“But what is a dream, Conor O’Malley? Who is to say that it is not everything else that is the dream?”
I’d been looking forward to seeing A Monster Calls since I first saw the trailer, and since I heard that the book’s author, Patrick Ness, had also written screenplay. In my experience, that’s usually a good sign. But I read the book about four years ago, so even though I remembered the general idea of what happened, the details were a little fuzzy. So the day after watching the movie I spent an afternoon rereading the book. I was actually pretty surprised at how similar the movie was, even down to some of the dialogue.
If you don’t know the story of A Monster Calls, I would suggest you stop reading now because I’ll ruin it for you and I would hate to do that. Just go read the book or watch the movie (or both if you’re a super nerd like me) and come back later.
A Monster Calls tells the story of a young boy, Conor, who is losing his mother to a terminal illness and who copes with his feelings with the help of a yew tree aka the Monster. Ever since people learned of his mother’s illness, Conor feels invisible. People either don’t look at him or look at him differently. He wants so much for someone to see him, even if that means getting punished for something. It’s a heartbreaking theme that is present in both the book and the movie.
Conor’s strained relationship with his grandmother plays out really well in the film. In the book he says that he doesn’t like her because she talks to him “like he was an employee under evaluation.” She wears pantsuits and has a house full of things you can’t touch. In other words, she’s not like normal grandmothers. But they warm up to each other eventually. I’m still not sure how I feel about Sigourney Weaver as the grandmother though. Was the accent good or the worst ever? I don’t know.
I have to give director J.A. Bayona and basically everyone involved with the movie a lot of credit because they somehow managed to keep the feel of the book the same on the screen. I was impressed that many of the scenes were just as powerful to watch as they were to read. For example, when we’re first introduced to the Monster. I loved reading the description on the page just as much as I enjoyed seeing it come to life on the screen:
“As Conor watched, the uppermost branches of the tree gathered themselves into a great and terrible face, shimmering into a mouth and nose and even eyes, peering back at him. Other branches twisted around one another, always creaking, always groaning, until they formed two long arms and a second leg to set down beside the main trunk. The rest of the tree gathered itself into a spine and then a torso, the thin, needle-like leaves weaving together to make a green, furry skin that moved and breathed as if there were muscles and lungs underneath.”
Because the book and the movie are so similar, there really aren’t too many differences to talk about. I did find it interesting that the movie cut out the character of Lily. In the book, Lily is Conor’s childhood friend who betrays him by telling everyone that his mom is sick. She spends most of the book trying to win back his friendship, by defending him from the bullies at school and, towards the end, apologizing in a note. I felt like their friendship could have been developed more in the book, so I’m not surprised they left it out of the movie.
In the book Conor doesn’t draw like he does in the film. He does mention writing stories, although it’s not a big part of his character. Making him an artist for the movie version was probably just the filmmakers’ way of bringing the illustrations into it. I think it worked quite well. And another small difference I noticed was that the book only says his dad is from America but in the movie it’s specifically mentioned that he moved to LA. One of my favourite quotes from the book is when Conor tells his dad, “You talk like American television.” Cheeky.
Both the book and the movie try hard to teach you a lesson, but the movie does it in a more obvious way. I agree with this New Yorker review when it makes the point that the movie is guilty of spelling things out a little too clearly for the audience:
“The movie delivers its meaning repeatedly to make sure that no one misses the point; its lessons, rendered even more explicitly than the ones in Conor’s classroom, are missing only the chalkboard and pointer.”
Take the scene in the movie where Conor and his mom are watching King Kong together on the couch. When he asks why people want to kill King Kong, his mom says, “People don’t like what they don’t understand. They get scared.” Okay, okay. We get it.
Overall I noticed that the film gave the impression that Conor was much closer with his mom than in the book, which might explain why I was a mess of tears by time he says: “I don’t want you to go” at the end. The book didn’t make me cry. It made me feel something but it didn’t make me cry.
A Monster Calls will probably live on the Staff Picks shelf in every bookstore in the world for the rest of time but the movie wasn’t exactly a box-office success. I thought the adaptation was really well done, but at the end of the day the story deals with some pretty serious themes and that doesn’t always sell tickets. There are some harsh reviews of A Monster Calls out there, like this one from the Federalist that makes the argument that the movie was actually too much like the book (honestly, you can’t please book lovers sometimes). And this one from The Atlantic that says:
“A Monster Calls is at once trying to subvert children’s fairytales and become a classic in that genre. But it ends up succeeding at neither goal, instead leaning on obvious, manipulative storytelling tactics to ineptly tie its two narratives together.”
If I had read those reviews before watching the movie, I might not have liked it as much as I did, which is the reason I only read reviews for books and movies after I’ve made up my own mind.