Published on November 23rd, 2014 | by Erin Fraser0
Alternative Takes: The YA Heroine and Kevin MacDonald’s How I Live Now
Alternative Takes looks at a prevalent trend in popular culture and recommends an alternative, lesser-known work.
Young Adult fiction has become one of the biggest trends in not just the publishing world, but now in Hollywood. With The Twilight Saga, The Hunger Games, Divergent, and The Fault in Our Stars all making big splashes at the box office and inspiring devoted fandoms, it’s never been a better time to find young and empowering women on screen. This month marks the release of the third Hunger Games film, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 (can we all pause to appreciate how ridiculously arcane the titles of these movies have become?), arguably the biggest crossover franchise of the recent trend. Set in a dystopian future, the series follows Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence, X-Men: First Class, Winter’s Bone) a young woman chosen to participate in the Hunger Games, where teenagers are forced to kill off one another in a Battle Royale-esque competition that is broadcast live across the country. But presumably, as you’re reading this article, you already know all of this, and you probably already know if you’re going to see Mockingjay or not. So instead, I’d like to examine a different film, one you may not have heard of: 2013’s How I Live Now.
Set in the near future, How I Live Now follows Daisy, an American teenager sent to live with her cousins in the English countryside. Soon after Daisy’s arrival, the third World War breaks out and Daisy has to find a way to survive in this new and dangerous environment. Played by critically acclaimed Irish actress Saoirse Roan (Hanna, The Host), Daisy is at first an insufferable teenager. She comes into the film with a chip on her shoulder, as well as some deep underlying psychological issues. She puts up a tough front, but ultimately she feels cast off and abandoned by her father and is also suffering from an obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Her cousins, Isaac (Tom Holland, The Impossible), Piper (Harley Bird, Doctor Who: “In the Forest Of The Night”), and Edmond (George MacKay, Pride) are often times left to their own devices and live an idyllic laissez-faire existence in the countryside. Their days consist of eating junk food, playing games, and swimming at their favourite spot. At first, Daisy tries her hardest to be left alone, but as she develops a connection with Eddie, she slowly lowers her defenses. Their guardian, Aunt Penn (Anna Chancellor, The Hour) is away when the war breaks out, so the children live in a state of blissful denial, continuing their daily lives isolated and carefree. Daisy finds happiness with her cousins, and love with Eddie. For perhaps the first time she feels that her life has meaning.
But this paradise can’t last; sooner or later the turmoil of the outside world encroaches and breaks up their seclusion. At first slowly, then all at once. Daisy and Piper are separated from Eddie and Isaac and forced to go work at a farm far away from their home. When the military comes to take them away, Eddie makes Daisy promise to meet him back at the house no matter what happens; this mission becomes the hope that drives her throughout the rest of her adventure.
A series of harrowing ordeals follow, forcing Daisy into survival mode with not only her life on the line, but also Piper’s, who she finds herself having to protect. The film doesn’t flinch away from presenting war-torn Britain as a brutal and ruthless place. Without the hope of reuniting with Edmund and the responsibility she feels towards Piper, she would surely succumb to the cruelty of her situation and break down.
Adapted from the award-winning novel by Meg Rosoff, How I Live Now is a deeply-felt film. British director Kevin MacDonald (Touching The Void, The Last King of Scotland) allows Daisy’s journey, both physically and emotionally, to lead the film. MacDonald externalizes Daisy’s internal struggles: he always places her in the frame in such a way that echoes her changing relationship with the other characters and her surroundings. He uses voiceovers to make you feel the anxiety and disorder that consumes her. As she begins to open up to the world around her, the film opens up, taking in the warm and vivid countryside and slowing down to pause on simple moments. Similarly, when she finds herself drawn into the war effort, the images become drab again as desperation takes over. During her and Piper’s long journey through the wilderness to get back home, MacDonald brings the camera back and shows how small she is compared to the vast and dangerous landscape that is consuming her.
The film is largely unconcerned with world-building: we know nothing of the reasons for the conflict and everything we see is filtered through Daisy’s experiences. The story doesn’t have aims to make larger allegorical statements about youth in society, as other speculative YA fiction does, but is concerned with the human condition, how love can change us, and the struggle to survive. It is about one young woman’s transition from selfishness to selflessness. Daisy doesn’t start out as a strong character; she isn’t innately special in any way but deeply flawed and fragile. It’s her journey that changes her and forces her to develop a sense of strength and perseverance.
The film brings up larger questions for me about what we mean when we ask for more “strong female characters.” In many ways, Daisy is a weak character, she doesn’t effect great change in the world around her or stand up to her oppressors. But she is emotionally and psychologically rich and she undergoes a real transformation—she becomes something more, something greater. Personally, it is this self-actualization arc that I want to see in my heroines. Not how functional or stylish their uniform is, not how they inspire others, and not how special they are. I want to see young women becoming themselves from the inside out, taking control and finding meaning in their lives.
Whether or not you’re planning on checking out the latest film in The Hunger Games series, I strongly encourage you to seek out How I Live Now, which is currently streaming on Netflix Canada. It’s a rare breed of genre film that focuses on character and features one of the most compelling heroines that YA has to offer.