In this heyday of sequels and franchise filmmaking, it can be rare to see a film that bends the conventions of genre break into the mainstream. A Monster Calls is a notable exception to this rule, as the PG-13 film combines a young protagonist and dark themes in a way reminiscent of Guillermo del Toro’s international smash Pan’s Labyrinth. The film follows Conor O’Malley as he copes with his mother’s terminal illness and bullies at school. Conor receives some unexpected help in the form of a giant humanoid tree, the Monster, who acts as his companion and helps him move through his difficult life.
From its first trailer, we knew that A Monster Calls would be equal parts bittersweet and fantastical. Since its premiere at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, early reviews of the film have confirmed that it’s a darkly beautiful tearjerker. As A Monster Calls heads into awards season and its Christmastime premiere already sporting two Critics Choice Award nominations, it’s likely the film will become a national darling within the month. What followers of the film may not know, however, is the equally emotional tale behind its source novel’s creation. In a new featurette, distributor Focus Features sheds some light on the tale behind A Monster Calls.
Writer Patrick Ness, who penned the novel A Monster Calls as well as the film’s adapted screenplay, explains how his creation came to life. The book is actually based on an idea by acclaimed British novelist Siobhan Dowd, who outlined aspects of the story before her untimely death from breast cancer. According to Ness:
A Monster Calls was going to be her fifth book, and she had sort of an opening, she had an idea for structure, she had a few characters, and, unfortunately, she then passed. So the book was left unstarted, and I looked at her materials that she had, and I started getting ideas. And I immediately started thinking, ‘I could do this, and this has real heart to it, and this has real passion and pain to it,’ and I thought, I have to try.
You can watch the featurette in its entirety, above.
It’s enthralling and moving to see how Dowd’s legacy became this breathtaking feature, an adaptation in part due to the inventiveness of director J. A. Bayona (The Orphanage/El Orfanato). As Ness points out in the video, Bayona’s idea to make Conor an artist whose drawings come to life provided a way for the novel’s original illustrations to play a major role in the film. The director describes the film as being about “love, legacy, and art.”
It was a pretty genius move on Focus’s part to release this behind-the-scenes look, as A Monster Calls fell out of the public eye for a bit when its release date was pushed back several months. Now, though, as the film finally approaches its wider release date, we’re being reminded just how incredible this filmmaking effort is. Given how dedicated its creators were to its adaptation process, it looks like A Monster Calls will be every bit as beautiful and heartbreaking as critics have promised.
Though not recommended for younger children, A Monster Calls will likely be an ideal family film. Box office competition during its limited Christmas weekend premiere will be stiff, what with movies such as Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and Passengers playing in theaters. Nonetheless, we’ll get a chance to see if this sweeping tale lives up to its hype before its wider January release.