“The answer is that it does not matter what you think, the monster said, because your mind will contradict itself a hundred times each day. You wanted her to go at the same time you were desperate for me to save her. Your mind will believe comforting lies while also knowing the painful truths that make those lies necessary. And your mind will punish you for believing both.”
Directed by J.A. Bayona and based on the book by Patrick Ness, A Monster Calls follows 12-year-old Conor (Lewis MacDougall) who is dealing with his mother’s (Felicity Jones) illness, a less-than-sympathetic grandmother (Sigourney Weaver), his distant father (Toby Kebbell) and his bullying classmates. Amidst his troubles, he finds a most unlikely ally when a Monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) appears at his bedroom window. Ancient, wild, and relentless, the giant yew tree Monster guides Conor on a journey of courage, faith, and truth through a collection of fables.
The following post is a review of the film adaptation in comparison to the book. You can read my review of the book on its own here.
A gothic folktale about hope, processing loss, and letting go, A Monster Calls is an emotional tale with a huge heart, transforming a difficult subject into one of strength and bravery, with a sprinkling of horror and heaps of soul.
It may not be completely original for a coming-of-age story to deal with such a mature and dark subject, but Ness explores the tragedy in a unique way, examining not just the more obvious sadness that’s on the face of it all, but the inner turmoil of his main character.
He does this by creating a horrifying monster to help Conor through his time of need, a visual representation of what’s going on in his mind to help Conor accept the truth of not just his situation, but how he feels about it. As Conor begins to understand his sadness and guilt, he is also forced to face the anger that’s been building up inside of him in order to come to terms with what’s going on.
Capturing the grief process perfectly and developing into a somewhat cathartic story about managing your emotions, it is a healthy approach to grief full of genuine and honest emotions. We don’t often get to see these emotions explored with younger characters, but Ness highlights the importance of opening up to your more negative feelings and not to bury them down.
With Ness having written the screenplay for the film, the dialogue is almost exactly as it is written in the book so the messages come through brilliantly, but it does lose some of the book’s poetic narrative. But whilst it remains quite simple in prose, the adaptation stunningly brings the book’s descriptive imagery to life with striking visuals and powerful performances.
I wrote in my review of the book that the use of fables reminded me of Harry Potter’s The Tales of Beedle the Bard, so I love that these tales are visualised in the same way as The Tale of the Three Brothers were in The Deathly Hallows. The watercolour illustrations are beautifully crafted, bursting with imagination and creativity as they help to distinguish the fantasy elements with Conor’s reality.
Most of all, you can feel every ounce of Conor’s pain through Lewis MacDougall‘s phenomenal performance, which is what makes this adaptation so moving. Just like the book, although not hitting quite as hard, the end of the film packs an emotional punch, as MacDougall builds up the intensity to a final moment of acceptance but also of pure heartbreak.
Felicity Jones, Sigourney Weaver, and Toby Kebbell are all great, too, whilst Liam Neeson brings so much presence to the monster with his voice acting.
A Monster Calls is a compelling story, one that I can only hope my children will never have to face anything like. But, if they do, I will be handing them this book and this film, so that they can cherish this story for themselves.
Differences From The Book:
With Ness having written the script for the film which is based on his own book, there really aren’t many differences at all, but I shall go through the few changes that there are in chronological order:
- In the book, we don’t know that Conor’s nightmare is to do with his mother so we don’t see him holding on to her hand, whereas the film shows this straight away.
- In the book, Conor sees the monster for the first time after having this nightmare. In the film, it skips straight to the next morning.
- In the book, Conor’s mother calls him into her bedroom and they have a conversation. In the film, he only peaks into her room whilst she is asleep.
- In the film, Conor gets a note in class from the bullies. Outside, they grab his tongue. In the book, they trip him up straight away and make his mouth bleed.
