By Lesley Gayle
A Monster Calls, starring Lewis MacDougall and Liam Neeson as the monster, is a beautiful and emotional tale of a boy struggling with growing up and with his mother’s impending death. Based on the award winning book by Patrick Ness, the movie’s director explains that he ‘searches for light’ in the darkest time a child can face. It does so with the boy’s incarnation of truth through stories and art.
I struggled with what audience should see this film. The movie is PG-13 and the book is written for the tween/young adult crowd. Yet despite allowing my kids to watch super hero movies with violence, crass humor and character deaths, I had a difficult time deciding if this subject matter was for my thirteen year old. It is harsh and it is reality, not a comic book come to life with a tree for a monster. The adults in the movie struggle to approach the boy, Conor, played by Lewis MacDougall, with this reality. We as a society struggle with this reality with our kids. So, as is often the case in life, Conor tries to manage it all on his own. While struggling with the subject myself, I had my daughter read the book. She was fine with it. Then I took her to the movie. She cried, but again, she was fine.
This movie has a monster in it, a tree. And Conor’s mom dies in the end. OMG I just gave away the whole movie! But I haven’t. I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know going in. But deep down you don’t want to believe it. And that’s the point of this movie. You and the characters know she is going to die from the beginning and we don’t want to deal with it.
It’s a classic monster film. You find yourself begging the book and the movie to not answer the phone, or look in the box or finish the story, because the monster may be too scary. This nightmare is real and this movie handles it beautifully.
Even though it is a movie for teenagers, and maybe younger children, it is not just a children’s story. Adults should see it too. As Liam Neeson, explained about his decision to play a monster from a children’s book, “It’s not (a children’s book). That’s is part of its power; it kept haunting me. It is much more. The Director (J.A. Bayona) required an emotional range from Lewis that Shakespeare didn’t require of Hamlet. It is great to be entertained. The film is incredibly entertaining. There are layers to it that teaches the young boy and audiences. I was guilty of it with my two boys years ago, of thinking kids aren’t capable of understanding it. And we simplify things. But kids can understand it in their own way.”
The director J.A. Bayona’s used cgi in his movie “The Impossible” to recreate a reality of a tsunami that none of us can fathom. Here is it to recreate the mind of a child dealing with emotions he can’t express. As Liam said, “I was captivated by the story. There wasn’t a frame I would have changed in that film. Leaving away all the things you can do on screen and cgi, it was always the story of the humans. You say, OMG that tree comes to life, but it’s always to service this human emotion that this kid is grappling with.”
When Patrick Ness was approached to turn the book into a film, he apparently came up against the same angst I was feeling. He wanted it to stay true to his words. “When Hollywood came calling, some callers wanted me to soften it.” Did some want Conor’s mom to live in the end? “Yes, that was one suggestion. That is false, that is what I wanted to avoid. So I wrote the script on speck, so I could say my peace. I had people interested in the book. If it is a kids’ book, you can’t cheat. It has to be a kids book first. I wrote it for the kid I was. As a kid I always felt I wasn’t getting fully honest books. I was getting what should be, not what the world reflected as it is. This book was for the kid I was at Conor’s age.”
As with Bayona’s other major movies, this movie deals with real life horrors. I asked Bayona what drives him to tell these stories. “I love the idea of going to cinema and going through an emotional journey. I hate to go to the cinema and forgetting about it a few minutes later. I want to do films that stay with the audience I want the audience to grow. I really feel attracted to that material (In “A Monster Calls”). I feel cathartic about the mother and the son. Death becomes the reminder that we have to tell the truth. It is dark, but it is inspiring and enlightening. The monster in this film is a result of nightmares but he is the solution. That is the humanity. Things can be black and white at the same time. Your nightmare can be your solution. We tell kids all the time that things are black and white. But kids experience that life is not black and white, but they can’t articulate it. From the moment you tell the story to a kid. The child doesn’t have a story to refer to, what they have is emotion.”
Bayona collaborated with Patrick Ness the writer, with ideas on the script. “My first idea was to find light at the end of the story. To find some hope. Conor goes through such an emotional journey that he needs a signal of hope. I came up with the idea that Conor is an artist. It is a way of visualizing his inner world.”
Bayona also said he worked with a child psychologist, “Yes, because the book has so many layers, I really wanted to get that emotion on screen and get it right. Conor doesn’t want to know the truth at the beginning. But he needs to hear the truth and he needs to speak the truth. It is important for kids today to do this. Especially now in an era of post-truth.”
It finally hit me. Hollywood makes so many super hero movies, and I let my kids watch them, because super heroes are easy avoidance. Super heroes are created when a character HASN’T reconciled that black and white exist at the same time. Two conflicted individuals in the same body. Why do we want our kids to learn this? So I am convinced that “A Monster Calls” is a great movie for teenagers. Unlike Superman, and Spiderman and Batman, this monster/superhero arrives BEFORE Conor becomes an orphan. In the end, you know he is safe and has been saved from years of therapy and ill-conceived costume designs.