English author Siobhan Dowd was an award-winning writer of four children’s books, but she fell ill with cancer while planning her fifth book and passed away in 2007. Her editor, with whom she’d discussed the book, asked another of her writers, Patrick Ness, if he’d write the book based on Dowd’s idea. Ness agreed, though he had the freedom to take the story wherever he felt it had to go. Jim Kay was recruited to illustrate the story. After its 2011 publication, “A Monster Calls” won the Carnegie and Greenway Medals for the best children’s book and the best illustrations, a rare double win. Now Ness has adapted A Monster Calls to the screen
“The story begins, as many stories do, with a boy and a nightmare.” Twelve-year-old Conor (Lewis MacDougall) has a lot to deal with: he’s bullied every day by three lugheads at his school, his father left him and his mother and moved from England to California, his grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) doesn’t know how to relate to him, and his mother (Felicity Jones) with whom he has his deepest personal connection is chronically sick. Then at 12:07 am, after awaking from a recurring nightmare, a monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) comes to call on Conor. The monster informs Conor that he will tell him three stories. After that, Conor will need to tell him about his nightmare. The stories the monster tells, though, are like nothing Conor expects, filled with ambiguity and frustrating twists.
Twelve is an awkward age, the point of transition between childhood and adulthood. It’s also a time for a new awareness of the world around them, and A Monster Calls does an incredible job of portraying that change in Conor. The simplistic system of bad behavior followed by punishment breaks down, leaving him bewildered. When Conor eventually acts out at school but doesn’t receive the punishment he expects. It’s left to his school’s principal (Geraldine Chaplin in a poignant cameo role) to explain the change in a simple, devastating sentence.
The performances are incredible. Liam Neeson could read a grocery list and keep you spellbound, and Felicity Jones is having a stellar fall between this movie and Rogue One. But it’s a veteran and a novice that steal the movie. Sigourney Weaver takes the role of the grandmother that could have been a complete stereotype – at one point she actually tells Conor not to touch anything in her house – and invests the role with grace and humanity. The movie, though, belongs to MacDougall in his second film and his first lead role. He’s blessed with eyes that speak volumes even when he’s sitting still.
Director J.A. Bayona has worked mostly in his native Spain whose only other English film was the powerful story of the Boxing Day Tsunami, The Impossible, which consequentially also had a coming of age element to the story. He’ll likely be much better known soon as he’s been tabbed to direct the Jurassic World sequel due in 2018. Bayona blends the fantastic with the everyday and lets the story play out with heartrending power. Especially beautiful are the animation sequences that illustrate the monster’s stories. Led by Juan Ramon Pou, the water color style of the images are magical and capture the feel of children’s books.
We’re now well into award season and the theaters are filled with worthy films. It would be easy to overlook A Monster Calls, but that would be a crime. This is not just a story for tweens but one for everyone who once was a child and remembers the confusion and pain of the transition to adulthood. It also is a chance for those of us who have seen many years pass by to reconnect with the wonder of childhood.
Pack a couple of tissues when you see it; you’ll need them.