Two PW writers were invited to a recent screening of the film adaptation of Patrick Ness's A Monster Calls, directed by J.A. Bayonne, with a screenplay written by the author. For more behind the movie, read our Movie Alert. Here our moviegoing duo talks tear-jerking scenes, monsters, morality, and sharp acting. Be warned: spoilers from the book and movie are below!
MB: Well, I haven’t cried this much since the post-election SNL cold open. No… I definitely cried a lot more then. But A Monster Calls is – as expected – a sad movie. We saw it with a bunch of film critics and everyone was crying into the cups of coffee they snuck into the screening room (it was the morning). Beyond being sad – it is about a mother dying of cancer and how an imaginative boy named Conor grapples with losing her – it’s a monster movie. And the monster we are talking about here is Liam Neeson. It is a monster movie in many other senses, however. Namely, throughout the course of his mother’s illness, Conor is visited by a monster that takes the form of the yew tree that grows in the cemetery that he can see from his bedroom window. The monster promises to tell Conor three stories and a fourth must be told by Conor himself.
NG: The movie definitely crescendoed into a powerful, tear-jerking scene, but I have to say I remained dry-eyed – though possibly I was the only person in the whole theater who was. I think my mind was distracted really thinking about the many heady, philosophical ideas Ness placed into the story. When the monster calls, and starts to tell Conor stories, the stories themselves – but also how they’re told – were layered with meaning and resonance. I was really impressed that it was pulled off as quickly as it unfolded in the film. In the first of the fairy tales, there's an evil prince who claws his way to power, and as you said with the recent political events still top-of-mind for me as well, it was difficult to let the quote, “a kingdom gets the prince it deserves” out of my head, until the scope of Conor’s development really explodes in the film.
MB: Yes, part of what I love about the book is the way that it is not in any sense a traditional morality story; the monster is not there to provide answers, solutions, or lessons, which is initially very frustrating for Conor. He wants to be able to make sense of his mother’s illness, to understand why the world can be so cruel, but there are no explanations. Ness’s story doesn’t sugarcoat death. It allows for the existence of monsters as well as for the powerful and sometimes contradictory emotions that come along with grief, like anger. The film feels to me like a pretty seamless adaptation of the book. In many senses, and particularly with its visual elements, the book lends itself organically to the screen. I interviewed Ness for our Movie Alert, and he mentioned that the book’s illustrator, Jim Kay, was a visual consultant for the movie. Ness also added that director Juan Antonio Bayona and Eugenio Caballero, the art director, “went on a journey to find the movie’s monster” and came back to Kay’s in the end. And those animated sequences used to tell the monster’s stories were very successful, I thought.
NG: Yeah, I agree, the style was beautiful. And Liam Neeson was really perfect as the Monster – he has a great voice for storytelling but he can very quickly take on an edge as sharp as a knife blade. Really the whole cast acted their faces off. The scene where Conor, without spoiling things, destroys something valuable of his grandmother’s (played by Sigourney Weaver) – the tension in that scene! You could feel every emotion and neither actors said a word! It was all in their faces and their positions and breathing, and it was amazing. Such a perfect translation of the scene in the book, where it’s almost written like a play – just these super tense understated sentences that are purely the action, and it came alive so well. I think that can really be said for much of the movie.
MB: There was a lot in the film that is expressed without words. In fact, there’s a sequence toward the end that puts a stronger focus on Conor’s mother than I recall the book doing. Conor finds solace through a notebook belonging to his mother, which contains many of her drawings, featuring imagery that is strikingly similar to much of what the monster shows him and even the monster himself. It’s an example of a way that the film subtly enhanced elements of the story.
I think we agree that we both liked the movie. Let’s put our cutthroat film reviewer caps on. Whenever I read a children’s book or see a film that is, arguably, intended for children, I try to think about how I would have perceived it when I was the age of the target audience. I think I would have loved this film when I was in elementary school or middle school. I was also one of those kids who sought out sad stories and reveled in darkness (hmmm… I guess nothing has changed). But as adult viewers, do we think there was some emotional manipulation going on? How about the dreaded “S” word – “sentimentality?” If so, should we worry about this?
NG: I think you could see elements of that for sure, but with my own attempt at critical distance, I often wonder if that sentimentality is aimed at the adults, and the flashy darkness is for the kids (because that is often the stuff parents complain about, but if you make the payoff a big, satisfying emotional connection between parent and child, maybe that’s okay?). Overall though, I feel like the level of sentimentality in the film is commensurate with the heaviness of the themes: grief, loss, terminal illness, growing up without a feeling of stability, and even the bullying amidst it all. I enjoyed the film, for sure, but I also think I would have really liked it as a child – there’s so much in it that might have gone over my head, but so much rich imagery, and as you say, expressed without words, I think that kind of stuff really resonates no matter what a person’s age or understanding. And can I say I’m also sort of pleased that this is a standalone? Though I would eagerly binge a Netflix series based on Ness’s Chaos Walking series...
MB: I think I agree about the sentimentality being commensurate with the content. A Monster Calls certainly isn’t a “cancer book” and it isn’t a “cancer movie.” It’s a story that deals in truth: terribly sad things happen and there is no playbook for effectively navigating the aftermath of such events. What Ness’s story has that many other sad stories do not, is a rich subtext. In other words, it’s not a cheap cry. Your comment about a standalone: there really is something beautiful about a story that has a beginning and ending, all in one breath, isn’t there?
NG: Definitely, and they feel rarer these days. But Ness can cover so much ground, so much growth, it feels satisfying. And cathartic. And it is definitely a movie for children and adults – because I think the work of understanding loss and grieving is the sort of work that even the most prepared aren’t usually prepared for, and what a beautiful, and powerful way of exploring it, and being able to do so together makes this film (and book!) not just a powerful aesthetic experience but also useful.
MB: Yes, agreed. We’ve been talking about movies together for about a year now and I thought I’d bring back the memory of that time we joked about seeing the movie Krampus, though the film is not technically based on a children’s book. I’ve since seen the film, which I definitely recommend seeing this Christmas. As kids throughout the U.S. wait in line to sit on Santa’s lap at malls, children in Eastern Europe eagerly await the arrival of troupes of the terrifying, cloven-hooved folkloric figures each December 5. I don’t think they are allowed to whip bad kids with branches anymore or stuff them in sacks, but anyway, I’m all for harkening back to the darker days of Yule. Hey, Natasha, let’s remember monsters this holiday season and maybe even set a place for them at the table – they may help us to remember our humanity.