Grief can manifest itself in many forms. Instead of facing the real world, it’s often easier and unhealthier to instill coping mechanisms to avoid dealing with personal tragedy. Some keep themselves buried in work. Others turn to vices such as alcohol. Children like Barbara Thorson may turn to fantasy, using a war hammer named Coveleski to kill giants.

What is I Kill Giants:

Adapted from the 2008 Image Comics series of the same name written by Joe Kelly and beautifully illustrated by J.M Ken Niimura, I Kill Giants tells the story of spunky fifth-grader Barbara, whose real life isn’t going so great. She’s bullied at school and her home life (in which she’s raised solely by her sister) is hanging on by threads. Instead of facing her problems head-on, Barbara envisions a reality where giants are coming to destroy her and her home. Bravely, she decides to take on the monsters herself.

Barbara is hard as rocks on the surface, as her giant obsession definitely leans on the unhealthy side, causing a new school counselor, Mrs. Molle, to take interest in her. Armed with bunny ears and a small bag containing her Warhammer Coveleski (named after her father’s favorite baseball player), Barbara believes by setting bait and traps, she can take down anything that comes her way.

One thing Barbara can’t face, however, is what’s unfolding outside her quest to hunt down giants. What’s actually happening is what she’s afraid of most. Firebreathing Titans? Psh… no problem. However, dealing with her dad’s departure and her dying mother is what ultimately haunts her. Underneath her giant-hunting persona is a young girl struggling to deal with what she’s lost, and what she’s about to lose.

It deals with grief in a way comic book movies haven’t, thanks to its source material:

What captivated me about the graphic novel on my first read was that Barbara’s struggles — while not revealed right away — felt so real. You ache alongside her. The monsters are a personification of her mother’s sickness and her own grief and something she’s scared to tackle head-on.

Losing someone close to you is perhaps the hardest thing someone can deal with. As a kid, it’s even harder. Barbara knows her mom passing away is imminent, but by avoiding her, and focusing all of her time and energy into something like monster-hunting, she can avoid processing the inevitable. At such a young age, compartmentalizing emotions and realizing the time you have with the terminally ill might not be as long as anticipated is impossible.

Some might see Barbara ignoring her mom as selfish, but in reality, if she doesn’t talk about it, maybe it’s not happening? It’s not healthy, but we all grieve differently. It creates a heavy impact when Barbara finally walks up the stairs and into her sickly mom’s arms. It’s a real tear-jerker.

Madison Wolfe shines as Barbara 

Barbara isn’t an easy character to pull off in the film. On the page, she’s hard-headed, mouthy and unfriendly to just about everybody. She doesn’t care about what’s really going on. Her sole focus is dedicated to hunting giants, leading her to become a target or tough to deal with.

However, Madison Wolfe (True Detective) does an impeccable job of making Barbara’s misunderstood monster-hunting understandable. Wolfe’s performance is simultaneously physical and delicate, as Barbara’s mood rapidly shifts. In her world, she’s fearless and adventurous. In the reality that’s actually unfolding, she’s terrified and won’t process what’s actually happening.

Zoe Saldana (Guardians of the Galaxy) unsurprisingly brings plenty of heart as Barbara’s counselor, Mrs. Molle, whose attempts to understand Barbara aren’t deterred by her tough personality. The rest of the cast fills in the pieces fine, with newcomer Sydney Wade playing Barbara’s curious-but-confused friend Sophia as a standout. However, this movie is about Barbara and Wolfe nails the tall task.

It’s a fitting adaptation

I Kill Giants doesn’t have the same manga-style visual flare as its comic-book counterpart, but with beautiful cinematography, lush landscapes and perfect character touches (like Barbara’s secret hideaways), director Anders Walter makes his own visual impression.

Could the film use more action? Yes. Does it lag at times? Absolutely. But it captures the essence of the beloved graphic novel despite its budgetary limitations. The monsters look great and the story hits nearly as hard as it does in the book. An I Kill Giants adaptation was never going to be perfect like the graphic novel, but this is as likely as close as we’ll get. Walter pulls off the fine balance of emphasizing how Barbara’s monster-hunting reality parallels her internal struggles. Achieving this on a small budget ($15 million, according to IMDb) seemed impossible, but with Kelly penning the film’s screenplay, there’s clear affection for the source material on display.

I Kill Giants is available on digital video through outlets like iTunes and Amazon. But it’s worth your time to check the movie out on the big screen. It’s even more worth your time to read the book it’s based on, which is also available digitally and in paperback collection.

About Liam McGuire

Social +Staff writer for The Comeback & Awful Announcing.