When a monster calls, do you answer? A Monster Calls is a realistic fable rooted in fairy tales. Conor (“too old to be a kid, yet too young to be a man”) lives with his terminally ill mum, Lizzie. The father lives with his new family in America. Lizzie’s mother comes over to help. One night at exactly 12:07, the tree’s visits begin. He promises him three stories in return for the fourth, which is Conor’s truth.
Barcelona-born Juan Antonio Garcia Bayona’s adaptation of Patrick Ness’ book by the same name is visually elegant, well-lit and sensitively shot – a satisfying balance between quiet moments and action-heavy CGI sequences. Animation director Adrian Garcia provides beautiful watercolour, ink and stopgap illustrations for the first two of the monster’s stories. It adds to the magic realism, drawing comparison with Guillermo del Toro’s 2006 fantasy-drama Pan’s Labyrinth. (Unsurprisingly, the two are good friends.)
But Bayona’s effort is less thriller, more heartfelt drama and more unabashedly emotional. Cinematographer Oscar Faura, music composer Fernando Velazquez and production designer Eugenio Caballero (incidentally an Oscar winner for Pan’s Labyrinth) are also part of the artistic behind-the-scenes team.
The emotion of dreams
In his Slash Film interview, Bayona said, “…I wanted to be faithful to the book, but I also wanted to find some light at the end of the story.” This is the beauty of interpretations. Making Conor an artist changes some narrative threads in ways that work wonderfully on-screen.
But interpretations can backfire. Patrick Ness, in adapting his own book, seems to have simplified a simple story, robbing it of much of its complexity. This sounds paradoxical, but the book’s unexpected power lies in its insistence at being anything but conventional. It may appear as a coming-of-age narrative about grief, but it’s about a young boy calling for the end of his pain and the resultant isolation from the world. It’s about the raw guilt of feeling responsible for his mum’s weakening condition because of his very human wish, and his subsequent need for punishment. It’s about anger at feelings he’s too young to process.
The film acknowledges the truth of Conor’s nightmare. But it’s cliché, minus any of the significance, that makes the book deeper than most YA fare. With the recurring nightmare at the heart of Conor’s emotional crisis, the book elevates the narrative beyond grief into the messiness of it all. That is the missing element the film’s denouement needed for more poignancy. (Though the film will still make you cry).
I’d also have loved to see the wry humour that Conor possesses in the book despite everything; his defiance and courage, the layered relationship he shares with his mother, and his complicated connection with the monster.
The wild beauty of stories
Despite everything, the adaptation remains fresh. Scottish newcomer Lewis MacDougall is a stunning find, embodying Conor with remarkable poise and emotional range (tragically, he lost his own mother to multiple sclerosis). Felicity Jones has an expressive off-screen presence. Tony Kebbell, as the estranged father who loves his son and is yet unwilling to take him back to the States, makes for a genuine if complicated cameo. And what better than Liam Neeson’s distinct Irish brogue for the monster? The only false note is Sigourney Weaver as the grandmother, though there is one scene where she shines.
A book is not a film and vice-versa, and yet it’s possible for the heart of a story to remain intact through love and reverence for the characters and their narrative truth. Does A Monster Calls pass the test? Yes and no, but this is a compassionate narrative about love, hope, loss, grief, healing, the wild beauty of stories, and how to survive when it seems impossible. I’d recommend it in a heartbeat.
The book of the film
When award-winning YA author Siobhan Dowd, who was working on a story about a boy dealing with his mother’s terminal illness, succumbed to breast cancer at the age of 47, Patrick Ness, author of the Chaos Walking series, was given her characters, premise and beginning, and asked to write the book.
From HT Brunch, February 12, 2017
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