- In the book, there is a girl called Lily who sticks up for Conor. She pushes one of the bullies over. We later learn that they aren’t friends any more because Lily is the one who told everybody at school that Conor’s mother was ill. Lily isn’t in the film.
- In the book, there is also a teacher called Miss Kwan who often catches Conor and the bullies outside of class, but Conor always tells her that nothing is going on. Nobody seems to notice the bullying going on in the film.
- In the book, Conor is given a Life Writing assignment which opens up more discussion on the purpose of stories. This isn’t mentioned in the film.
- In the book, Conor talks about the night before his mother told him that she was ill, of how they went fora vindaloo and to the cinema on a school night. We don’t learn about this in the film.
- In the film, Conor and his mother watch films on a projector. This isn’t in the book.
- In the film, Conor draws. This isn’t in the book, either.
- In the film, Conor gets into his mother’s bed after having a nightmare. He doesn’t do this in the book.
- In the film, Conor walks passed the tree and it appears normal. In the book, he sees a face and hears its voice.
- In the book, Conor’s mother warns him that grandma is coming to stay. In the film, he doesn’t know she is coming.
- In the film, the wigs that Grandma gives to Conor’s mother are from a charity shop. In the book, they are hers.
- In the film, the first and second meeting of the monster in the book are merged into one visit.
- In the book, Conor constantly questions whether or not he is dreaming about the monster. He doesn’t do this in the film.
- In the book, Conor notices things happening in his house such as berries on the floor and branches growing out of the floor when he wakes up to make him question whether the monster is real or not. This doesn’t happen in the film. Instead, things in his bedroom move when the monster is approaching.
- In the book, Conor tells his father about the monster on their first meeting and goes into more detail about it. In the film, he doesn’t tell him about it until much later on.
- In the film, Conor’s father takes him to the fairground. They don’t do anything fun together in the book.
- In the book, Conor’s father calls him “sport” and “buddy”, constantly using American terms which annoys Connor. In the film, he only calls Conor “kid”.
- In the film, Conor’s father says “What could possibly be the point in that?” in regards to punishing him. Conor’s teacher also says this later on. In the book, only the teacher says this.
- In the film, Conor’s father talks to him about how he and his mother first met and fell in love. We don’t learn about any of this in the book.
- In the film, Conor’s father says that love isn’t enough and that there are no happily ever afters, just messily ever afters. In the book, it is the monster who talks about stories not all having happily ever afters.
- In the film, Conor’s father finds some old videotapes. Conor’s grandma is later seen watching them. These videotapes aren’t in the book.
- In the book, the monster shows Conor a glimpse at his nightmare only the once. In the film, we see quick glimpses of it often.
- In the book, Conor doesn’t tidy up the mess he has made in his grandma’s living room.
- In the film, the bully knocks juice over Conor’s drawings. In the book, Conor knocks the juice over himself.
- In the book, the monster tells Conor that there are worse things than being invisible. In the film, we only see his classmates all staring at him, implying this.
- In the book, Lily sends Conor a note saying that she’s sorry and that “I see you.” Again, Lily isn’t in the film.
- In the book, Conor asks to leave the hospital and go home for an hour. In the film, he just runs away.
- In the film, there’s a locked room in Conor’s grandma’s house which turns out to be his mother’s old room full of her drawings. This isn’t in the book, nor do we know about his mother going to art school.
A Monster Calls is a great adaptation as it sticks almost completely to the book’s structure and dialogue. With Ness having adapted his own story, this means that nothing gets lost in the transition from page to screen. But whilst the messages come through just as effectively, the film does lack as much of an emotional impact.
Still, the book is one that will remain on my shelf indefinitely because of how well it deals with its subject matter, and Lewis MacDougall, Felicity Jones and Sigourney Weaver all give excellent performances in the adaptation alongside some truly stunning illustrations. This is definitely a coming-of-age story full of meaning and heart that readers of all ages can take a lot away from, with both the book and the film deserving your attention.