It’s been a awhile since I’ve done one of these. Welp, lets dust off the old thinking cap and examine A Monster Calls.
In the early 2000’s, author Siobhan Dowd conceptualized and was contracted to write a story about a young boy who comes to terms with the fact that his mother is dying from cancer. This story, no doubt held very dear to Miss Dowd’s heart as she herself was terminally ill with cancer at the time. Unfortunately, Dowd passed away from complications due to her illness in 2007, and was unable to begin writing the story. Her editor Denise Johnstone-Burt at Walker Books arranged for another writer they represented, Patrick Ness, to complete the book. A Monster Calls was finally published in 2011 and would go on to win the Carnegie and Greenaway Medals for writing and illustration and become a best-seller.
A Monster Calls tells the story of Conor O’Malley, a thirteen year old boy living in present day England. As a result of his mother’s deteriorating condition and constant rounds of chemotherapy Conor has become detached and isolated. On top of that, Conor is also bullied at school, ignored by adults and suffers from a recurring nightmare which he refuses to talk about with anyone, including himself.
What makes this such an intriguing story, is the fact that the book, like the film adaptation that was released late last year, is also a sort of adaptation. A Monster Calls is a story aimed at younger readers, written by one author but is meant to capture the spirit, style, and intention of another.
So how does Patrick Ness go about telling Siobhan Dowd’s story? And how does he preserve this message in the screenplay for the film adaptation?
A Monster Calls (Book)
There are two major components to the way in which this story gets it’s message across. First, is the implementation of it’s narrators. In this story we have two narrators; our main narrator and the Monster. Generally, this story is told from a third-person perspective although the focus is primarily on our protagonist. The narrator goes into great detail describing those thought and feelings that Conor is consciously aware of but rarely, if ever, delves into those around him. Initially, while thinking back on the book, I incorrectly recalled that it was written in the first-person, and only realized it wasn’t after a quick scan of the text. This tendency for the narrator to only describe what Conor consciously sees and feels at that moment, to tell the story purely from his point of view is an interesting and purposeful decision.
This is not the story of a boy and his loved ones dealing with illness. It is not even the story of a boy dealing with other people. This is purely Conor’s story. He is trying to cope with an impossible situation and pivots back and forth between wanting people to embrace and pay attention to him, and wanting to be left alone. Between wanting things to stay exactly the same and wanting things to end. The world is seen through his eyes alone even though he is not the storyteller, which is fitting. The main obstacle that Conor must overcome in this book is to openly speak his truth and tell his story. In this way, it makes quite a lot of sense that the story isn’t told in a first-person narrative.
The second narrator of this story is the Monster. The Monster’s stories interrupt Conor’s on three different occasions and tell of times when he was called upon in the past to come walking. The style of the storytelling is vastly different from the rest of the book. It is theatrical, dramatic, the font style changes, etc. Conor also points out another notable element of the Monster’s storytelling style. Because the Monster is making a point, specific to Conor’s own situation with each story, he is often misleading, hiding the true meaning of the story until the very end and forcing Conor (and us) to alter the way we look at things.
The first story is about a beloved Prince and an Evil witch Queen. The Prince is able to unify his kingdom and bring peace and prosperity to the land after summoning the Monster to get rid of the witch. Yet we find out that the Prince was also a murderer and the Witch had yet to hurt anyone even though she sought power. This story comes as Conor is dealing with his overbearing and stuffy grandmother. The second story is about a parson and a grumpy apothecary. Although the Apothecary was greedy, mean, and refused to help the Parson during his time of need, it was the Parson who was punished for abandoning his faith when things got hard. This story comes as Conor is dealing with his father’s return and his mother’s worsening condition. The final story is of an invisible man, who calls forth the Monster to force people to pay attention to him. As he tells this story Conor lashes out at the school bully who has changed his tactics from casual aggression to spiteful indifference. However, the Monster ends the story by stating that there are worse things than being invisible.
These three stories stand out in stark contrast to the very direct way the narrator describes Conor’s feelings. As the story progresses and Conor comes to terms with his mother’s impending death and his own feelings on the matter he begins to take in to account the feelings of those around him. He notices the grief on his grandmother’s face, the uncertainty and anger in his mother, and the misplaced but well intentioned actions of his former friend.
The second storytelling device this book utilizes is artwork. Now I will be honest here and admit that the book that I read was plain. It wasn’t until I was researching the book later that I realized that the book was initially published with beautiful drawings all throughout. To be honest, I felt I’d been bilked out of an important story component.
This story flourishes on it’s use of imagery, both literary and hand drawn. Shaded in black and grey and without distinguishing features, the reader can place any face to Conor. The artwork is intense, dramatic, and stunning. By using these illustrations throughout the book, A Monster Calls successfully brands it’s story as one meant for younger readers. Yet these dark and intense illustrations sets the story apart from other stories meant for younger kids, setting a serious and somewhat frightening tone.
