Adaptation Comparison: A Monster Calls

In this post, I will be reviewing the book, and then reviewing the movie as I would any other, but also review it as an adaptation of the book. During the review, I will compare the contrast the two, and at the end, I will recommend neither, one, or both, and tell you in which order you should experience them. Enjoy!

The Book

A Monster Calls is a 2011 novel written by Patrick Ness, and inspired by an idea from Siobhan Dowd, who died before she could write this story. Ness begins this tale with a foreword, in which he tells the reader that when Siobhan handed this idea to him, he felt as if he “was handed the baton,” and told to run with it. He then explains that stories don’t end with the author, but is now the reader’s turn to run with it and make trouble. Thusly, we have our theme. A Monster Calls is a story about Conor, a 13-year-old boy who has a mom with cancer, who is going through unsuccessful treatments and who nobody thinks will pull through. The Monster comes to visit him, and begins by intimidating Conor but realizes that Conor is not scared of him and that he has a lot more to worry about, like his mom’s health. The Monster then begins to try to help Conor by telling him stories and teaching him lessons that he will need if he’s ever going to be able to deal with the present situation. What all of this adds up to is one of the most beautiful novels that you’ll ever be able to read, with animation that is just as mesmerizing and magical. Ness wrote a masterpiece that has unforgettable and meaningful life lessons in it without ever coming across as preachy, which I loved.

This novel is about Conor, but also his relationships with the people in his life, which influence him entirely. Conor has a strong relationship with his mother, whom he lives with in England (I’m guessing), but whom he cannot see as often anymore since she is in the hospital, and usually sleeping or incoherent from the medication they give her. His dad left when he was younger to move to America and start another family with his new wife, and although he shows up later on in the book, Conor doesn’t really have a great relationship with him. In analysis, the monster could represent a sort of father figure that Conor feels as though is missing from his life since his dad is never around, and even when he is, Conor mentions things that are different about him such as his accent and pronoun choices (sport, champ); the Monster comes when his relationship with his dad is furthest even though that’s when he needs his dad most (when his mom is sick). In his dad’s stead, his grandma comes to stay and take care of him, against his desire and will as she is not your average grandmother, in his eyes. To him, she is fake and slightly selfish, and they don’t get along because of how much he talks back and ignores her.

Also because of his mom being sick, the people at school know and some give him a hard time; Harry and his friends pick on him daily by intimidating, threatening and hitting him. His friend from when he was younger, Lily, comes to the rescue one time but spells trouble for all of them when they’re caught by the teacher, Miss Kwan. All of these his relationships with these characters stem from the relationship he currently has with his mom, which is crumbling, and therefore, he feels as though he is crumbling as well. The story keeps mentioning that Conor has a recurring nightmare that he refuses to talk about, and this nightmare acts as a climax that the story leads up to throughout. On the way to that climax, the monster tells Conor three stories, which offer as three separate and related lessons that he needs to understand if he’s going to be prepared for whatever may come of his mother. One of the elements of this novel that made it such a page-turner was because there was this ticking clock throughout it, this race for Conor’s mom to get better OR for him to be able to cope with her possible death. For either scenario, there was a great sense of urgency present for me to keep reading.

It’s painful to read at times, the story about a young boy who may lose his mother from cancer, but the way it’s written is so unbelievably incredibly moving and powerful in the best of ways. There is artwork on many of the pages that accompany the story that captivates and strikes with awe; this art is only on pages in which The Monster is near, and thus, as I was reading, the pages in which the monster wasn’t in the story seemed plain and basic, which added to the magical feeling I got when there was artwork, and The Monster was present. This is a fairy tale with realistic consequences – a story that is so honest and raw that it’s impossible not to connect with the characters, and not just Conor. Conor’s grandma is the second largest character in the story since she steps into Conor’s life as a sort of mom and dad. She drives him to school, houses him, and takes him to see his mom every day, which he is not grateful for or happy about. Being able to see Conor’s pain in the way he lashes out at the world, and how his loved ones react to this pain is extremely poignant and overwhelming that I actually cried in this novel… twice. Reading this left me breathless.

