Book/Film: A Monster Calls
Author: Patrick Ness
Illustrator: Jim Kay
Before her death from breast cancer in 2007, writer Siobhan Dowd began to develop a story about a boy facing the imminent loss of his mother to cancer. She drew inspiration from the highly poisonous yew tree, which was nevertheless the source of an anticancer drug she was being treated with. Dowd would not live long enough to complete this project, but, from her preliminary work, author Patrick Ness and illustrator Jim Kay created an award-winning book for teens, A Monster Calls. In 2016, the film version was brought to life through a UK and Spanish co-production that weaved together live action, animation, motion capture, animatronics, and CGI. The PG rated film was given its general North American release in January, 2017.
In the film, Conor O’Malley is a lonely and isolated 13-year-old boy and his mother has cancer. He is bullied at school and his parents are divorced, with his father living in the US with a new wife and child. Conor’s grandmother is a stern businesswoman whose sterile museum-like house is no place for a 13-year-old boy, though with his mother’s worsening health, Conor will have no choice but to live there. The adults who surround him are not telling him the truth about the severity of his mother’s cancer, and he repeatedly suffers from a harrowing nightmare in which the grounds of the nearby cemetery swallow his mother while he desperately struggles to hang on to her. Amid these struggles, or rather because of them, the yew tree in the neighbouring churchyard tears itself from the ground and sets off to confront Conor. As the movie progresses, the massive and ancient tree tells Conor three stories and then Conor must tell the tree a fourth story, “the truth”. But the truth, like the monster’s stories, contain difficult moral ambiguities and contradictions. A Monster Calls is a dark exploration of the pain involved in confronting an impending loss, but it is more: Conor has a secret that only deepens his sense of isolation.
Conor struggles—along with the audience—to grasp the meaning of the stories told by the tree. But stories can be powerful, and the tales illustrate human contradictions. Eventually, Conor is forced to admit his own contradiction, his own truth. In the book, it was clear that Conor felt the need to be punished, and this may have been obscured in the transition from printed page to screen. Perhaps this is why some reviewers wrongly concluded that the film was simply about loss, but—spoiler alert—what weighs upon Conor is that he wants his own suffering to end, and that of course will only happen with the death of his mother. He wants his own pain to simply stop, even if it seems contrary to his love for her. Recognizing and accepting his human frailty prepares Conor for the loss of his mother.
The film, by J.A. Bayona, who also directed the upcoming Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, brings together an extremely talented group of actors. There can be no doubt that Lewis McDougall, as an anguished Conor facing the death of his mother, draws upon his own experience of having lost his mother to multiple sclerosis. As Conor’s mother, Felicity Jones, perhaps best known as Jyn Erso in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, convincingly portrays a young woman succumbing to terminal cancer. Conor’s severe grandmother is played by veteran actor Sigourney Weaver, while Liam Neeson provides the weathered voice of the ancient and gnarled monster.
In spite of a compelling story, talented actors and fantastic visual effects, the film, in North America at least, was not an overwhelming success. Perhaps its dark subject matter did not appeal to most movie-goers: it doesn’t feature a miracle cure, a last-minute reprieve or tidy Hollywood ending. On March 28, 2017, it was released on DVD. Nevertheless, A Monster Calls remains a profound and poignant film, destined to find an audience among cinephiles who appreciate its subject matter, stunning visuals and unusual narrative style.
Even though the movie made only a short appearance in theaters, A Monster Calls remains a popular book since its release in 2011, and a quick internet search indicates that it is still readily available from numerous bookstores and online. In 2015, an unillustrated version of the book was released in anticipation of the film, but in the absence of Jim Kay’s dark and foreboding images, it offers less visual pull. (Perhaps the intention was to avoid having the original images compete with those in the film). In 2017, A Monster Calls: Special Collectors’ Edition was released, and included the original illustrations as well as additional artwork by Jim Kay, interviews with the writer/screenwriter Patrick Ness, actors and director, as well as insights into the film’s animation and special effects. Though it will not appeal to everyone, A Monster Calls—as a book or a film—is an intense and haunting story.