How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff is a compelling read. Telling the story of a fictional 3rd World War in the 21st century, this dystopian apocalyptic tale explores the breakdown of an idyllic English countryside home hit by the effects of a nuclear bomb. I was apprehensive when Kevin MacDonald’s 2013 film was released this October, wondering how it would live up to the book, especially as it is so strongly characterized by its evocative narrative.
Told in the first person by 15-year-old Daisy, whose lack of punctuation, random capitalization and shifting use of tenses enables Rosoff to map the muddled workings of a troubled teenage mind, this novel’s strength lies firmly in its unusual and powerful narrative style. However, the film’s imaginative take on Rosoff’s stream of consciousness style is impressive. Daisy’s narrative is illuminated in the film through an innovative soundscape idea where Daisy is bombarded by voices inside her head, creating a striking alternate interpretation of Daisy’s complex and conflicted mind.
‘It would be much easier to tell this story’, Daisy says, ‘if it were about a chaste and perfect love between Two Children Against The World At An Extreme Time in History, but let’s face it, that would be a load of crap’. Daisy is a precocious anorexic from Manhattan who has just moved to the English countryside to live with her aunt. She is an extremely selfish and sometimes hostile character, yet through her disarming honesty and defiant narrative voice Rosoff manages to make her endearing. In the film, despite a captivating performance by 19-year-old Saoirse Ronan, at times the Daisy seems inexplicably rude and ungrateful to her kind relatives. MacDonald’s interpretation arguably lacks the subtle character development Rosoff achieves in the book. However, this does not suggest any defects in his skill as a filmmaker, but rather the constant struggle faced by films adapted from novels. Films based on books always face the challenge of competing with the subjective image of characters created and then possessively held on to by us readers in our heads.
However, to criticize a film for not being the mirror image of a novel is to forget entirely that film is a fundamentally different art form. What a novelist can do with a book, a director cannot do with a movie and vice versa. The stunning landscapes of this film transport the audience into Rosoff’s idyllic English countryside, and create a stronger portrayal of the children’s rustic childhood than the book ever could. Moreover, with gorgeous George MacKay playing Edmond, MacDonald rescues the slightly implausible relationship between the cousins – descriptions of a skinny, small boy smoking in the book just failed to explain Daisy’s intense sexual attraction for me.
Film adaptations are chiefly criticized by audiences when they believe that the book’s content wasn’t handled correctly. However, through the vagueness of its narrative and its universal subject matter, How I Live Now is a book which allows and excuses a director for creativity. With no character surnames, hardly any background information, and most importantly an unidentified enemy, Rosoff’s book is a timeless mediation on war, survival and love, which is powerfully interpreted by emotionally intense performances in the film. (I could attack MacDonald here for killing a main character in the film who survives in the book but I will resist.) The naivety of the children, which at times in the book comes across as self-involved disinterest towards the war; ‘I guess there was a war going on somewhere in the world that night but it wasn’t one that could touch us,’ says Daisy, becomes an enchanting portrait of childhood innocence by the film’s cast of extremely talented teenage actors. Films of books only run the risk of ruining a book if we as audiences are unwilling to accept that the interpretation of a text is subjective, and moreover that film is a different art form to literature – each with its own strengths and weaknesses. A good film adaptation illuminates the most prominent features of a book, and a great film adaptation should prompt us to think about the book in new ways as MacDonald’s How I Live Now does.