'I Kill Giants' Screenwriter Explains How Child Psychology Shaped the Story

Writer Joe Kelly and Dr. Victoria E. Kress unpack the year's most emotional gritty fantasy.

In I Kill Giants, an eccentric girl named Barbara hunts for colossal beasts who threaten to fee-fie-fo-fum all over her hometown. At least, that’s what she believes in her head. In fact, Barbara’s adventures are a security blanket, made to shield herself from a much more grim reality that’s more terrifying than monsters.

Out this weekend in a limited theatrical release and video-on-demand, I Kill Giants turns a psychological phenomenon into an emotional, titan-slaying epic. According to experts like Dr. Victoria E. Kress, children like Barbara use their imaginations to deal with stress in lieu of logic and experience they find in adulthood. For many young people, getting caught up in a fantasy is the only way they can cope, and eventually confront, a troubling reality.

I Kill Giants stars Madison Wolfe as Barbara, the youngest in a small family that’s just barely holding it together. A storyteller with no one to tell stories to, Barbara routinely escapes her unhappy home life and into a fantasy where she protects everyone from large, destructive humanoids.

The film is an adaptation of a graphic novel from J. M. Ken Nimura and writer Joe Kelly, who also penned the screenplay. Its story originates from Kelly, who faced questions about life and death at an early age.

Madison Wolfe stars as "Barbara" in 'I Kill Giants.'

RJLE Films

“The genesis of the story came from my father,” explains Kelly in a phone interview with Inverse. “My father had gotten diabetes, and it was the first time I had to consider the mortality of my parents.” Years later, Kelly revisited these thoughts when he became a father himself. “I just started processing, looking at my daughter, imagining what it might be like [to leave her].”

Another inspiration came from a childhood memory belonging to a close friend of Kelly’s. “When their father was sick, [they] retreated into a fantasy world that was all about pop stars, and their relationship to pop stars,” he said.

Along with influences like Guillermo del Toro, and the video game Shadow of the Colossus — Kelly says he and Nimura took notes on the game’s monster designs — I Kill Giants is an inspired blend of fantasy with an intimate family drama, whose central characters refuse to acknowledge a harsh fact about their lives. (It’s a spoiler, but trust us, you don’t want to know before seeing it.)

“A giant comes to the place and takes everything from you,” Barbara says in the movie, “and when it’s done, it’s like anything that made your life good was never even there.”

While writing I Kill Giants for Man of Action at Image in 2009, Kelly ran “R&D” with his wife, a school guidance counselor; Mrs. Mollé, played by Zoe Saldana, was modeled after her. “I ran all this stuff by her: ‘Have you met a kid going through this? Would it seem real? How would you deal?’ She was my R&D department for Mrs. Molle/Barbara and helped provide verisimilitude.”

Zoe Saldana plays Barbara's school guidance counselor and the only adult to connect with her, in 'I Kill Giants.' 

RJLE Films

Though Kelly says he didn’t do any deep dives into child psychology while writing I Kill Giants, Dr. Victoria E. Kress says there’s truth to Barbara’s fiction. “She has this fantasy to help her organize and makes sense of the experience,” she says analyzing Barbara.

Dr. Kress is a Youngstown State University professor, author, and Director of Advocacy of National Board of Certified Counselors. She hasn’t seen I Kill Giants yet — we talk days before the release — but she tells Inverse she’s “anxious” to after reading the synopsis and watching the trailer. “I don’t know what her trauma is, but I would say that facing a traumatic event and having an active imagination is pretty common.”

Dr. Kress says all people deal with trauma with whatever “we have at our disposal”; she acknowledges the unfortunate fact kids in poverty do not have such resources. “The whole concept of counseling is alien to people in third world countries,” she says.

Barbara isn’t impoverished, but she does come from a low-income home with a neglectful brother and an absent older sister, who works overtime to provide for them. Thus, Barbara relies on her imagination, powered by her love for storytelling and mythology. She plays Dungeons & Dragons, after all.

Dr. Kress says humans rely on learned experience to cope with stress. “When we’re faced with challenges, we think how we handled these before, or the experiences of people around us,” she says. But for children, their lack of experience happens to be their strength. “When you’re a child, you have limited experience, so you have to get creative with how you cope.

“Adults find ways to cope that are unhealthy,” she adds. “They drink, they do drugs, they have sex, shopping, gambling. Kids don’t have those ways.” Instead, kids play. “In a way, [they are] much more adaptive, they use their imagination and fantasy to get through.”

Virtually all of the adults in I Kill Giants struggle to communicate with Barbara, including even Mrs. Mollé. Dr. Kress says that as people age, “we become less prone to pulling on our imaginations” and “rely more on reality.” Of course, adults still daydream about impossible things, but the difference is creativity.

“As people age, they rely more on reality,” Dr. Kress explains. “They lose a lot of creativity. I think that would look good on so many teenagers and adults, but sadly we lose that when we age.”

Though a professional for over two decades, Dr. Kress doesn’t hesitate to use words like “magical” to describe children, her favorite subject. “That’s why I love working with youth. You sit with them and they’re creative. They’re magical.”

Barbara, in 'I Kill Giants.'

RJLE Films

Dr. Kress says Barbara is a bit older than most children who rely on imaginations to cope. Usually, they’re aged in the “single-digits,” while Barbara is in middle school. But she says it’s still healthy for young people in problematic situations to “go where they need to go” to heal.

“Through creativity and play, [children] heal, and a lot of times what you see in these situations is when they’re safe and appropriately healed, they drop the fantasy. They drop these things when they’ve done what they needed to do.”

I Kill Giants is out now. You can rent it on Amazon Prime right here.

Correction: An earlier version of this story credited Joe Kelly as a Marvel/DC writer. Kelly has written many comics for both Marvel and DC, but he is officially tied to Man of Action Entertainment. This story has been updated.

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