This article was last updated on April 16, 2022
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live” is one of Joan Didion’s more famous quotes. It’s an amorphous, one-size-fits-all quotation that can be applied to life over and over again. The emotional journey that is A Monster Calls takes the idea one step further and shows us how the stories we tell ourselves help us cope with life, reminding us of a truth that is at once inconvenient and empowering: You can’t always control the plot of your life, but you can control the narrative.
It’s an ambitious angle for what at first appears to be a children’s movie, but A Monster Calls is more of a child’s story told with the sophistication and emotional maturity of an adult. That’s hardly a surprise when you consider it was conceived as a YA novel by a writer who had been diagnosed with breast cancer. That writer, Siobhan Dowd, died before she could write the book, but author Patrick Ness picked up where Dowd left off, turning her idea into an award-winning novel that has inspired and healed people of all ages.
For the movie, Ness stayed on as screenwriter, penning a script that’s about as close to the book as it can be. Between this and the CGI inspired by the novel’s original illustrations, the movie truly brings the story to life. In it, we meet Conor O’Malley, a 12-year-old boy who escapes his real-life problems by imagining a monster has come to slay his dragons, which in reality are his bullying classmates, his meddling grandmother, and — most fearsome of all — the fact that his mother is dying.
To do this, the monster, who is a knotted mess of roots from the medicinal yew tree, informs Conor that he will tell him three stories. But when the third is finished, Conor must tell the monster a fourth story, and it must be a true story. The first two rival the darkest Grimm’s fairy tales (the unedited ones). Over and over again, they offer up only the most stone-cold lesson: Life is unfair. Seemingly bad people win, and seemingly good people lose. “There is not always a good guy. Nor is there always a bad one,” the monster tells Conor when he points out the injustices. “Most people are somewhere in between.”
There is not always a good guy. Nor is there always a bad one. Most people are somewhere in between.
This realization, combined with the monster helping Conor get in touch with his anger, ultimately allows the boy to tell the fourth and final tale. It is about his recurring nightmare, the one in which the graveyard in his backyard opens up and tries to swallow his mother. And while he manages to hold on to her, as she hangs off a cliff, he ultimately lets go. Only after he tells the monster this can he begin to move past the guilt he feels, both for letting go in the dream and occasionally wishing his mother’s death would be over in real life.
If it sounds dark for a story that originated as a book for teens, it’s because it is, but that’s what makes the movie so great. It deals with death and the emotions that surround it head-on. And considering that’s something even adults have trouble doing, the effect is quite liberating.
A Monster Calls is in select theaters now. See the trailer below.
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