A Child’s Journey of Accepting Loss:
Behind the Scenes of A MONSTER CALLS
By Ben Kayser, Managing Editor
Movieguide® had the chance recently to talk with Patrick Ness, the writer of the novel A MONSTER CALLS, as well as the screenwriter of Focus Features adaption of the book.
The story was originally conceived by English author Siobhan Dowd, who was contracted to write the book for the publisher, but unfortunately passed away due to breast cancer. Patrick Ness was brought on to see Dowd’s story come to completion, and upon its release in 2011, it was a major hit. Now a feature film Directed by Spanish filmmaker J. A. Bayona (THE IMPOSSIBLE, and the upcoming JURASSIC WORLD 2), A MONSTER CALLS is already the biggest box office hit of the year in Spain.
Starring Sigourney Weaver, Felicity Jones and Liam Neeson, A MONSTER CALLS is a fantasy drama about a young British boy coming to terms with his mother’s terminal illness. Twelve-year-old Conor lives with his single mother (Felicity Jones), who’s battling an illness that leaves her sick at home, or in the hospital. Disinterested at school where he’s bullied frequently, Conor frequently retreats to his imagination and drawings. In his imagination/dreams, he meets a monster (Liam Neeson) derrived from a yew tree. The imaginary monster tells Conor stories he says will help Conor with his mother.
Movieguide®: How nervous were you taking on someone else’s story and finishing it? I can imagine how nerve wrecking that would have been.
Patrick Ness: Well, I can kind of feel like all movies should be nerve wracking. The thing I’m most afraid of is complacency. I think that’s just death to any decent story. So, I’m always looking for something that makes me slightly nervous. I’m always looking for something that is going to frighten me into really paying attention. That being said, I wouldn’t have done it just for the sake of it. I did it because her (Siobhan Dowd) material really sparked some amazing further ideas and that’s when you know an idea is just rich and that you can run with it. Her starting materials weren’t huge, but they were potent, and they contained enough power to start sparking other things.
Movieguide®: What sort of challenges did you have adapting it for the big screen? Were there certain things that you knew wouldn’t translate to film and were really hard to give up?
Ness: A couple of those things I thought, “Well, let’s ask for the moon,” you might not get the moon, but who knows, you might hit something interesting on the way. One of them was the visuals of the story, and I thought, “Who knows if this can be pulled off.” I’m not a visual guy, I’m a words guy. So, I would need good luck in finding a filmmaker who would really embrace this and run with it. The other was, I am asking a young actor to do an incredible amount of work here, which carries the entire film, and he’s in every single scene. But, again, if you don’t ask, you don’t get. I thought, “Well, let’s just ask, and I’ll be prepared to pare back if need be.” Then, by a miracle, we got Lewis MacDougall (Connor), who, at 12, carries the entire movie, and is incredible. So, those are the things that I remember, and less of the things that I had to give up. The things that actually worked out are so exciting, but also it’s the same old stuff. Movies, at the most basic level, are shorter than the book. Most are short stories. How do you compress? How to learn to be better at visual shorthand, and that kinda of stuff, at first I was really excited. Like I said, complacency is death.
Movieguide®: Do you see that hope or faith is an integral part of Conor’s journey, or is it more along the lines of acceptance?
Ness: The main thing that I believe about childhood is that the thing that makes us adult is the first acknowledgment that we are complex. We can hold contradictory ideas, which is a particularly human thing, it causes us grief. The monster says this, you believe comforting lies, while also believing the painful truth to make them necessary. For me, the acceptance is about acceptance that things are going to be a mess, that you’re going to feel conflicted, but just because that’s true, that doesn’t also mean that love is impossible, or that comfort is impossible. I do think it’s a hopeful film. I think it’s a sad film, but not bleak.
Movieguide®: Were there any inspirations you drew from for writing the book and the movie?
Ness: Once I started working with Bayouna, in retrospect, there was a great connection to both of his first two films. THE ORPHANAGE and THE IMPOSSIBLE both take the child’s point of view with a kind of seriousness that I agree with, a seriousness that’s not indulgent, but is clear-eyed. That’s something I value. Something I believe about storytelling is that I don’t believe there is such a thing as a realistic story. I believe all stories are fantasy, even if they’re set in a contemporary place. They’re all made up. If you can accept that, then the bleed between ostensible genres is easier to do.
Movieguide®: If you could hope the movie touches people in one way, what would it be?
Ness: If you can have a personal response to it, that’s the purpose of any art. The only thing I’d want people to take away is to be honest with their kids. They’ve already figured out the thing that’s causing them pain. We’re not doing them any favors by thinking we’re protecting them from it. That’s all that kids want. They want it acknowledged, with someone to say “but I’ll be here by your side to help you through it.”
A MONSTER CALLS opens in theaters December 23, 2016. Patrick Ness is also the creator of the recent DOCTOR WHO spinoff TV series CLASS.
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