The Monster itself is extremely interpretative; I don’t think anybody could think that he’s 100% real, but the way he manifests in Conor’s imagination through Conor’s emotion makes it seem as though he could be sometimes. When Conor wakes up in the morning, he’ll find twigs or berries or growing plants in his room after The Monster visits, and moments like that make it challenging to decide what this Monster actually is. I think that this Monster represents the rage that Conor has now because of his mother’s sickness, and the monster will only go away when he overcomes this, but that it just my interpretation, and there are probably hundreds of others (as mentioned, it could represent his dad as well). The Monster being made out of a tree and talking about how the earth used to be green is a powerful environmental message and just adds to the long list of great things this novel has to say. Although the ending came a little abruptly, the ending made sense and was really all that the reader needed to read to know what happens next.

Overall, A Monster Calls is without a doubt my favorite book that I’ve read, which both is and isn’t saying a lot. I used to read all of the time, and totalled probably close to 40-50 books in my 6th grade, but it has been awhile; recently, this is my 4th book since I started keeping track, but it’s definitely the best of the four. Patrick Ness did an amazing job telling an impossible story, and the way it made me feel astounded me. I read this entire book in just 3 hours, but time flew by, and these characters felt like family, which lead to an absolutely heartbreaking time watching them all deal with this grief and pain. Now, time to watch the movie…

The Movie

Patrick Ness, who wrote the novel, wrote the screenplay for the movie; if there was going to be a way to faithfully adapt a beloved novel, this would be how. This film, directed by J.A. Bayona, follows the same story as the book about Conor who is dealing with the grief of his mother being sick and being an outcast at school and in his family. The movie opens up with a voice-over from The Monster, telling the audience what kind of a story this was going to be: one about Conor, who is too old to be a boy, and too young to be a man. Right off the bat, we see that this movie is going to be about a boy who doesn’t fit in, and how this Monster will presumably help him. We also get a glimpse of Conor’s nightmare, which I knew walking in what it was going to be from the book, but being able to see it visually on screen was a different experience entirely.

There are a handful of things that are different from the novel, the first and most striking that I noticed was that Lily and Miss Kwan are completely absent from the film. I think that if the novel didn’t have these characters, but the movie did, it would have been a cheesy addition, so I think that leaving them out better fits the tone of the film. These exclusions make Conor feel so much more alone, and that the only person who comes to his aid in the entire film is himself, which makes these scenes in retrospect much more powerful and meaningful. One difference that I did not love about the film (and this will seem petty), but Conor’s dad didn’t have an American accent like he did in the book. To me, this accent that he had in the novel further separated the two and showed Conor that even when they were together in England, that America had still changed and effected his dad; he would not be the same person that he used to be. In the film, it doesn’t seem like this at all, and he could be living next door the whole time to Conor and I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. The casting was great for him, though, and even if I expected him to be a little older, Toby Kebbell played the part very well. That being said, his role in the film was more minor than it was in the book, and not as big of a deal was made about him entering and leaving the story at all.

One problem that book readers have with most movies is the casting, but the cast in the film was perfectly aligned with how I imagined the characters, especially in Conor, played by Lewis MacDougall. He captured all of the rage, grief, and hopelessness that the character should have had, and brought him to life better than anyone else could have. The same can be said about Felicity Jones‘ interpretation of Conor’s mom “Elizabeth,” who is going through all of the cancer treatment. Ever since I saw Jones in Like Crazy in 2011 or so, I’ve loved her as an actress and this film just makes me love her work even more; her performance was extremely three-dimensional as she played the helpless daughter, the strong maternal figure, and the sick cancer patient all at once. It was beautiful and she, along with the rest of the cast, deserve a round of applause. There is a small scene in the middle of the film between Conor and his father in which they discuss Conor’s mother, and how she used to study art, which is something Conor loves doing in the film. I thought this was a beautiful addition, and allowed for one hell of a final scene to take place (which was NOT in the book at all).

