Year of release: 2016. Directed by J. A. Bayona. Starring Lewis MacDougall, Felicity Jones, Sigourney Weaver, and Liam Neeson.
As someone who deeply admired Patrick Ness’ 2011 young adult novel A Monster Calls, let me start by getting one (pretty much my only) complaint out of the way. The character of Lily was cut from the film. She’s listed in the credits, which makes me think her scenes were filmed and then cut for time. If you have read the book, it’s easy to guess who she is, but in the film she’s just another student in the background. While the scenes with her aren’t crucial to the plot, in the book there is one moment between her and Connor right before the story’s climax that I found to be the story’s most heartbreakingly beautiful act of compassion toward someone suffering from grief. Needless to say, I was really disappointed it was not included in the film.
That out of the way, A Monster Calls is still really good. Lewis MacDougall impressively does the difficult job of capturing all the conflicting emotions of 12-year-old Connor who is deeply worried about his Mum’s cancer, resents the special treatment he gets because of “what he’s going through,” and doesn’t know how to face his fear and anger. As his Mum, Felicity Jones portrays the concern of a mother who wants to believe she will recover while trying to spare the details of her sickness from her son. Finally, Sigourney Weaver embodies Connor’s stern, no-nonsense Grandmother whose manner of grieving is incomprehensible to a 12-year-old boy.
And then, of course, there is the Monster voiced by Liam Neeson. A yew tree on the far edge of Connor and his Mum’s property, he awakes and comes walking for the seemingly simple task of telling Connor three stories and hearing a fourth from him. Needless to say, Connor thinks he has no time for “stupid stories” and especially despises the fairy-tale trappings of the Monster’s stories. However, as the Monster tells Connor, “Stories are not safe.” They don’t always tell us what we want to hear, and they can often reveal truths about ourselves and others that we don’t want to face. After that speech, it made me think Neeson was cast because he has voiced a lion who is also “not safe.” Either way, it was a great choice on the part of the filmmakers.
The fourth tale that Connor tells the Monster will be the nightmare that has terrorized him ever since his Mum took ill. In the book, we don’t learn what that nightmare is until Connor tells it at the end. The film, however, opens with that nightmare, and the tragic image of Connor letting his mother fall of a cliff as he’s unable to save her hangs over the film, setting up the deepest fear which plagues Connor. For the visual medium of film, it was a good choice to realize Connor’s turbulent emotions which the Monster has come to help him face.
However, Monsters, like stories, are also not safe. We quickly learn that the Monster’s stories are not just fantasies, but they have ramifications in the world as well. The beautiful watercolors which animate the Monster’s stories are brought into Connor’s life in a way which the book hints at, but the film makes explicit, another small change I appreciated. Neeson’s vocalizations range from concerned compassion to threatening rage, and they can change quickly and unpredictably as Monsters are wont to do. In some ways, the Monster reflects Connor’s own emotions which change from anger to sorrow in an instant. The two most devastating actions of Connor are met with unexpected reactions, and Weaver’s response to her grandson’s shocking behavior is one of deep hurt but also understanding.
Understanding from others can be one of the most difficult things to accept when we are grieving, whether it’s from teachers, parents, friends, or even school bullies. (That’s why the scene with Lily I mentioned in the first paragraph should have been included; it’s the first compassionate moment of understanding which Connor accepts, and it comes as a striking contrast right after the bully’s worst treatment of Connor.) Even without that scene, the most perfect example of understanding and empathy is Felicity Jones’ 100 years speech to her son when she acknowledges the pain and anger he feels, and that scene is every bit as eye-watering here as it was in the book.
Fantasy and stories have always been ways of learning, and in A Monster Calls Connor learns they often do not tell us what we want to hear, and they often do not have the happily-ever-after that we desire, but the messily-ever-after they prepare us for makes them dangerous and beautiful, like this film.
Personal recommendation: A-
Content Advisory: Painful themes of parental loss, some rather nasty school bullying, scenes of fantasy violence and peril, and a mildly risqué animation. MPAA rating: PG-13
Suggested Audience: Teens and up.