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From page to screen: A Monster Calls

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Reading time: 4 minutes

The ‘From page to screen’ series takes a look at the journey of a piece of writing (be it novel, non-fiction, play etc.) to the screen and other manifestations.

A Monster Calls is the fourth article in the series.

Siobhan Dowd and Patrick Ness’ A Monster Calls was released in 2011 and is deliberately listed as being for ‘children and adults’. It’s a rare approach, but completely accurate for its story. A bullied teenage boy whose mother is seriously sick with cancer is visited by a monster. The book won prestigious literary awards and was on many ‘book of the year’ lists. It was made into a film in 2016.

In this piece, I’ll address the edition of the story illustrated by Jim Kay – I won’t cover the 2018 stage adaptation at The Old Vic.

The novel

“And now it’s time to hand the baton to you. Stories don’t end with the writers, however many started the race. Here’s what Siobhan and I came up with. So go. Run with it. Make Trouble.”

– Patrick Ness, introduction to A Monster Calls.

The almost pitch black cover of A Monster Calls, with a gigantic tree-like creature towering silhouetted over a small house, sets the foreboding tone of the text within. Thirteen-year-old Conor is suffering at home and school. While his mother is in and out of hospital for cancer treatment, he has to spend time with his grandmother, but the two have a strained relationship.

Conor’s father lives abroad with his new family, so Conor is seemingly all alone, until a monster calls. This hulking, talking tree beast crashes into Conor’s life, telling stories of his past and demanding a truth from the young lad. As the monster’s tales twist like twine around Conor, he’s suffocated by the real world, too. Floundering, lost in the woods, seeking his truth.

Patrick Ness’ text is accessible for children and devastatingly understated for adults. Combined brilliantly with Jim Kay’s artwork which weaves around and frames the prose, A Monster Calls is engrossing, to say the least. The artwork is so superb that it’s allowed as much paper as the words of the story. It would be an embittered critic who found fault with it all.

It’s a sad, yet inspiring read – but there’s more to it.

What Ness’ previous quote refers to is not just the philosophical concept of authorship, but also that he was passed the baton himself by Siobhan Dowd. The writer conceived the story before she died of breast cancer at only forty-seven. It’s not difficult to see where her inspiration for A Monster Calls comes from and it adds raw, thick roots which ground the fantasy in painful reality.

The film

“Adults actually have a tougher time than younger readers do,” says Ness. “Adults have more experience of loss and more experience of the fear of loss.”

BBC article on A Monster Calls.

Although it deals with the concept of losing a young mother, A Monster Calls is symbolic of the struggle everyone faces when losing a parent or loved one, whatever age they may be. Loss is loss and no amount of rationalising or putting it in different boxes will temper the searing pain that grief inflicts. Ness is well aware of the challenges to different ages, Dowd was mortally aware of all aspects and Kay perfectly pitched those emotions in art.

There were several main challenges faced by the creative team responsible for bringing A Monster Calls to the big screen in 2016. These included but weren’t limited to, how to keep the tone without alienating either adults or children and how to respect the source material’s iconic, symbiotic style and substance without being a simple homage.

Hiring director J. A. Bayona was a wonderful start. His ability to broach difficult subject matter with broad (and suitable) appeal was painfully evident to anyone who saw The Impossible. The Impossible received a 12 certificate in the UK, despite covering the real-life death of thousands and featuring several gruesome, upsetting scenes.

The film’s artwork, a smooth blend of 2D and 3D animation with live action, is a seamless transition from the book. On screen, A Monster Calls is beautiful in its own right, but still recognisable to fans of its paper parent. Like all good cinema which grows from the page should, it builds on the words. Bayona’s film works the symbolism of the novel onto the screen in a way that, while slightly heavier handed, fits the medium well.

What’s striking is the subtle genius of the effects. Yes the monster is a well-rendered CGI beast, but it’s the production design and make up which are most effective. Conor’s world appears almost flat, bland and banal as to not be noteworthy, which strike home the message of both the novel and the film.

Anyone who’s seen the horror and destruction chemotherapy reaps on cancer sufferers will identify with the make up and soft sickening slide from health inflicted on Conor’s mum (we never hear her name). Her simple decay and the ordinariness of the world it happens in, contrasting with the vibrant, fantasy world the monster brings to Conor, is excellent film making.

A Monster Calls‘ big screen appearance places horror in the real world with a gentleness of touch. The audience feels for the boy as he struggles, torn between two worlds which encroach on one another. Both the book and film focus on loss, but more, the fear of loss. Something very overlooked.

Fear is a terrible, destructive thing. Impossible to avoid in many ways. If you let it, fear will find a centre in you, chew it up and leave. If you let it, it’ll reap irreparable damage known only to you.

What A Monster Calls conveys so potently is that we’re all that child – we’re all Conor. We all feel vulnerable and pathetic in the fear of saying goodbye to someone we love. Most poignantly, we all feel guilty for feeling like that, for the selfish sorrow.

None of us wants to speak our truth, not really.

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