A MONSTER CALLS (2016)
A boy seeks the help of a tree monster to cope with his single mother's terminal illness.
Patrick Ness has certainly been making a name for himself over the last few years. Many know him as a successful children’s/YA author, others for creating the recent Doctor Who spin-off Class. Ness has done a fantastic job crafting relatable characters and intriguing situations, especially in science fiction and fantasy. Young Adult literature is one of the fastest growing and most competitive literary genres, with a huge number being adapted into film and television (The Fault In Our Stars, Divergent, Thirteen Reasons Why), including Ness’s own A Monster Calls.
The source novel won the Carnegie Medal for best book in 2012. Such success often develops a passionate fanbase eager to see any adaptation done justice, while simultaneously sharpening their critical knives to pick it apart if necessary. While turning A Monster Calls into a movie may seem like a surefire money-maker, it’s a risk. Just look at the stalled Divergent saga versus the blockbusting Hunger Games.
With Ness himself as screenwriter and J.A Bayona (The Orphanage) directing, A Monster Calls was always in good hands. It needed someone that understood the intricacies of the subject matter and the fantasy elements from the original material to bring the whole thing together. Having read the book first, I can honestly say the film does it complete justice and manages to deliver beautiful visuals and an emotional resonance that’s often difficult to pull directly from the page.
A Monster Calls deals with tough subject matter, in that a child’s own mother is dying of cancer. Not only that but he has to deal with other life challenges such as a school bully, a tough relationship with his father, and a strict grandmother. These are all represented via stories told by a monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) to the young boy, Conor (Lewis MacDougall), as he learns about life and how to cope with bad days. These fairytales are dark and grim but with a positive message to push Conor on with his life; and while he’s going through a tough time it’s important to learn he can make some things better, but others things will always be out of his control.
Lewis delivers a confident and heartfelt performance as Conor. It’s not a character easy to deal with, thanks to the emotional range required, especially for someone so young, but the balance between fantasy and reality is conveyed really well here. It certainly doesn’t hurt that the movie’s supporting cast includes Neeson, Rogue One’s Felicity Jones (as Conor’s mum), and Sigourney Weaver. They all fit into their roles incredibly well, with Weaver especially convincing as Conor’s exacting grandmother. She has a certain understated menace about her performance that makes her role a standout.
The cinematography and direction from Oscar Faura and Bayona perfectly captures the fantasy elements originally put to page by Jim Kay. It’s a challenging journey for Conor, and one that’ll hit close to home for many viewers, but it’s having one foot planted in reality that makes A Monster Calls so unique.
A Monster Calls should definitely be considered one of the better book-to-screen adaptations of recent times, if not of all time. There’s no avoiding the emotional rigours that Conor goes on, so don’t go in expecting a happy-go-lucky tale full of fun and joy. This is a deeply moving and human story where fantasy is used as a coping mechanism dealing with real and powerful emotions. Ness ensures longtime readers of his book will adore seeing the story brought to life so vividly, while newcomers should find themselves drawn to their local libraries to pick up a copy.
director: J.A Bayona.
writer: Patrick Ness (based on his novel, from an idea by Siobhan Dowd).
starring: Sigourney Weaver, Felicity Jones, Toby Kebbell, Lewis MacDougall & Liam Neeson.