I Kill Giants
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Credit: RLJ Entertainment

How I Kill Giants writer Joe Kelly adapted magic and childhood grief from page to screen

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Mar 23, 2018, 6:00 PM EDT

Keeping your sacred oath to protect the world from evil giants is hard enough without your friends, family, and teachers telling you that it's all in your head. I Kill Giants, an upcoming movie based on the graphic novel of the same name from Images Comics' Man of Action, tells the story of Barbara Thorson, a fearsome, geeky girl with an important purpose: She finds, hunts, and kills giants before they can wreak destruction on her world.

Writer Joe Kelly and artist J.M. Ken Niimura first published I Kill Giants, their award-winning graphic novel, in July 2008. Now, almost 10 years later, their characters will jump from page to screen, giving Barbara — dazzlingly played by 15-year-old Madison Wolfe — the opportunity to come to life before audiences' eyes.

Kelly, who also wrote the screenplay for the upcoming film, is a co-owner and operator of Man of Action Entertainment, the team behind animated series such as Ben 10, Marvel's Avengers Assemble, and the characters featured in Big Hero 6, as well as cult comic hits such as Four Eyes, Gødland, and The Nightmarist.

Long inspired by his daughter, Kelly told SYFY WIRE ahead of the I Kill Giants premiere that he and his fellow Man of Action creators have made it a goal of theirs to write female characters their kids can look up to.

"Even on something like Ben 10, Gwen stands on her own," Kelly says. "Gwen is as much of a superhero as Ben is, she just didn't happen to get the watch first."

Part of keeping with giving voice to strong female characters was choosing the right actress to play Barbara. Wolfe, one of 25 finalists for the role, was the obvious choice.

"She's such a powerhouse and so sweet and very grounded in real life," Kelly says of Wolfe. "We would talk about Barbara and she'd ask questions. She'd just go, ‘Barbara is such a savage. She's so savage… I can be savage, but I'm not really.' [She's] lovely. It was incredible to see that performance. She just nails it. And now I can't picture [Barbara] any other way."

Kelly spoke with SYFY WIRE ahead of the premiere of I Kill Giants to talk about pixies, the challenges of translating from one visual medium to another, and how his daughter's burgeoning movie tastes inspired Barbara, the Dungeons & Dragons-loving dreamer.

Beware: Here be spoilers. I Kill Giants premieres in theaters on March 23.

I Kill Giants, movie poster

Credit: RLJE Films

How important was it to you to stick to the original story you created in the graphic novel when you were transferring it over to film?

The integrity of the story was incredibly important. Luckily, all of the producers found the graphic novel, they read it, they fell in love with it, and they were very protective of the story. And we knew that there would obviously be some changes from graphic novel to film, but I had met people way back in the day who had read it and said, "Oh, we like this, but could she kill two dozen giants in the course of the story?"

I was like, "No, that's not what this is." I feel like even with the changes that we made, we were able to keep the core and really keep who Barbara and what her journey is. We just did it with the language of cinema as opposed to the language of graphic novels.

What were some of the biggest challenges moving from a story on a page to on the screen?

In the relationship between a reader and a comic, you get a lot of latitude, because they're more at their own pace. You're really fueling the experience. Obviously, you have Ken Niimura's incredible art, and that envelops you and engages you in a different way, but your imagination is critical. And in a film, a lot of this stuff is being done for you and at its [own] speed, and you can't go back.

Specifically to this story, it's really important to stay in Barbara's point of view and let the audience choose for themselves — is what she's experiencing real? Is this all in her head? Her reality is being called into question throughout the film.

And there was stuff in the first version of the screenplay and stuff that's in the graphic novel that, if you saw it on a screen, it would break the movie. It would make that decision for you one way or another. That stuff had to come out, which was painful, because some of them are images I really loved and would have loved to have seen them on screen.

But then we had to replace them with stuff that would still advance her emotional state and figure out ways to express her inner self in an exciting exterior. I think Anders was instrumental in making that happen and did a beautiful job.

I Kill Giants

Credit: Image Comics

What were some of those images that were painful to part ways with?

There's one that I happen to love. There's a moment where something has happened to Barbara, and as she's moving through the rest of her day, armor is starting to form on her body. And you turn the page and then she's just sitting at the bus stop in a full suit of armor.

