Film adaptions of Young Adult novels are not the anomaly they once were thanks to the huge success of the Harry Potter, Twilight, and Hunger Games film series. The duds along the way are mostly forgotten about (I Am Number Four was more befitting the title I Am A Huge Bore), but the gamble seems to be worth it enough to keep trying. Indeed, A Monster Calls is the first Patrick Ness novel to receive the big screen treatment, but it is not the last with his Chaos Walking series set to star Daisy Ridley and Tom Holland.
Having A Monster Calls in cinemas at the same time as Manchester by the Sea is cruel, and necessitates La La Land joining them so that everyone can perk back up again. A largely metaphorical and fantastical story of grief compared to Manchester’s realism, A Monster Calls follows young Conor O’Malley as he struggles to deal with his mother’s increasingly hopeless fight with cancer. The impressive yew tree outside his window takes on a monstrous form whenever Conor is somewhere between awake and asleep, and always at 12:07, paying him visits and offering to tell him fairytale-like stories.
The scenes featuring the monster (voiced by Liam Neeson (have any journos used Liam Treeson yet?)) are what set the film apart. Each story is beautifully animated, not unlike The Tale of the Three Brothers from The Deathly Hallows, and it is not until you see something so beautiful on the big screen that you are reminded how inundated with similar kinds of animation in film we are. There is a magical quality to these scenes which make you feel every part the listener as Conor does.
Through these stories, a timely message of conflict is conveyed. As sociopolitical disagreements become more binary and have less moral ambiguity, the monster seeks to remind Conor that human emotions and actions are not so simple to be placed in ‘good’ and ‘bad’ categories. Conor’s internal struggle is multilayered, creating a cycle where his anger is often fed by his own inability to make sense of what he feels.
Director J. A. Bayona’s previous credits includes The Orphanage, which was presented by Guillermo del Toro, lending A Monster Calls a certain credibility – although plenty of us know better, the Young Adult tag can lower expectations and prepare you for something that batters you over the head rather than deal with nuance. As visually striking as The Orphanage at times it may be, but it has more in common with del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, looking to fantasy to make sense with and deal with reality. The novel’s genre frees the film of pretension and allows for subtleties that are rewarding and key to your emotional understanding of the story’s arc.
It is a tearjerker sure enough, but as a fantasy film it shows how we can cope with tragedy, and that our reactions to sadness are not what we always want them to be. Its direct approach in showing Conor’s physical reactions to his confusion gives the film a visceral feeling – no amount of stories can make the bad things in life go away. Certain family drama aspects fall a little flat, but mostly A Monster Calls is a proud and mature story that feels more heartfelt than a lot of its contemporaries.