Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Felicity Jones, Lewis MacDougall, Liam Neeson
Director: J. A. Bayona
Produced by: Focus Features, River Road Entertainment
“Courage conquers all.”
A Monster Calls is the 2016 film based on the book of the same name by Patrick Ness. Unlike many film adaptations I’ve encountered, the movie was also written by Ness which allows for the book and movie to go hand in hand. I read the book first — urged on by many of my students and co-workers. One even told me it was, “absolutely the best book I’d ever read,” and I thought that was high praise coming from an English teacher. I devoured the book and the very same day, with every detail of the story fresh in my mind, I watched the movie.
Even though the movie and the book both look, at first glance, as though they belong in the horror genre, that is not the case. The story portrays a young boy, Conor O’Malley (played by Lewis MacDougall of Pan), who has terrible nightmares. He expects one monster — the one from his dreams — to visit him every night. One night, however, the wrong monster comes. He is a hulking, tree-like figure that rips the walls from his house and scoops Conor from his bedroom and roars and shakes him…only to find that Conor is not afraid. The monster (voiced by Liam Neeson of Schindler’s List and The Grey) finds the boy’s bravery disturbing and tells him he will return to him to tell him three stories. As the movie goes on, we learn that Conor lives alone with his ill mother, suffers being bullied at school, and deals with strict and invasive family members who make his already difficult life more unhappy.
Bayona and Ness do a wonderful job of keeping the themes and feelings of the story authentic. Even without being exposed to the book, we get a complete story with many beautiful details and enough character development to make us feel for every single person involved. Even characters who are framed as antagonists in the story are relatable. As I watched, I understood why my co-worker had said it was the best book she’d read. As a teacher, it gave me a unique perspective on students that seem to be ‘acting out’ or that always seem to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. MacDougall did a fantastic job for a young actor. As the character’s emotion grew, MacDougall’s acting became more raw and relatable. The boy’s relationships with every other character in the movie were clear as soon as he stepped into a scene with them. Even the distinction between his mother, with whom Conor is very close, and his grandmother, with whom Conor is not so friendly, was evident just by him glancing between the two women.
The effects in this film, although largely dependent on CGI, did not detract from the story at all. I am partial to practical effects, but the line between magic and reality is extremely blurred, and a mixture of CGI and visual arts create a perfect understanding of the situations. The stories told by the monster were displayed as a sort of moving painting that gave the movie a pleasantly fantastical feeling which was much needed in the harsh face of reality that followed every other part of the film. The stories, though they are used as a catalyst for the morals to be learned, are a welcome break from the constantly-stressful everyday dealings that Conor must endure.
The end of the film will wreck you. Once it is revealed to the audience what is really going on, they are treated to a resolution so raw and so real that one can’t help but feel attached to the characters and what they are experiencing. For those that have dealt with family illness, especially at a young age, this story will hit you hard. However, as sad as the ending of the film is, it feels complete and almost satisfying. The writer even added a scene at the end of the movie that is not included in the book. For me, this twenty-second clip tied an even nicer bow around the whole package and even gives a last shred of hope after a beautiful resolution.
Fool on the Hill
I have not seen a movie this beautiful or moving in a long time. There’s action, a bit of comedy, an interesting setting, compelling characters…I would recommend this movie to anyone who was looking for something to watch. It is a little bit heavy, but I believe it’s worth it to see such a nice film.