killing element of it. The giants are beautiful in their own way (and in all their variety), and eminently plausible. The giant-creating effects may be impressive, but the film’s broader cinematography is downright stunning, and one of the highlights of the film. From the New England-esque charm of windswept coastal forests to impressively captured storms and churning waves, the evocative and scenic backdrop offers a warm and satisfying foundation for the viewer.
Madison Wolfe’s performance as Barbara — our ostensible 12-year-old giant-killer — is also first-rate. She delivers her lines with just the right degree of acerbic pith. The Barbara of the comic comes across as a gangly, caustic kid; Wolfe creates a more centred, silent and brooding character but nevertheless superbly conveys the sarcastic, witty, introverted impatience that makes her comic counterpart so compelling, and she succeeds in moving the viewer through the entire gamut of emotions the film offers.
Any decent review of the comic or film will necessarily contain a broad plot spoiler, so be warned from hereon in.
It doesn’t ruin the movie to know that the giants are essentially imaginary constructs created by a traumatized Barbara as she struggles to deal with the reality of her mother’s terminal cancer. The film echoes the comic in weaving a finely constructed line which leads the reader on: are there giants? Yes or no? It’s a comic with perfectly fantastical trappings, and giants would be quite plausible in other YA fantasy comics or films of this nature, so why not? On the other hand, all the subtle hints are there that something else is afoot: the mysterious whispers from an upstairs bedroom; the friend’s shocked response when she peeks into a certain room; the muting out of school counselors who try to address the truth of the situation with a Barbara who continues to shut them out, and who refuses to even listen to the reality they’re struggling to help her accept. The effect of this is to help the reader gradually come to terms with the truth along with Barbara.
Barbara’s efforts to stave off the inevitable are plausible and beautifully constructed: her retreat into a Dungeons & Dragons world where she is the Dungeon Master; her obsessive-compulsive use of runes and elaborately concocted potions; her perpetual scanning of the natural world around her for signs and portents; her retreat into mythology, folklore and superstition in the face of a medical world that has failed her ailing mother. All of this is superbly captured on screen: Barbara’s rune-and-charm bedazzled sanctuary, her carefully wrought potion-making, her remarkably thought-out giant traps, are all spectacularly realized in the film.
Perhaps what makes it all so plausible is the fact that the viewer implicitly realizes the thin line between fantasy and reality is no more tenuous in the film than in real life. There’s an almost Jungian undertone to the film, which mockingly challenges the viewer whenever they feel compelled to judge Barbara for her eccentricities. After all, what are all of our spiritual constructs—charms, spells, runes, prayers, omens—but the effort of a frail humanity to exert some control over a world in which we have so little? Barbara may seem ridiculous to her classmates, but only because she so desperately clings on to these supernatural efforts to control the world around her. She’s come face-to-face with the trauma of helplessness and loss at a time when her classmates are more concerned with their developing sense of personal control over their identities; with materialism and a rising skepticism toward the supernatural or the spiritual. They try to assert control over their lives by shaping identities through hairstyle and fashion; she tries to assert control over her mother’s mortality by assuming the identity of a giant-killer. Is one so much more rational than the other? The giants Barbara hunts may not be corporeal or visible to others, but they are just as real and daunting archetypes nonetheless. We all respond to trauma and powerlessness in different ways; Barbara’s method may be atypical for this day and age but, perhaps, no better or worse than any of our own.
Barbara’s retreat into her imaginative sanctuary allowed the comic’s authors to blend the best traditions of graphic narrative storytelling: on the one hand, she’s a witty, audacious monster-killer par excellence, in the finest tradition of the kid-cum-superhero genre. On the other hand, the tale’s meta-narrative permits an exquisitely crafted emotional coming-of-age story: the depiction of a kid struggling to deal with her grief; the centrality of the tenuous friendships she makes in this process; the difficult ambivalence of her relations with family members who are also each struggling in their own way. What’s so rewarding and satisfying about this narrative, in both comic and film, is that it offers storytelling that operates on both registers: the emotional-psychological and the mythic.
The Blu-ray release contains the first chapter of the graphic novel among its extras, and this is a nice touch insofar as it allows the viewer to contrast the comic book Barbara with her cinematic counterpart. It’s also a clever teaser. The comic is still worth reading: while the film follows the storyline fairly closely the comic allows a fuller telling of this tale, with more thoroughly constructed secondary characters and some smart moments that the film (wisely) did not take the time to try to weave in. The story in both mediums succeeds in its goal of touching the viewer/reader on a deeply emotional level, and leaving them with a heart-rending, poignant sense of satisfaction and hope. It’s safe for kids but probably even more essential for world-weary adults.