A Monster Calls (Film)
A Monster Calls
Release Date: January 6th, 2017 (Toronto Film Festival: September 10th, 2016. Limited Release: December 23rd, 2016.)
Distributor: Focus Features
Directed by: J. A. Bayona
Starring: Lewis MacDougall, Felicity Jones, Sigourney Weaver, Toby Kebbell, James Melville, and Liam Neeson
Conor O'Malley is not in a good place right now. His mother has cancer, and the treatments she receives make her too tired to stay awake, leaving Conor to take care of the food and housework. His father is out of the picture for awhile, having moved to L.A. with his new wife and their daughter. His grandmother is trying to force him to live in her museum of a home. He's bullied at school. He has been suffering from a recurring nightmare night after night. And to make matters worse, he's was being visited by a tremendous monster that springs out of a yew tree in a church yard behind the house. The monster informs him that he will tell Conor three stories, each concerning the last time he was "called," and finally Conor must tell him a fourth story, the "truth": the nightmare that plagues him in his sleep.
A Monster Calls is the adaptation of the novel of the same name, and follows it almost exactly. There are a few significant changes: for one, the character of Conor's school friend Lily is completely absent. Additionally, both Conor and his mother (given the name "Lizzie" in the film) are artists, and Conor's focus in school goes towards the doodles in his book. There is also a significant change to the ending, but more on that later.
Other than these changes, the movie plays out almost exactly as the book does, which makes sense when you see that author Patrick Ness is also the screenwriter. In fact, many of Jim Kay's gorgeous illustrations are recreated as scenes on the screen, and familiar shots of the monster clutching the top of Conor's home or crouching inside his grandmother's living room are shown mirror-image to the illustrations. Much of the dialogue is also taken from the book verbatim, although the witty banter between Conor and the monster has been reduced, and some of the monster's better lines are excised completely. The reason for this is the change in the monster's personality which differs from his literary counterpart. In the book, he is an ageless being of myth and legend, come down from the eons to illuminate truth. His only love is tough love, he refuses to be disrespected by a mere boy, no matter what his purpose. In the movie, the monster is something else entirely (again, more on that later), and a far softer force, more mentor than monster, more story-teller than force of nature.
The overall design and CGI for the monster, as well as Liam Neeson's performance, are very well done. Neeson's voice lends itself well to the monster's rumbling sagacity, even if at times his deliver seems a bit rushed. His performance is accentuated by that of an incredibly stellar cast. Lewis McDougall's Conor is the very epitome of an emotionally torn child, and he gives his all in ever scene. Felicity Jones's role as the mother is heart-wrenching, even though we mostly see her in bits and pieces (again, where was this Jones during Inferno?). To bring it all together is the phenomenal Sigourney Weaver, who probably gives the best performance in the film, and along with Neeson has already been nominated for several awards for her performance.
Every time the monster appears, the film takes on a different tone, and the transition from depression to "sobering-whimsy" is very well done. The monster doesn't bring levity: he is simply a small burst of energy and awe in what is a very deep and troubling story. The stories the monster tells merit special attention. They are gorgeously rendered in an animated version of the same water-color style that Conor uses in his own artwork (as he's the one imagining them as they are told). They remind me of the animated scenes made by Framestore for the "Tale of the Three Brothers" sequence in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1, which was a highlight for that film as well.
SPOILER WARNING: The most significant and questionable change made between the book and the movie is the "origin" of the monster. After the movie reaches a natural conclusion with the mother's death, the screen fades to black. Instead of switching to the credits, the movie continues to one final scene. Conor is shown his new room in his grandmother's house, and there he finds his mother's art book from when she was a young child. Inside he sees her illustrations of characters from all of the monster's story, culminating in a picture of the monster itself. This implies... I'm not sure what, exactly. That the monster was real? That it knew Conor's mother? Or is he some shared hallucination? They often show photographs of a young Lizzie with her father (represented by Liam Neeson in a brilliant creative decision), who had also died when she was a child. Maybe the monster had taught her the same lessons about life and grief that the monster is now telling Conor? It's possible, but I'm not sure if this change is necessary. It simply adds to the ambiguity about the monster's origin, which isn't the point of the story. If it had ended as the book had, I felt it would have been a stronger conclusion. SPOILERS OVER.
I believe that this is definitely a film worth seeing. It's gorgeous, emotional, well-performed, and imaginative. It certainly ranks up there with one of the most faithful and accurate adaptations I've seen, and I think it does the book justice. Just keep in mind that this is not a lighthearted film. I highly recommend checking out A Monster Calls.