A Monster Calls (Film)
Last year I did a Book 2 Screen review of Room, a beautiful story told through the eyes of a child. Although it is a very different story than A Monster Calls, it has a few intriguing similarities; the story centers entirely on the perceptions of a young boy, the boy faces a harrowing ordeal with his mother, and the film adaptation is extremely faithful. This last point, how faithful an adaptation it is, can be partially related to another similarity between the two – the writers also penned the screenplays. As a result, the two components that I mentioned earlier (the narrators voice and use of hand drawn imagery) are also used here to get it’s story across.
Since film is a visual medium, an audience cannot see a difference in narration (use of different pronouns and font styles) but the way the film is shot can give a similar impression. Throughout the story, Conor feels very isolated and the film showcases this in a number of ways.
There are large portions of scenes that play out where there is absolutely no sound. No dialogue, no music, no sound effects, nothing. For example, in moments when Conor is left alone in his grandmother’s house, where he is not allowed to touch anything, Conor walks around aimlessly and defiantly runs his fingers across all of her things. This happens both in the middle of the movie, and in the final scenes of the movie, where his grandmother’s house is now his permanent home and walks up the stairs to his mother’s old room (now his room). We also get these completely silent moments immediately following the scene where he destroys his grandmother’s prized room and after letting go of his mother in his nightmare. All of these scenes showcase moments of extreme loneliness and isolation and often come after a very large, loud, or dramatic moment. The movie also keeps the focus squarely on Conor and his feelings. There are little to no scenes that go on that Conor is not a part of. The audience sees what Conor sees and knows what he knows.
That is until he hears the stories from the Monster.
Two of the Monsters three stories are artfully animated in watercolors. They literally paint a picture for the audience as they tell these stories, much in line with the art style of the book. This creates a fanciful and dreamlike atmosphere. A stark contrast to the dark, grey, muted world Conor finds himself in. This artwork is also remarkably similar to that of the book. Just type in “A Monster Calls artwork” in a Google search engine and the book art and movie art are sometimes hard to tell apart. I thought this attention to detail was not only considerate to the source material but also aided in translating the story’s meaning to the new medium.
But How Do They Differ?
In general, this film adaptation is very faithful. But what does it do differently. Honestly, not that much.
The main differences between the two stories are omissions that the film made. For example, the book introduces a young girl that used to be a very close friend of Conor’s. However, their friendship halts after the girl innocently mentions to others that Conor’s mother has cancer. Conor holds a lot of resentment for having his family matters the subject of public scrutiny and pity. The film also doesn’t introduce one recurring teacher in the story who seems aware of the issues Conor is facing at home but seems unable to be of any help to him. However, I believe there was nothing lost by removing these characters from the film, as the sense of awkwardness and isolation they contributed to was already being addressed in a more artistic way in the film.
Speaking of which, the film also veered from the book by adding an element. In the film, Conor and his mother share a love of painting and drawing. This gives the film more opportunities to showcase art similar to that of the book. This fact takes on special significance at the very end of the film where, instead of ending in the hospital room like the book does, the film ends with Conor now living with his grandmother, taking over his mother’s old childhood room, and discovering that she also drew the Monster as a child. This creates an implication that does not exist in the book, that the Monster exists separately from Conor’s mind and, in fact, helped guide his mother the same way.
This is a huge departure from the book, where we never see the Monster interact with anyone other than Conor. Although there are moments after Conor’s encounters with the monster that we see physical evidence of the visit, such as branches and berries from the Yew tree in his room, we have no implication that the Monster truly exists outside of Conor’s mind. Actually, the fact that the Monster knows about Conor’s dream and wha it means and, the fact that Conor keeps calling him fake, the fact that the damage that the Monster causes always disappears whenever an adult arrives on the scene, and that from their first meeting Conor is surprisingly unafraid of this giant talking tree, seems to support the idea that the Monster is a manifestation of Conor’s mind and that Conor knows it. The ending of the movie suggests something all together different, and departs from the book in a major way.
How does this change the story? Well it shifts the focus from being a Conor centric tale to a Conor and his mother story. In the book, the Monster seems to be something Conor himself creates, encouraged by his mother’s fondness for the Yew tree in order to cope with his impending loss. In the film, it seems to take on the form of his mother’s guidance and protection. You see them in home videos drawing the monster together and at the end, you see drawings she made of the monster as a child. In this instance, it is as though the mother is leaving Conor the Monster as a gift. The change marks a shift of intention. What is the audience meant to garner? The book would more likely be read by younger readers. The book aims to tell these young readers the be strong in the face of loss. Conor learns to cope by calling forth the Monster and facing his fears. The movie, on the other hand, is more likely to be seen by families. The story then becomes, even when facing loss, you aren’t alone.
The result is a film that is just as dramatic, sad, and artistic but with a brighter edge.
I have to admit, I actually think I enjoyed the movie a bit more than the book this time around, but that may be due in part to the fact that I didn’t get a version of the book that was illustrated. Yet, I was pleasantly surprised how well it translated to film. A bit melodramatic at times, but all in all, a satisfying and gorgeous story to watch unfold.