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Setting the World On Fire: The Girl With All the Gifts, the Film

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Pandora, whose name means either “all-gifted” or “all-giving,” was ostensibly the first human female created by the Greek gods. Each of the gods helps create Pandora by giving her specific gifts. According to Hesiod’s myth, 

Pandora opened a jar (pithos), in modern accounts sometimes mistranslated as “Pandora’s box,” releasing all the evils of humanity — although the particular evils, aside from plagues and diseases, are not specified in detail by writer Hesiod — leaving only elpis [the personification and spirit of Hope] inside once she had closed it again.

The mistranslation of the Greek pithos (“jar”) to the Latin pyxis (“box”) is usually attributed to Erasmus when he translated the tale into Latin. It is important to return to the original, however, since Hesiod’s pithos refers to a large storage jar, sometimes half-buried in the ground, used for wine, oil or grain; more important, pithos can also refer to a funerary jar.

Greek pithos, in Louvre ©

Hesiod does not indicate where this jar of evils came from, why Pandora has it, nor why Hope remains in the jar, but it is the last omission that has raised so many philosophical and moral questions over the centuries.

Is the imprisonment of Hope inside a jar full of evils for humanity a benefit for humanity, or a further bane? [According to] M. L. West: “[Hope’s retention in the jar] is comforting, and we are to be thankful for this antidote to our present ills.” [But some scholars, such as Mark Griffith] take the opposite view: “[Hope] seems to be a blessing withheld from men so that their life should be the more dreary and depressing.”

Does Pandora’s jar/box preserve Hope for mankind to deal with the evils released, or does it keep Hope away from man by trapping it inside the jar/box?

This philosophical question about Hope, trapped in the pithos by Pandora, along with the symbolism of Pandora’s pithos as a “funerary jar,” is important for understanding the 2016 post-apocalyptic, dystopian film The Girl with All the Gifts, written by M.R. Carey, who wrote the novel of the same name simultaneously. While most of us might not think of zombies and the Greek goddess Pandora in the same sentence, this film attempts to put them all in the same box, so to speak. If you don’t pay enough attention to the brief story of Pandora early in the film, you might not get the full import of the symbolism. Is the “girl with all the gifts” releasing torments upon mankind and then retaining hope for them, or is she releasing the torments and then keeping hope from mankind?

Sennia Nanua as Melanie, in The Girl With All The Gifts ©

In the film, the girl with all the gifts, the Pandora, is a little girl named Melanie, brilliantly played by Sennia Nanua in her first role. She is imprisoned, and treated like some dangerous, depraved criminal, despite the fact that she greets her armed gaurds and captors with the utmost courtesy and respect. She is taken to a classroom, along with many others children who seem to be just like her.

Once there, however, Melanie reveals more intelligence than the other children. Further, her teacher, Miss Justineau (Gemma Arterton), clearly favors her, discarding the usual lessons to tell stories from Greek myths at Melanie’s request, letting the students write their own fictional stories, and even, at one point, touching Melanie lightly on the head.

Gemma Arterton as Miss Justineau, in The Girl With All The Gifts ©

It is when Miss Justineau touches Melanie that we learn why these young children are treated worse than rabid animals. Seargeant Eddie Parks (Paddy Considine) rushes into the classroom to “remind” the teacher why these children are restrained in the first place: they are infected with a fungus that makes them flesh-eating Zombies, or “Hungries” in this film version.

Paddy Considine as Sgt Eddie Parks, in The Girl With All The Gifts ©

Unlike the Hungries that exist beyond the fenced and guarded bouandaries of this research facility, however, these children are able to speak, think, and, perhaps, feel. Dr. Caldwell (Glenn Close) is studying the children, and she is especially interested in Melanie.

Glenn Close as Dr. Caldwell, in The Girl With All The Gifts ©

Though Dr. Caldwell believes Melanie is merely “mimicking’ human emotions and behaviors, Caldwell also hopes that Melanie might provide the raw material for a vaccine to protect the human survivors.

That is, Melanie’s brain and spinal cord — dissected — might provide the raw material for such a vaccine.

Therein lies the rub: Dr. Caldwell is more than willing to sacrifice Melanie for the good of the remaining humans, but Miss Justineau sees real — not mimicked — humanity in Melanie, and wants to protect her.

Invasion of the Hungries, The Girl With All The Gifts ©

Of course, no zombie film would be complete without an invasion by the mindless flesh-eaters, and the research station soon gets overrun by Hungries, causing Dr. Caldwell, Miss Justineau, and Sgt Parks to flee the compromised facility — with a masked Melanie in tow.

Sennia Nanua as Melanie, The Girl With All The Gifts ©

Now we get the next Zombie-film trope as the group wanders through the desolate, Hungries-infested landscape, looking for food, shelter, and some way to complete Dr. Caldwell’s research for a vaccine.

Paddy Considine as Sgt Parks, and Glenn Close as Dr. Caldwell, The Girl With All The Gifts ©

Lest you think The Girl with All the Gifts is standard Zombie fare, however, recall that the infected Melanie can speak, think, reason, and love. She clearly loves and protects Miss Justineau, and seems to care for the others as well (less for Dr. Caldwell, perhaps, who constantly eyes Melanie as a brain-donor rather than as a sentient being).

Sennia Nanua as Melanie, and Gemma Arterton as Miss Justineau, The Girl With All the Gifts ©

Further, Melanie is the “girl with all the gifts” — the Pandora who has the jar with the evils and with Hope. On first viewing, I missed the Pandora allusion completely until nearly the end of the film. I thought Melanie was going to have some intellectual gifts that would give mankind Hope. When she proved to be smart but not a genius, I assumed she was going to give mankind the Hope of saving the Hungries, or, at the very least, of preventing the spread of the virus (called a “fungus” in this version of the story) by “donating” her brain and spinal cord to help Dr. Caldwell make the vaccine.

Sennia Nanua as Melanie, The Girl With All The Gifts ©

When Melanie finally proves that she does, indeed, have emotions and morals, they are not what you might expect, and her behavior recalls the philosophical questions raised by Hesiod’s original Pandora story. Is Hope trapped in the jar to give mankind optimism, or to torment them?

Sennia Nanua as Melanie, The Girl With All The Gifts ©

The fine acting of all the principals helps raise The Girl with All the Gifts above and beyond the standard roam-around-till-you-get-eaten Zombie drama. The film’s very premise — that the infected Hungrie Melanie has an intellect as well as morals and emotions  — makes The Girl with All the Gifts one of the better entries into the post-apocalyptic-world-overrun-by-Zombies genre. The film “steadfastly refuses to demonize any of its characters, instead sympathizing with all their conflicting positions.” The moral complexity of The Girl with All the Gifts is what gives the film its “unique take on responsibility, adulthood, and a new chapter in evolution.”

The Girl with All the Gifts is available for rent from Amazon (99¢, free for Prime members), for rent $3.99 from YouTube, GooglePlay, and Vudu, and for purchase ($12.99) from iTunes.

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