a monster calls

review by caolainn daly

A Monster Calls is an adaptation of a beloved children’s novella of the same name. It deals with the sorrowful tale of a boy being forced to come to terms with his mother’s terminal illness. The story of how the book was written is itself a rather touching one. The idea for the novella was conceived by the late Siobhán O’Dowd while she was terminally ill. She sadly passed away before she could see the novella come to fruition. Patrick Ness, who shared the same editor as O’Dowd, took on the mantle of writing the story in her legacy. Ness himself was heavily involved in producing the film, being credited as an executive producer as well as writing the screenplay. The result is a film that follows closely to the source material and only for the better.

The premise of the film is that the mother of a young boy named Conor O’Malley is terminally ill. Bye and bye O’Malley encounters a monster. Think Groot if Groot was on the ‘roids. The monster emerges from the form of a dormant yew tree that has stood by his house for ages gone by, with much panache and visual delight as he approaches menacingly and reveals his resolve to the young boy. He says that he will tell three tales on three occasions and when the time is right O’Malley will tell him a fourth. The stories presented to him are moral dilemmas and are themselves animated with wonderful care and attention and run freely with elements of fantasy, telling of times of dragons, knights and witches.

The young Lewis McDougall takes on the role of the courageous but troubled Conor O’Malley with confidence and with a rawness that is most impressive. Liam Neeson, as always, also impresses, as the voice of the Monster. “I’ve come for you, O’Malley,” his opening words, are delivered broodingly, and from there he cleans up, providing a character that has huge presence whenever he appears. The  CGI is handled well and used sparingly. The Monster of course is rendered through CGI but his inclusion is treated, from a directorial perspective, very tactfully. Quite often the divide between reality and fantasy is blurred and the Monster’s supernatural presence has a very solid grounding. It helps in making the story very real, and I believe the story excels in this regard.

As in the novella, the Monster “calls” to help O’Malley come to terms with the difficulties he’s facing. The Monster teaches him certain values and principles that have some very deliberate echoes or counterparts in Conor’s reality. The infinitely likeable Felicity Jones plays the frail and poorly mother who shares a special relationship with her son and whom Conor cannot bear entertain being gone. Sigourney Weaver appears too, as the well-meaning but perhaps misunderstood grandmother who is the centrefold in one of the Monster’s stories that may leave you surprisingly cold (in a good way). The Monster ultimately teaches him of truths and hardships by taking him on a fraught journey that sees him come of age and come to terms with himself.

If you’re considering seeing the film, I implore you to read the source material if you haven’t yet. The film is a love letter to the novella (be it deliberate or accidental) and wears its reverence to its source material proudly. As a film, it is very good. As an adaptation, it is excellent. There is something special in seeing the material being translated to film so deftly, which alone makes the novella worth reading. It is an adaptation that succeeds in rendering the material as you had hoped it would be. It has heart and soul in spades, wears these on its sleeve and will leave you with something in your eye maybe many a time before the final credits roll.