Friday, January 26, 2018

"I Kill Giants" Gives Us Much More Than (Just) A Female Version Of Jack the Giant Slayer

“Barbara Thorson is your new hero. A quick-witted, sharp- tongued middle-schooler who isn’t afraid of anything. As the only girl in school carrying an ancient Norse warhammer in her purse and killing giants for a living, why wouldn’t she be? I Kill Giants is the sweeping, bittersweet story of a young girl struggling to conquer monsters both real and imagined as her world crumbles at the feet of giants bigger than any one child can handle.”
Anywhere you have a child, or young person, dealing with giants, the comparison to Jack (of giant slayer and beanstalk fame), is inevitable, and with this film, and it's graphic novel source, there is some sense to that. Despite the lack of enchanted, cloud-reaching plants to climb, this world of the bunny-ear-wearing 5th-grader heroine, Barbara Thorson, is filled with all the magic and peril of Jack's, and the metaphors work too, with or without the, er, flora. And with the trailer showing the lines between reality and fantasy being more than a little blurred, the echo of "Jack themes" is stronger than ever.

Take a look at the newly-released trailer. (Note: it's followed by a pre-released scene, with Barbara showing her new friend one of her "Giant traps".):



In Joe Kelly and J.M. Ken Niimura’s comic book, I Kill Giants, it’s unclear just how much of young Barbara’s giant-slaying adventures are real and how much are part of an elaborate fantasy world she’s created in her mind to escape from the emotional stresses of her actual life. The new trailer for the film adaptation does a good job of getting that point across. (iO9)
The graphic novel*, and the movie, take the nerdy outcast type and, unlike making her silent and withdrawn as is typical (especially for female characters), Barbara is outspoken, witty and takes no prisoners with her speech and humor, very much like the typical Jack of the various Jack tales (from beanstalks to giant slayings and much, much more). 

Although she's just as brash and energetic (and imaginative), it's clear that, unlike most versions of "Jack" we've seen, she is dealing with a lot of pain. Uniquely, this loner type is a character whom you can't simply pity, despite her situation and life-troubles; she requires the audience's respect as well. It's great to see and, from what we can tell, strikes a fairly rare balance in drawing a girl who is very different from, and still very like, any regular kid, and it's clear that this emotional balance has made loyal fans and readers out of many different people.

Here's a description of Barbara and the graphic novel premise by Joe Kelly, the writer & creator of the comics, and screenwriter for the movie adaptation, from an interview with CBR.com:
“The story follows Barbara Thorson, a troubled but resilient fifth grader who’s a bit of an outcast — Dungeons & Dragons, fantasy and general mopery are her hobbies. But it looks like she’s taking the fantasy thing a little too far. She’s always talking about giants, reading books on giants, setting traps for giants, getting ready to kill a giant. Almost the entire story is told from her point-of-view, so we see what she sees: pixies, critters, and a monster that lives upstairs in her house, so terrifying that Barbara only sleeps in the basement. So is she crazy, or does she know something that we don’t? Does she have an active imagination, or does she see another world? The story kicks off as this fantasy world begins to crack because of some outside forces–a bully, the school psychologist, and her first real friend.” (Joe Kelly, from an interview with CBR.com)

I Kill Giants deals with issues similar to those in A Monster Calls** (highly recommended by the way), of sickness and family concerns, as well as bullying, loneliness and friendship, anger, the very real pain children can have, and a different "coming-of-age", but it also has it's own mark to make, and, might be even more in touch with present societal concerns. In other words, Barbara may just be the heroine many people - girls in particular - are looking for right now.

Does Barbara bring to mind another modern fairy tale-type heroine as well? How about Fionna, (of Fionna and Cake) in the animated TV series Adventure Time? And it's not just the bunny ears. In the Adventure Time universe, Fionna is the hero of the time, and this version of the 'universe' in which she appears, is deliberately gender-swapped. Not only is she not Finn, (of Finn and Jake), she's not a boy. Boys are typically the loners who "go out and save the world" and have tales created around their adventures - their angst, their journey to maturation and their eventual triumphs. In the gender-swapped universe of Adventure Time, it's Fionna who fills this role, much to the delight of audiences*** and fans who loved seeing a weird-but-strong female character saving princes who needed saving, and in I Kill Giants, it's Barabara Thorson who takes it upon herself to save the town and school from impending destruction by giants. It should be noted that the town and school typically view her with either derision or concern and unlike most heroes, she's not given a pass for her quirks, let alone respect. In this respect, a female hero is often more alone than a male hero. At least boys, who are derided for their crazy ideas, are still ultimately respected for 'wanting to be a hero'. In a girl, this quality and the various manifestations of that, is just seen as "cray-cray".

It's great to see this addressed and these issue being given the respect they deserve. Using the lens of a fairy tale is playing a major part in this, and that's no coincidence. Nothing tells us the truth, quite like a fairy tale.

I Kill Giants, directed by Anders Walter and also starring Zoe Saldana and Imogen Poots, hits theaters March 23, 2018.

*The graphic novel has been nominated for a lot of different awards, including an Eisner, and received the International Manga Award in 2012.
**I Kill Giants was apparently pitched and began development around the same as A Monster Calls, but the latter, made with a bigger budget, ended up making it to the screen a year earlier.
*** The debut airing of the Fionna and Cake saw "a dramatic increase in all boy demographics" and "marked a 42% increase in viewers compared to a year earlier". (Source)

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