'A Monster Calls' and the value of fantasy as escapism

22 Dec 2016 BY Elinor Walpole in Film Features

7 mins
A Monster Calls
A Monster Calls

Closely adapted by screenwriter Patrick Ness from his own novel, A Monster Calls focuses on the experiences of Conor, a 12-year-old boy who is facing up to his single mother's serious illness. Despite tackling a difficult subject matter, the film embraces the power of personal resilience and the place of creativity as part of the healing process. In fact, the creation of the novel itself was a response to illness, as the book had been started by author Siobhan Dowd, but was handed over to Patrick Ness to develop and finish after Dowd succumbed to cancer in 2007.

The story hinges on Conor's personal conflict - he is not quite a boy, but not yet a man - as he finds himself dealing with one of the biggest and most serious issues of all, not knowing whether his shoulders are broad enough yet to bear such a weight. Director Juan Antonio Bayona, who previously made The Impossible and The Orphanage, was attracted to the project because, like his prior films, it involved a character on the cusp of a life-altering experience which demands that they rise to meet it ready or not. 

As so much of the story is focused around Conor, even the film's sets are designed to reveal his emotions. Along with a commitment to realism that saw grey and foggy days from the north of England recreated in a studio in Barcelona, using muted lighting and specially imported grass, the interior sets - including Conor's home and his grandmother's house - were designed to reflect how Conor feels about them. His grandmother's house, where he must stay during his mother's hospital visits, is a place of formality and strict rules. As such, the set designers chose dull colours, imposing furniture and straight lines, with the dimensions scaled up to represent how intimidated and small Conor feels in that space. In his own home, meanwhile, the set is filled with creative clutter, with personality and memories of special moments everywhere, and the walls have been curved in to represent how embraced and close to his mother Conor feels when at home.

In order to process his emotions, Conor is set a challenge by a monster that appears to him at night, taking the form of a tree that his mother admires from their back window. He must listen to three stories that the monster will tell him, before then telling his own story. Conor is initially reluctant to take the monster seriously - could his mind be playing tricks on him? He is frustrated by the distraction that the monster presents; he doesn't have time to listen to stories when he has much bigger issues to be dealing with, not least of all trying to keep the daily routines going while his mother is too weak to leave her bed. However, the monster's stories ultimately provide a brightness during Conor's dark times, and are brought to life on screen using vivid, flowing watercolour-style animation that expands on Jim Kay's illustrations from the book.

Stories acting as escapism from bigger issues is a theme that appears in many different films. In Pan's Labyrinth (which shares many of the visual effects crew from A Monster Calls) there is a foreboding fantasy world which helps a girl named Ofelia escape from the cruelties of her stepfather. In Labyrinth, a young girl is challenged to make her way through a fantastical maze to retrieve her kidnapped baby brother in an effort to teach her a lesson about responsibility, love, and being careful what you wish for.

Conor and his mother share a love of monsters, and they bond over monster movies. Unable to express their fears to one another, instead they immerse themselves in disasters on an epic scale, and sympathise with the set-upon King Kong in the classic 1933 film. In our young reporter Billy's interview with JA Bayona, (which you can view below), the director reveals the contradiction that he believes Kong represents as a monster that the audience can root for, and his belief that monsters are not one-dimensional. Even in films aimed at younger audiences that touch on similarly weighty topics, such as Pete's Dragon, the 'monsters' tend to be best understood by children who are able to see their kinder side. Studio Ghibli's My Neighbour Totoro also features an enigmatic forest monster who helps two girls cope with the new circumstances around their mothers illness. 

The special effects used to create the tree monster in A Monster Calls were created using traditional techniques, with a crew of thirty artists and four hydraulics specialists working to bring the fantastical creature to life. Inspired by King Kong in his construction, different elements were created separately to create different effects for the different ways Conor interacts with the monster. For example, its head and shoulders were designed for storytelling sequences; its arms and hands for when handling Conor; and its feet were made to help to show the scale of the creature. Over 200 drawings were created to visualise what the monster would look like in 3D form, but the vision always remained true to Jim Kay's original illustrations, which do so much to bring the magic of the text alive. 

Conor shares his mother's passion for art and drawing, just like Bridge to Terabithia's Jess, who also uses fantasy to cope with similar alienation and bullying to that which Conor experiences. In Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, budding filmmaker Greg also harnesses creativity as he finds a new means of expression while he struggles with the enormity of his feelings. 

Facing up to potential tragedy brings up negative and confusing feelings for Conor, and under pressure to keep up a brave front, his response is to break things. Just as Max in Where the Wild Things Are processes his anger and frustration by becoming king of the monsters, Conor must learn to understand his own feelings through his dealings with the tree monster. The portrayal of everything that Conor is feeling as valid and necessary make this a film that is supportive, without being ever being patronising.

Explore the themes of A Monster Calls further with our Into Film Recommends podcast below, or log in to SoundCloud to download the podcast and listen on the go.

The Into Film Recommends Podcast Series is also available on iTunes.

Director J. A. Bayona talks A Monster Calls

In the interview below, director J. A. Bayona discusses how he dealt with complex issues without sugarcoating them, why King Kong (1939) was a particular inspiration, and why fantasy and film are important for helping people deal with real issues.

Patrick Ness talks A Monster Calls

In the interview below, Patrick Ness, screenwriter of A Monster Calls - as well as author of the original novel the film was based on - talks to our young reporter Billy about how the film can help those who have experienced bullying, the differences between writing the same story for the screen and the page, and how storytelling can help people through difficult times.

Lewis MacDougal and Liam Neeson talk A Monster Calls 

In the below video, actors Lewis MacDougal and Liam Neeson discuss A Monster Calls, talking about who or what they turn to when things get tough, revealing their own personal nightmares, and pondering what the monster in the film represents to them.

Below, illustrator Jim Kay, whose work featured in the original novel, discusses the film adaptation of A Monster Calls, which takes his art as its visual inspiration. Talking to our reporter Billy, Kay talked about the inspiration he uses for his drawings, how illustrating for a movie is different than for a book, and offered his advice on getting into the industry.

Elinor Walpole, Film Programmer

Elinor Walpole , Film Programmer

Elinor has a BA in English Literature from the University of Warwick. She has worked as Education and Community Officer for Picturehouse Cinemas, and as Outreach Coordinator for Human Rights Watch Film Festival.

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