Young adult novels have proved to be a rich source of material for movie makers over the past couple of decades - the success of the Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Twilight and The Hunger Games franchises all argue for the commercial viability of such adaptations. Since such products are generally tuned to the tastes of a profitable demographic, it seems natural that they should be uploaded for digital consumption.
And so it is hardly surprising that a movie version of American-born, London-based writer Meg Rosoff’s book How I Live Now has been prepared for the screen, although we might raise an eyebrow at the choice of director. Kevin Macdonald first came to prominence as a director of documentaries, most notably 1999’s One Day in September, about the murder of Israeli Olympic athletes at the 1972 games in Munich, and 2003’s Touching the Void, which detailed two climbers’ failed attempt to scale the Siula Grande in the Andes. And although he achieved success with his first feature - 2006’s The Last King of Scotland, for which Forrest Whitaker won an Oscar for his portrayal of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin - he has kept his hand in nonfiction film making. His most recent movies have been documentaries, the collaborative Life in a Day and Marley, about the Jamaican reggae icon.
Macdonald seems to have less success the further he strayed from reality-based stories. His big-screen adaptation of the British mini-series State of Play failed to find traction, and while I enjoyed his admittedly rather silly swords and sandals bromance The Eagle (which starred Channing Tatum as a Roman centurion and Jamie Bell as his faithful slave), I was in the minority.
But Macdonald had wanted to adapt How I Live Now for some time, and he has made something unexpectedly gritty - a somewhat icky yet plausible teen romance set in rural England, against the backdrop of World War III, that is more evocative of British films like Lord of the Flies and Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s A Canterbury Tale than any of the above-mentioned, computer-aided state-of-the-art entertainments. How I Live Now might be a tough sell to American teens - it looks more like a Ken Loach movie, with a smart but antique soundtrack (which prominently features Nick Drake and Fairport Convention) and nary a vampire or computer-generated dragon in sight.
Instead, we get the almost grown and remarkably accurate Saoirse Ronan (the now 19-year-old Irish star of The Lovely Bones and Hanna) as surly 15-year-old Daisy, a jaded American with goth affectations who - as the shadow of nuclear warfare creeps across the globe - is exiled from Manhattan to spend the summer in the British countryside with her Aunt Penn (Anna Chancellor), and her three cousins: 16-year-old Eddie (George MacKay), slightly younger Isaac (Tom Holland) and their whiny little sister Piper (Harley Bird).
Before Daisy is even able to settle in, Aunt Penn is called to Oslo for the peace process, leaving the kids on their own. At first Daisy is unimpressed by her bumpkin cousins and their outdoorsy ways, but she soon takes notice of quiet Eddie. Their first kiss is interrupted by the annihilation of none-too-close by London, and a rain of nuclear ash. Soon an American diplomat is presenting Daisy with a ticket home, and she’s electing to stay with her new family as they defy the curfews and evacuation orders issued by a government that has imposed martial law.
While the war impinges in subtle ways, things don’t seem too bad until soldiers arrive at the farm to split up the family and send them off to labor camps. But before they do, Daisy and Eddie pledge to escape and make their way back home, no matter what. Daisy and Piper do manage to escape, and their trip through the cruel countryside is bleakly reminiscent of the journey depicted in The Road. All the horrors of war are in evidence, and there’s no Hunger Games-style romance attached to the act of dying.
Macdonald - who eschewed any Hollywood money for this film, which he has called “too dark for America” - has made a harrowing anti-war movie that’s only a bit relieved by a bittersweet love story.
How I Live Now 86 Cast: Saoirse Ronan, George MacKay, Tom Holland, Harley Bird, Anna Chancellor Director: Kevin Macdonald Rating: R, for violence, disturbing images and sexuality Running time: 101 minutes
MovieStyle, Pages 42 on 11/08/2013
Print Headline: How I Live Now