The storming success of The Hunger Games has given audiences a taste for futuristic dystopian narratives, and only made studios thirstier for the financial benefits they can reap. So it’s hardly a surprising time to see an adaptation of Meg Rosoff’s 2004 young adult novel How I Live Now hit screens.
American teenager Daisy arrives in rural England to visit her eccentric cousins, but the world is poised on the brink of war, and her experiences gradually lapse from idyllic and nostalgic riverside jaunts to the violence of the world’s third war, with Britain gripped by a foreign occupation that renders everyday life fraught with alienation and danger.
As with most adaptations, here the screenwriters have taken some real liberties with their source material, including some that fond readers of the book may deem unforgiveable. Saoirse Ronan is credible as Daisy, and although the opening makes her far bitchier than her literary counterpart ever was, the film effectively portrays her psychological state in order to bring the audience closer to understanding her.
After the vicious The Last King of Scotland Kevin Macdonald is a well-chosen director, but perhaps no-one could have saved the first act from being slower than the rest of the film. After an electric opening set to addictive Amanda Palmer & the Grand Theft Orchestra tune ‘Do It With a Rockstar’, Daisy’s early interactions with her cousins are marred by poor dialogue and can feel like moments from a sub-par E4 drama.
Thankfully, though, the romance element doesn’t dominate as much as the trailer suggests. George Mackay (The Boys are Back, Private Peaceful) is likeable as illicit love interest Edmund/Eddie, and manages to retain the other-worldly quality of the cousins in the novel. This is stripped from his younger siblings, Isaac (Tom Holland) and Piper (Harley Bird), who are respectively played as a nerdy guy and whiny child.
The outbreak of war splits up this odd but happy family, but as soon as they can escape Daisy and Piper begin a gruelling cross-country journey, determined to be reunited with Eddie and Isaac. This journey structures the film’s latter half, and presents an impressively well-realised war-torn landscape; as the death count rises the land becomes pathetically barren, with panoramas broken only by smoke, rubble and reminders of now-expired lives. The atmosphere crafted fits the novel’s tone, but every so often the film drops in an event which breaks the tedium of Daisy and Piper’s walking while drastically departing from Rosoff’s plot.
Seeing as narrative ensures that Daisy and Piper are the only principle characters on screen for a sizeable chunk of the film, the characterisation of Piper is incredibly disappointing. Her personality derives almost nothing from the book; instead of being a capable independent child and mystical animal-whisperer who guides Daisy’s survival, this Piper is a far less engaging modern everychild transferred into unfavourable circumstances.
A high level of realism and commitment to documenting the brutality of this not-too-distant England makes this a thoughtful and memorable film. How I Live Now asks a lot of audiences whether they are acquainted with the original story or not (such as rooting for a blood-related couple), but despite some disturbing alterations to the facts of the plot it ultimately does manage to convey the development of Rosoff’s central character and maintains the gloomy uncertainty of the novel’s conclusion through the interlinking themes of disappointment, endurance, patience and love.