I was lucky enough to see A Monster Calls as part of Odeon Cinema’s “Screen Unseen” project, back in mid-December. I have thought long and hard about whether I would write a review of this film, and how to write it. I promise there won’t be any huge spoilers.
I first read A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness on my Kindle Paperwhite back in my second year of university. We were studying an optional unit called Children’s Literature, run by my fantastic lecturer, Carolyn Cummings-Osmond. Most of the books we had studied on the unit had been familiar territory, from Tom Brown’s School Days to Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. So I didn’t expect this book to be any different. It was short, and I zipped through it in one evening, but I had no idea how much this book would affect me. When I reached the final chapter of the book, I sobbed my heart out and had to spend a few hours properly calming myself down. The book struck so many chords with me. No, cancer never made its way into my home, but my teenage years were not exactly a walk in the park, and this book resonated with that. Ness managed to finally capture the experience of growing up in a broken or problematic home, something I’d been searching for since I was thirteen years old. The story in particular that stuck with me was the tale of the invisible man, and how that scene played out for Connor. It was like someone had finally put my life down into words. All of my thoughts, feelings, and how they affected every part of my life, finally written about.
So I spoke to Carolyn. Explained that I was concerned about how much I related to the book, and that was not something I wanted to share with my peers in any detail. Most of them know something happened, but that’s it. And that’s as much as I want them to know right now. She was very understanding, but asked me what I thought of the illustrations. Of course, having read it on my Kindle, my edition was text-only. Carolyn materialised a copy of the book from her bag, and I was enamoured. Jim Kay‘s work brought Patrick Ness’ words to life on the page, with a dark, gothic undertone that sensitively complimented the plot of the book. You can only imagine my joy when I hear that a film is being released.
The film itself was visually stunning. I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen for a second. J A Bayona has managed to lift Jim Kay’s vision straight off of the page, cleverly mixing live action, CGI (computer-generated imagery) and water-colour animation to create a multi-dimensional world for Connor to exist in. Liam Neeson‘s characterisation of the monster was genius. The initial scene felt a bit rushed at times, but once the monster became firmly established as a character, it was truly a cinematic experience.
However, it was Lewis MacDougall that stole the show. At only fourteen years of age, MacDougall had the maturity, eloquence and talent of his adult co-stars. Normally, films such as these are let down by their child actors, who simply lack the experience to carry their roles, so expectations were relatively low for the role of Connor. But MacDougall exceeded all expectations, raising the bar with every passing scene. I cried over an hour straight in the cinema, and every time it was provoked by the facial expressions or delivery provided by MacDougall.
Usually, in films scenes have to be cut. And sometimes, scenes are added in (especially if the origin text is a short story, such as this). And that was indeed the case with A Monster Calls. The invisible man scene, so poignant and moving in Ness’ novel, felt underplayed and brushed-over in the film. However, there were some scenes added that were so pure in content and intention, they slotted in seamlessly, such as the King Kong scene. An addition which could only be successfully deployed in film was the sounds of Connor’s grandmother crying through the bedroom door. It was decisions such as these which allowed the film to cut through to the hearts of the audience, myself included.
This book has become such an important part of my life, and I think it should be better known. I have heard of so many people avoiding this film because “it’s a kid’s film”. Yes. This is a children’s book. But it is an important story which should be shared. So many children share their homes with cancer, and it isn’t talked about enough. So many children come from homes where they have to be the grown-up, and it is so rarely represented in the arts. As we are slowly learning, with the introduction of films such as Moana, representation is important. Especially to children. And that is not just in terms of gender, sexuality, and race; but also in situations such as these. Children who are subject to adverse conditions should be represented, a conversation needs to take place. And it’s books and films such as these which are sensitive, artistic, and most importantly, accurate that will get the ball rolling. If I had found this book when I was thirteen, it would have helped to support me when things were bad. It would have taught me that sometimes it’s okay to break things, to be angry, to be scared. But also, that letting go is okay.
Thank you, Patrick Ness.