I was watching the movie “How I Live Now” starring Saoirse Ronan recently—incidentally a lovely Netflix find—which chronicles the experiences of an American girl who’s decided to stay in England with her young cousins and lover as World War III breaks out all around them. (Why you would even send your child to spend a summer in Britain when there are bombings and a literal projected World War on the horizon, I don’t know, but it serves the plot.) I would separate the movie into three main segments: young love and friendship in the idyllic English countryside, realizing the realities of World War III, and RUNNING. I will refer to the third segment in all caps because that is the only way to even slightly express the energy needed to endure this section of the movie. Essentially the main character, Daisy, and her young cousin, Piper, spend over a final third of the movie running/hiking across the English countryside to find their way back to their family’s farm in hopes of reuniting with the male counterparts of the clan.
How they hike for days without fresh water I’m not quite sure, but what really made me think was the beginning of their journey when they run away from their “safe house” as the suburban neighborhood is being bombed. A seventeen-year old girl and her chubby ten-year old cousin—neither of who look particularly athletic—run for miles on hilly and uneven terrain in clunky hiking boots while carrying a seemingly heavy pack. How do they do this? Well, it’s fear for their lives, right? However, the more I think about it, the more I realize that even if I was running for my life, I probably wouldn’t be able to keep up that pace for as long as they do.
Arguably, I am a swimmer not a runner. I’ve been trying to run recently because it’s just not quite warm enough to swim yet, but my running is pretty pathetic. I can get maybe a little over a quarter mile before my legs and lungs want to give out. I could probably keep running after that point if I wanted to endure excruciating pain, but I’m trying to build myself up not kill myself. And because of my recent experiences with running, I can say without a doubt that Daisy and Piper’s frequent “runs for their lives” in “How I Live Now” just isn’t realistic. The walking and hiking for days on end, I believe that. Piper looks like she’s going to collapse through all of it, but I know you can trudge forever—not quickly, of course—if needed, but running is another story.
I know movies aren’t realistic. But when I watch an apocalyptic movie where the protagonists (SPOILER ALERT!) survive, I want to believe they had good reason to do so. I want to believe that the Average Joan (like me) could survive World War III if I just worked hard enough and kept my head up. But movies like this make it confusing. They realistically portray the situation (i.e. having to run and walk for days to escape danger and eventually find one’s way back home) but don’t always show it being realistically carried out. This leads to a disconnect for viewers. Fiction film is fantasy, but it’s also a form of escapism that is not always meant to be fantastical. Sometimes it’s where our dreams and fears go to play out in the best (and other times, worst) case scenarios.
For me, this means that films need to portray a certain level of reality in life or death situations for its characters or the “suspension of disbelief” can be easily voided. I want to know that if I was that character, I too could survive. Otherwise, my emotional investment in him or her is not nearly what it could be.
So is “running in movies” realistic? No. Of course not. But can there be a layer of reality to it? Absolutely. Despite being an overall, suspenseful and beautiful film, “How I Live Now” doesn’t quite succeed in the physical endurance category. It’s unfortunate, but it just makes me realize how important of an element that really is to successfully immerse oneself in a film.