Sigourney Weaver (grandma) and Liam Neeson (The Monster) had me questioning them for a bit before I finally realized that they were just as great for their parts as well. My reservations were mostly (and again, I’m not trying to be picky and petty…) in regards to their accents. I’m used to Weaver’s American accent, so I (un)consciously kept trying to find pronunciation that wasn’t correct, and I had trouble understanding what Neeson was saying at times as The Monster. None of these detracted from the film, however, and if anything, they’ve just allowed me to have a better experience next time I watch it. Also, of course, I’m not going to count off for either of those things as that would make me a terrible movie fan! There are a lot of aspects of this film that were not in the book; I read the novel in 3 hours, so of course, Ness had to add a lot of content to make the story into a feature film. As unusual as it may seem, I loved each and every addition of the film, and they all seemed to stay true and faithful to the story, as well as the novel.

As I mentioned in my review of the book, The Monster itself is open to interpretation as to what it represents exactly; it could be a father-type figure since Conor doesn’t really have one, it could be elevated grief and loneliness, it could be a lot of things. In the film, two things throw off my theories, and the first is the fact that there is a picture of Liam Neeson in the film, as Conor’s grandfather. Could Conor’s grandfather be “the monster,” and is the person who is coming to tell him these tales? I think this makes sense because of what happens in the final scene (I won’t spoil it, but if you want to know, then read the last paragraph before the “overall” section), but is impossible to know for sure.

Additionally, there are some things that don’t translate very well to screen in a lot of books, but what this film did with the stories that The Monster tells was absolutely genius. As mentioned earlier, the book contains artwork on some of the pages only when The Monster is present, or near. In the book, we see The Monster so we don’t need any visual cues in the film. However, the scenes in which The Monster tells his stories (the first and the second, at least), are animated with gloriously colorful watercolor paintings. These scenes alone are deserving of the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film, and they add so much to the scenes that the book never could have. This brings me to my final point of the movie: there are two elements that I loved more than every other aspect, and those were the cinematography and the score. These elements are impossible to include in the novel for obvious reasons, and the fact that these two elements are so mesmerizing, so gorgeous, and so moving are paying great respect to the book, and make this film a great companion piece to the novel. If the film didn’t look and sound so beautiful, it simply would not have been so powerful, and those two elements elevated the scenes to new heights.

This paragraph will contain a spoiler for the book and the film, so skip to the next paragraph if you do not wish to know what the outcome of the story! As the readers know, the book ends with Conor finally being able to let go, and his mother dying in the hospital bed. This scene in the film is exactly like it is in the novel, but is not the end. After this, we have a sort of “epilogue” that was needed, as I thought the novel ended a little abruptly. This final scene is absolutely beautiful; in it, Conor and his grandmother go back to her house, and she hands him a key to his new bedroom, which she made for him. This bedroom is full of art that he has worked on, and contains a book that his mother drew and painted in when she was his age. The paintings in the book are of the stories that The Monster told him. Earlier in the film, she said that the yew tree was their friend, and it seems as though she knew The Monster growing up as well. This allows for a different interpretation of The Monster to take place, and that maybe he represents something else- maybe he does represent a father since she lost hers too, or something else. Since Liam Neeson’s picture is in the film as his grandfather, and since he is the voice of the monster, it’s possible that he is sort of like his grandfather as a “ghost” of some sort, coming to take care of Conor when he needs somebody the most. This makes sense since both Conor and his mother know the stories that The Monster tells, and they both know what he looks like, as is apparent in her book of art at the end. What do you think about this?

Overall

A Monster Calls in and of itself (whatever that means) is a beautiful story about love, grief, loneliness, hardship and loss with core lessons about the power of stories, as well as how actions speak louder than words. Usually, there is a clearly better medium of a story, either book or film, but these two go hand in hand so nicely, that I think it’s best to experience them both! There was a lot that the novel did better, and a lot that the novel couldn’t do that the film did expertly, so they really do work off of each other in a great relationship. If I had to pick an order for you to experience them, I would probably say read the book and then watch the movie, but there are a lot of reasons why the opposite would work better as well. My main reason is that the final scene in the movie is not in the book, and acts as an amazingly endearing epilogue to the entire tale, which would be best experiencing at the very end of both media. I’m going to give the book a 10/10 with a gold recommendation, and the film a 9/10 with a gold recommendation as well. I think this story should be experienced by all, and you can pick and choose either the book or the film, and you’ll be happy with either. Have you read or seen these, and what did you think? As always, thanks for reading, comment your thoughts, and I’ll see you soon!

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