A Monster Calls balances its dark themes of bereavement and bullying with imaginative fantasy elements to deliver a powerful and moving coming-of-age drama. Based on the award-winning teenage novel by Patrick Ness, the film boasts fine performances from its leads, particularly newcomer Lewis MacDougall.
‘Not as good as the book’ is a common complaint from readers disappointed by film adaptations. While this is true of A Monster Calls, the original 2011 YA novel is a hard act to follow. The film comes close: with Ness on board as screenwriter and director J.A. Bayona staying faithful to illustrator Jim Kay’s startling artwork, much of the magic on the page is transferred to the screen.
But the film dilutes the edgy horror of 13-year old Conor O’Malley’s experience of being bullied. In the book we feel this intensely and it holds centre-stage, while here it is played down, perhaps with an eye on an under-15 audience. Another change from the book is the cutting out of Conor’s school friend Lily. Without someone to spark off, there is a drama-shaped hole in the middle of the film. Talking to GGI tree monsters is all very well but you also need real mates on your side.
In spite of having to carry the film virtually single-handedly, Lewis MacDougall does a fantastic job. Conor is an only child who has to cope with the fact that his mother (Felicity Jones) is dying of cancer, as well as being bullied himself after school every day. MacDougall brings a natural elfin sensitivity to the role (Conor is a talented artist) and a rawness that helps to expresses the wildness inside him waiting to be unleashed.
When a monster comes calling after midnight, Conor isn’t scared. He has experienced enough misery already to be shaken up by a yew tree giant with burning red eyes. Has the monster risen from his subconscious, wrought from his powerful drawings? Nobody else can see it. At first Conor is disappointed that the monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) only wants to tell stories, rather than help his mum get better. But this is no Superhero blockbuster: there is no Happily Ever After. As his estranged Dad tells him, ‘most of us just get messily ever after’.
As the monster says, stories can help Conor topple his enemies. ‘Stories are wild creatures. When you let them loose, who knows what havoc they may wreak’. Monster teaches boy to express his pain and they have a bit of Gestalt therapy together until Conor is ready to talk through his recurring nightmare and accept grim reality. Only then can he let go and move on. The farewell hospital scene between mother and son is beautiful and moving.
A Monster Calls benefits from a fine supporting cast, with Felicity Jones extending the range of her acting talents after The Theory of Everything and Rogue One. Sigourney Weaver also shines as Conor’s bossy but caring grandma, her English accent impeccable. It is Weaver whose waspish one-liners lighten the gloom. When Conor goes to stay in her prim and proper antique-filled house she tells him ‘if you get hungry, there’s spinach in the fridge’.
I must try that one on my own teenage kids.