“Stories are wild creatures. When you let them loose, who knows what havoc they might wreak?”
This evening, I joined some friends at the cinema. We didn’t know what we would see, as we were attending ‘Screen Unseen’, where a secret, pre-release film is aired. So I came without preconceptions, and
A Monster Calls is a strange beast. Based on an idea which could not be developed prior to the creator’s death, Patrick Ness wrote both the book and subsequent screenplay, and in some ways it is what you would expect from Patrick Ness; YA fantasy which deals with a range of personal and cultural themes. Yet even a genre as broad as YA fantasy struggles to contain A Monster Calls which feels like a cross between The Iron Giant and A Christmas Carol.
The overarching plot concerns standard YA fare of fractured families, bullying and illness. It is solid and well delivered by a cast which largely captures “messily ever after” as the reality of modern life. Particularly strong in that capacity is Toby Kebbell, who plays the estranged father of the lead, and is entirely plausible as a man who muddles through, distracted by other concerns. The younger actors are less compelling – as is so often the case. A bullying sub-plot is under-developed and slightly wooden. Lewis MacDougall, who plays the protagonist Conor O’Malley, does not demonstrate a particularly wide artistic range, but he is nonetheless convincing as a withdrawn adolescent struggling to deal with family collapse (perhaps because such a character does not need to portray much more than anger and sadness). Overall, the primary plot is somewhat obvious and stilted, but will still prove cathartic to the more emotional audience members.
The pacing is occasionally frustrating. The film relies on the telling of stories within the narrative, and also on dream sequences, giving an unhelpfully episodic feel. In contrast, the cinematography and art feel faultless. Sections of the film use beautifully animated water-colour to tell stories, in a style reminiscent of the tale of the three brothers in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Live action sections perhaps over-emphasise pathetic fallacy, but they do so beautifully. In one scene Conor and his grandmother are waiting at a level crossing, while rain drums on car windows. The effect of view of trees outside the car, seen in half-light through a wet window makes the background itself look like watercolour. Other parts of the plot focus heavily on art and illustration; I had not expected to take such pleasure in a film of someone drawing.
What really brings A Monster Calls to life, though, are the fantasy elements, driven by Liam Neeson’s Monster (itself wonderfully rendered, feeling both life like and as though it has been pulled straight from the book’s illustrations). The Monster, a tree-spirit rooted in the landscape, who has the slow mannerisms of Treebeard or the eponymous Iron Giant, seems to grow from the scenery, even when indoors, being somehow a character and scenery at once. And it is the Monster which brings out the rich themes of the film. At one level, the Monster provides an education in loss for the Conor. More important, however, are the inter-woven ideas of hope, and story.
We are told that “belief is half of all healing”, yet the healing expected does not come. What is offered instead, is a healing unlooked-for, a learning to accept the world as it is; to recognise what to hold on to, and what to let go. The Monster does this through stories – stories which show the world, not in black and white, but in shades of grey. His stories are true, and they help explain the complexity of the world to Conor, who is still learning to accept that not every story has a hero and a villain.
Many people I know put great store in the power of stories to explain the world. Stories offer a means to understand the world beyond the story – whether they concern life and death, sexuality, God or just people. When the Monster notes that “Stories are important. They can be more important than anything. If they carry the truth.”, he is speaking for Ness, who has staunchly defended public Libraries and Librarians as vital resources to help young people understand the world.
In 2016, these feel like very important themes. In a year where hope seems to vanish, and where we seem constantly astounded by the world in which we live, stories are vital. It is because of our failure to listen to, and understand other people’s stories that we have seen rifts tearing across societies. The Monster notes that “There is not always a good guy. Nor is there always a bad one. Most people are somewhere in between” – we must accept this as a starting point if we are to rebuild our world. And yes, I know that listening to the people who voted for Trump, or who chose to target innocent civilians in acts of terror will not, alone fix the problems against which they reacted, but we must begin by listening, and in turn telling our stories. They may weak havoc, but sometimes that is necessary.
I do have another point of contention with Ness. The Monster claims that “You do not write your life with words…You write it with actions. What you think is not important. It is only important what you do.” This seems to ignore the fact that to put an idea into words is to give it life. Words matter more than this might suggest. Ideas matter. Because hope is an idea, and we must hope. Belief is half of all healing. This feels like a time for healing.