We also have these pixie creatures that she speaks to in the comic, and they're like, "So, you had a rough day?" And the way that Ken drew it was so powerful and so cool. And that would've been really neat to see as a sequence, but because of something that happens immediately after that in the book... It's not addressed in the book, but if you didn't see it addressed on screen, you'd be like, "Oh, that was all in her head." And that would break reality then at that point.

Maybe it's because you had to let go of some of the more fantastical elements from the book to not give anything away, but the movie feels more grounded in reality than the source material.

That's a great observation. I think part of that grounding comes from Anders and his style along with Rasmus [Heise], our [director of photography]. Everybody talks about the Amblin [Entertainment] age of movies and wanting to capture that feel — like these are real kids in a real situation and then amazing things happen. And so that sense of reality is, I think, pretty critical for this story to work as a film, so we definitely angled in that direction.

So things like the pixies — which might have come off as too cutesy, I think, in a film — work in the graphic novel, but they were some of the first things to go. And then there are other things that I miss. Ken would draw these semi-transparent creatures running around Barbara's world. You got the sense that maybe she had a double vision that other people didn't have.

Again, it wasn't so much that it was just her imagination. It was, "No, maybe she has seen things that other people just can't see." And that would've been really cool, but would have also required a different set of tools and probably a different kind of budgeted film, etc. We had to make those decisions.

But grounding it, I think, is really critical, especially for once you get to the sort of full journey; I think it gives it the right kind of weight.

I Kill Giants, Barbara

Credit: RLJE Films

For people who are maybe going see the movie but haven't had a chance to read the graphic novel, what do you think will connect with them as an audience?

What I've found is that audiences, they really connect with Barbara.

At first they're almost unsure, because she can be a little abrasive, she's an abrasive character. But they get on board with her because there's something so compelling about her, and the more you buy into her journey and her belief and what she's up to, you start rooting for her. Literally, you can feel when it happens in the theater. And as that happens, people become really, fully engaged in helping her see it through, as silly as that sounds. Once you've bought in and you know that she is serious and she is hunting down this giant, people really get on board. And then they are very impacted by watching her get her way.

Certainly, her attitude and having her defense mechanisms up, being someone who is used to fighting her battles and pushing other people away, they react to that and are rooting for her to rein it in — let people help you and connect with these wonderful women and girls that are around you.

People that haven't read the book, they're gonna find this really unique, very strong character led through this fantastic journey by other strong women.

The graphic novel and the film both deal with themes of grief. I feel it's very rare to see young women get the chance to explore their grief on screen. Obviously, Barbara deals with her grief in a unique way. When you were first developing I Kill Giants, why was this an important story for you to tell?

Well, this is the part I always have to put under the spoiler-y umbrella. I mean, you honed it on specifically, so I'll tell you the specifics of it. When I wrote the book, I was a relatively new dad, and I have a son and a daughter. My daughter is the older one. And she's very precious and sassy and funny, and I was trying to get her into nerdy stuff, which she didn't take to, but she does have a strong sense about good movies, so I'm very happy about that.

You achieved some of your duties.

Yeah, I tried. So, at that time, my father had diabetes and was sick. He went to the hospital and wound up losing a leg and came out of the hospital, but I had never thought about the mortality of my parents before that time. And here I am, a fully grown man. I just never... Again, I'm probably not fully grown now, but theoretically, I am. So it had never occurred to me to even think about this.

And so, those two things sort of came together, [my dad and my daughter], and I was kind of picturing her as, I guess, slightly older. What if she stayed on this track of comics and D&D and all this stuff that I was trying to seed in her mind? She's still very smart and sassy and driven, because my daughter is super driven. What if she's facing off against something that's kind of unthinkable? And that ultimately created the story. So that's why I said this was the spoiler-y section, because I don't want to give away what happens in the film. But I literally wrote the whole outline for this movie on a yellow pad while I was taking my dad to physical therapy for his leg, to get a new leg. And I wrote it in an hour just because I knew the whole thing. It's very rare for me, personally. The story never really changed from that point. It just expanded into the script.

Also as part of that, I'm part of a company called Man of Action. A bunch of us have kids, and some of us have daughters. We're always angling to just get more characters our daughters could relate to into projects. So that's always been important to me as a creator.

I Kill Giants

Credit: RLJ Entertainment